Retinol is often referred to as the “gold standard” ingredient for anti-aging. In fact, I have been hearing this from my father, Dr. Luigi L. Polla, for years, as he has been (gently) insisting on the need to add a retinol product to our Alchimie Forever assortment.
“But,” I say, “retinols are not ideal for sensitive skin types, our target customer.” “Even sensitive skin types need retinol, and can adapt to the right formulation,” he responds. “But,” I say again, “one of our brand promises is the lack of side effects.” “To most women, controlled side effects are worth the results retinol gives.” And on and on and on we go. For four years.
And Dad “won,” as he usually does – because he is usually right (there, I said it). Or perhaps it’s that I turned 40 last year and thought selfishly that I should probably start incorporating retinol in my skin care routine. And why not an Alchimie Forever one…
As we approach the launch of our Advanced Retinol Serum, here is a quick snapshot on retinol. Next week, I’ll tell you more specifically about our formulation.
What is retinol?
In the skin care world, vitamin A and its derivatives exist in various forms. The most widely used ones are pure retinol, retinyl esters (such as retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate), and retinaldehyde. Through various enzymatic reactions in the skin, all of these molecules are ultimately converted to all-trans-retinoic acid, aka the active form of vitamin A in the skin.
Retinoic acid was first discovered in 1969 by James Fulton and Albert Kligman in the late 1960s as a treatment for acne; its anti-aging benefits emerged as a surprising and positive side effect.
Retinol has the form of light yellow crystals – which is why many retinol products often have a yellowish tint to them.
Products containing actual retinoic acid require a medical prescription (you may have heard of brands such as Renova, Retin-A, Retino-A, ReTrieve, or Stieva-A). The most common strengths are 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%. In contrast, products containing pure retinol, retinol derivatives, or retinaldehyde are non-prescription, and tend to have higher concentrations (0.5% to 1.5%).
“At the microscopic level, retinol enhances cell division in the epidermis, replacing damaged and unorganized cells with new organized cells. It also reduces melanin production. In the dermis, new collagen and elastin fibers are formed,” says Dr. Polla. My non-medical translation: fine lines and wrinkles diminish, the skin becomes plumper, smoother, and softer, and the complexion more even. It really works.
Instability especially to oxygen and light. Look for products packaged in tubes that are opaque and impermeable to oxygen. Tubes are typically preferable to jars (given the smaller opening and thus diminished access to air and light).
Skin irritation. Typically, within two weeks of starting to use a retinol, you will experience flaking, redness, and a slight discomfort. Of course, this will depend on your skin type, if you have used retinol in the past or not, and specifically how you are using your retinol.
Retinol best practices
Retinol should be incorporated in your skin care routine in your mid-30s to early 40s.
Retinols should not be used while pregnant or nursing.
Time of day. Retinol products should be used in the evening. Dr. Polla explains: “It is important that the topical retinoid be applied at night-time for two reasons. First, patients who use topical retinoids during the daytime notice increased sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Second, trans-retinoic acid is unstable when exposed to sunlight. When exposed to light, the molecule degrades rapidly, not providing its full benefits.”
Sun sensitivity. Make sure to use an SPF20 or above daily. This is true regardless of if you are using a retinol product, but be particularly diligent if you are. (See ultraviolet light sensitivity comment above.)
Frequency of use. Do not use your retinol product daily – two or three times per week tends to be sufficient for most skin types. Start slow, then build up. Listen to your skin and to its reactions. Continuous inflammation and irritation is not the goal.
Apply your retinol to dry skin. Per Dr. Polla: “Instructing patients to apply their retinoid to dry skin can minimize side effects. Patients should be advised to wait a few minutes after washing the face to apply a topical retinoid. Wet skin enhances the penetration of the retinoid into the dermis, thus exacerbating irritation.”
Using complementary products. In addition to a morning cream with SPF, add an extra nourishing even cream to help soothe and moisturize your skin, and heal any flaking you may experience.
For some great additional information on retinoids, take a look at our partner Heyday’s retinol manifesto here.
And stay tuned – next week I’ll share more specifics about Alchimie Forever’s Advanced Retinol Serum with time release technology – which launches next month!