11 THINGS YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT RETINOL AND RETINOIDS — UNTIL NOW
If you know me, you know that there are just a few things that I am super passionate about: Journals. Bookstores. Shih-Poo puppies. Black coffee. Spicy food. And in the realm of skin care, I similarly believe in loving few but loving hard, with retinoids, sunscreen, AHAs, vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea, and peptides having the most research support — and hence my favoritism.
Retinoids, however, top the list. Along with sunscreen, retinoids are still the gold standard of anti-aging in skin care. As Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, once said in an interview, “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.” Amen to that!
Yet, as we know, to get the best results from anything, applied knowledge is power. So, without further ado, here are 11 uncommonly-known facts about retinoids, all of which are proven or mentioned in independent, peer-reviewed scientific research or medical textbooks:
1.) Retinoids are unstable antioxidants, and need to be packaged carefully.
It is a little-known fact, but retinoids are a form of antioxidant vitamin A, just like vitamin C. And just like vitamin C, your retinoids will degrade upon regular exposure to light, heat, and air.
So what’s a skin care-conscious person to do? Simple: Search for retinoids that are packaged in opaque air-tight pumps or foil tubes (so only the end is exposed to light, heat, and air upon opening). Open and seal or cap them as quickly as possible — you only need a pea-sized amount, after all. And, for bonus points, store them in the back of your fridge. The darkness and cooler temperature is optimal for skin care antioxidants. (My mother even has a small fridge I got her with the lightbulb taken out for all of her skin care products — yes, we’re that obsessed).
2.) Despite what dermatologists working for other skin care companies will tell you, retinoids do make your skin more sensitive to the sun (especially if used during the day).
I have the utmost respect for dermatologists — I am still a medical school student, after all. (Technically I am on leave of absence to develop some of the patent-pending technology and business behind FutureDerm, but I plan to return in a few years. But that’s another story).
I’ve read quotes from a couple of dermatologists recently in major magazines and press releases who claim retinoids do not make your skin more sensitive to the sun. I was appalled by this, and I looked up what companies they work for, whether as researchers or endorsers. Sure enough, the companies these dermatologists work for make retinoids. Perhaps they were assuming this would sell their retinol + sunscreen day cream, or get people to continue buying retinoids at the same frequency they do in the winter months all year round. I don’t know. But the truth of the matter is, it’s not true.
Now, I’m not going to name names, nor am I the type to stir up any trouble. But as someone who owns a company whose #1 product is retinol, I will tell you this honestly: Retinoids of all kinds make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Anything exfoliating makes your skin more sensitive to the sun temporarily, including nearly all acidic products, retinoids, exfoliators, laser treatments, and microdermabrasion products and kits. All of them.
So it is vital that you apply retinoids at night, and use a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen during the day.
3.) If your retinoid changes color or acquires a strange smell, it still will work some (but you should get a new bottle if you can).
Yep, it’s true: If your retinoid changes color or acquires a strange smell, it means it has lost some of its antioxidant power, as some of its electrons have been used to neutralize other free radical species. Most of the time, these electrons are lost to the environment.
But, at the same time, retinoids are not like vitamin C in that their central function is not just donating electrons to neutralize free radicals. Retinoids also work by inhibiting collagen-degrading enzymes, which researchers say may effectively preserve collagen for longer (Photochemistry and Photobiology, 2008).
So, is it optimal to use retinoids that have oxidized some? No. But they still will work to some extent.
4.) Prescription retinoids don’t get into the skin as deeply as over-the-counter retinol.
This one surprised me, but it is true. When retinol or retinyl palmitate are applied to skin samples, retinoids were uncovered in all five skin layers, including the deepest layer (the dermis) (Toxicology and Skin Health, 2006). This is not a bad thing at all –some of the retinol in the uppermost layers have enzymes that can convert retinol to its active form, tretinoin. But some of the unconverted retinol traverses your skin and gets into the deepest layers, where collagen is formed. On the other hand, when you apply tretinoin directly to the skin, it has been shown to work mainly on the uppermost layers of the skin.
Why? It all has to do with the chemical structure of the molecules — smaller, nonpolar molecules tend to traverse the skin better. And over-the-counter retinol and retinyl palmitate do just that.
5.) Retinyl palmitate doesn’t work very well.
Studies have shown retinol is about 20 times weaker than prescription tretinoin (Cosmetic Dermatology – Baumann), which is why 0.5% retinol is about the same as 0.025% tretinoin, and 1.0% retinol is about the same as 0.050% tretinoin. It all works out.
But the problem with retinyl palmitate is two-fold. First of all, you’re getting retinol that is bound to a fatty acid. So each percentage (or portion of a percentage) you’re getting of retinol is actually significantly more weighty, bulky fatty acid. Proponents of retinyl palmitate say that it’s because the fatty acid takes down irritation, but truth be told, you can use ingredients like aloe vera, ceramides, witch hazel, bisabolol, and a whole bunch of others to take down irritation. So that’s rather bulls*&^ious to me. (Yes, “bullshitious” is one of my favorite coined terms offline.)
The second reason I don’t like retinyl palmitate is because you never get the concentration listed anywhere. It’s true that it’s illegal in the US to put concentrations with percentages on labels for a myriad of reasons meant to protect people — that’s why Skinceuticals’ is Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and not 0.5%, and why FutureDerm’s is FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5, not 0.5%. But many brands will still let you know what’s in their stuff by putting it on their websites and marketing materials. Yet you’ll never see this with retinyl palmitate. And if you did, going along with my first point, it’d have to be something like “Retinyl Palmitate 2.5” to have the same efficacy as Retinol 0.5. I don’t like it.
6.) If it burns your skin, you need to change the frequency and/or the concentration.
The key here? A schedule! (If you know me, by the way, you’ll know that I love schedules. I have monthly, weekly, and daily goals and schedules. I’m like the queen of planning agendas. But I digress).
Here’s the schedule I suggest for retinoids:
This is a schedule that works for those with non-sensitive skin types. Those with sensitive skin may want to go 1-2 levels back (so, for instance, on week 5-6, you would still be doing what those on week 1-2 are doing). Other than that, this schedule works amazingly well for those people with whom I have consulted for skin care!
7.) It works amazingly well when followed with a niacinamide, ceramide, or hyaluronic acid moisturizer.
Oh sure, I formulated our FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 with soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients like aloe vera and witch hazel. But, truth be told, soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients alone will not take down your irritation from retinol.
The irritation from retinoids is largely from the increase in cellular turnover and transepidermal water loss, which measures the amount of water that traverses from the skin to the surrounding environment (Acta Dermatologica, 1995). Your skin gets dry. A fresh, smooth new layer in less time and preserved collagen, sure, but also quite dry for many folks.
The only way to reduce irritation is to capture some of the moisture from the surrounding environment and put it back into your skin. Moisture-attracting humectants like hyaluronic acid, or skin-softening ingredients like ceramides, are great for sealing moisture back into your skin from the environment. Another ingredient I love is niacinamide, which has skin-softening and hydrating properties, but also brightens and mildly alleviates age spots to boot (Dermatologic Surgery, 2006).
8.) The best retinoids are microencapsulated.
I know some of you are probably thinking, “Oh, she’s just saying that because her FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 is microencapsulated.” But it’s not true. Actually, the reason my FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 is microencapsulated was because I knew this whenever I started formulating. It honestly would’ve been a helluva lot easier (and cheaper!) not to microencapsulate.
But it was a labor of love, quite honestly. Microencapsulation does three things: First, it protects your retinoids from light, heat, and air, so they don’t degrade as quickly as you’re opening and closing the package.
Second, it helps the retinoids work for longer. As the “capsule” dissolves slowly in your skin over the course of eight hours, you’re getting this nice, slow, sustained delivery of retinol into your skin, instead of that one-and-done approach.
Which brings me to my third and last benefit: microencapsulation also makes the retinol more gentle. Instead of getting 0.5% retinol at 8 PM, you’re getting 0.250% retinol at 8 PM, 0.125% at 10 PM, 0.0625% at 12 AM…it doesn’t work exactly like this (don’t hold me to those concentrations!), but you get a bigger dose up front, and increasingly smaller, slower, sustained doses for the rest of the night. Which is, in a word, amazing.
9.) For best results, do not use retinoids in the same regimen as acidic products. (Keep acids for day, retinoids for night.)
I get a decent deal of flack for saying this, because many aestheticians, dermatologists, and other skin care experts sell lines that combine alpha hydroxy acids and retinoids directly.
But it’s true. As renowned dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., revealed to us in an exclusive interview, “You have to also be careful not to use a product that has ingredients that can render retinol useless. Glycolic (AHA), salicylic acid, and kojic acid can break down retinol and retinoids.”
And we could not agree more. Since I know FutureDerm readers love full, well-thought out scientific explanations, this is because of a two-part enzymatic oxidation process in which retinol is converted within your skin to become active: First to retinaldehyde, then to all-trans retinoic acid. Retinol oxidation is optimized at a neutral pH (Nature). This is because the enzymes responsible for this oxidation, called retinol and retinal dehydrogenases (DHs), are most active at this neutral (less acidic) pH.
10.) Unlike other ingredients, you should not stop using retinoids for longer than two months.
I think I heard Heidi Klum or Gisele Bundchen once say that you should stop using ingredients and “cycle” them to get maximal benefits. Now, granted, this is a science of beauty website, so I’m still going to value fact over opinion, but the fact is, these two look pretty good. So then the question arises — is this statement universally correct?
Here’s my take: Certain ingredients should never, ever be abandoned for long periods of time. (Like, never ever, Taylor Swift, never ever.) These include sunscreen (especially zinc oxide), retinoids, antioxidants, and those eyelash growth serums like Latisse. There just doesn’t seem to be any research that demonstrates benefits from discontinuing these, or suitable replacements in beauty technologies yet. There is, however, research that shows your skin continues to have the increased rate of cellular turnover for about two months of discontinuing retinoids (Acta Dermatologica, 1995). But after that, your skin (and eyelashes, in the case of Latisse) return to their normal state.
On the other hand, there are ingredients like aloe vera, bisabolol, shea butter, and most natural/organic ingredients that, quite frankly, don’t do all that much for the skin short of hydrating and general maintenance. So I wouldn’t hesitate to cycle between, say, aloe vera and rose hips for two month cycles. But abandon your heavy-hitters, like retinoids and sunscreen? Never!
11.) You should start using a retinoid around age 21.
After skin’s maturation — which happens surprisingly early in life (around age 21) — your collagen production decreases by about 10 percent every decade (Cosmetic Dermatology). But that’s not the only scary part. What’s more upsetting is that all that time spent in the sun getting UV-radiation speeds up this process, as does smoking, poor diet, and a host of other extrinsic factors.
You should start thinking about your skin’s youthfulness like a bank account. Every time you go out in the sun, consume too much alcohol, eat too much sugar, experience too much physical or emotional stress, or heaven forbid smoke, you’re taking money out of your Youthful Skin Account. And, just like with real money, it’s generally a lot easier and fun to spend it than deposit it — “deposits” only come from a nutrient-filled, fruit-and-vegetable rich diet; regular use of treatment products like retinoids, peptides, and antioxidants; exfoliation and microdermabrasion; and laser treatments and chemical peels. Even sunscreen and sun avoidance are merely maintenance, hanging onto what you have. You’re not building unless you’re infusing with nutrients, the right ingredients, and the best skin care treatments, both in the dermatologist’s office and out.
I absolutely love our FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5. (After all, I created it!) But it’s like buying a beautiful new Chanel handbag and wearing it with an atrocious outfit if you don’t use it properly — every product is only as good as the knowledge you bring to the table while using it. That said, optimize your experience with our FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5 (or any retinoid) by remembering not to use it together with acidic products; applying it according to the schedule above (see #6); using it before applying a hydrating moisturizer with ceramides, peptides, or niacinamide; and not discontinuing use for more than two months.
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