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Retinol Facts - What Retinol Can Do for Your Skin


Retinoids can work wonders to fight the signs of skin aging. I've used them for years in my dermatology practice.  

The two forms of retinoids that I use most often are prescription retinoic acid (called tretinoin, which is found in Retin-A and Renova) and retinol. Retinol products are non-prescription, so you don't need a trip to the doctor to add retinol to your anti-aging skin care routine.

Are you wondering why you should add retinol to your skin care routine and what can retinol do for your skin?  Here's what we know.

Retinol FAQs

  • Retinol is vitamin A. It is a member of the retinoid family that includes prescription tretinoin (aka retinoic acid as in Retin-A and Renova). Retinoids are vitamin A-related agents.
  • Retinol (non-prescription all-trans-retinol) is converted in the skin to retinoic acid (aka tretinoin as in Retin-A and Renova). Tretinoin has the proven ability to create a layer of new collagen in the skin. The production of new collagen is the most meaningful indication of wrinkle reversal. Retinol increases the biochemical processes of collagen synthesis too.

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Retinoids work by activating your skin's retinoid receptors.

This means that retinoids have unique pathways to change your skin. When a retinoid binds to a skin retinoid receptor it activates biochemical changes that lead to anti-aging effects that you’ll see in the mirror. Tretinoin works to fight the signs of skin aging. Retinol does too.

Scientific studies have shown that when retinol at 0.4% is applied to the skin it can:

  • Penetrate the skin of living human beings (meaning it doesn't just work in a petri dish) to bind to the retinoid receptor
  • Activate a gene that is used to demonstrate retinoid activity
  • Trigger biochemical evidence of collagen synthesis in the skin
  • Increase hyaluronic acid content of the skin to give it a more youthful and dewy look and feel
  • Reduce the visible appearance of fine lines and wrinkles 

Retinoids can stop the degenerative cycle of skin aging.

Your skin gets wrinklier and wrinklier over time from both UV light exposure and aging. This is because both cause a self-perpetuating cycle of collagen loss due to free radicals. Retinoids are capable of stopping the cycle and it's never too soon or too late to intervene to stop the cycle.

Retinoids give skin a dewier and more youthful appearance.

One of the important ways that they do this is by increasing the hyaluronic acid content in skin. Both non-prescription all-trans-retinol and retinoic acid (Retin A and Renova) significantly increase skin hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid holds water giving skin a youthful, dewy appearance and plumps wrinkles. The more hyaluronic acid, the better skin looks and feels.

Retinoids give skin a smoother appearance. 

Both all-trans-retinol and retinoic acid (tretinoin) cause the dead cell layer, called the stratum corneum, to become smoother and more compact, which translates to less roughness and to further smoothing of your skin.

Retinol is less irritating to your skin than retinoic acid (Retin A and Renova).

Irritation is the main problem that people complain about with tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) and tazarotene (Tazorac). Retinol products are simply less irritating, making them better suited for sensitive skin.

I am a dedicated reader of your blog and my skin is better for it. Paul B

Not all retinol products contain active retinol.  

That's because retinol is fragile and must be formulated and packaged carefully to preserve activity.

Retinol is the best non-prescription retinoid to use to fight the signs of skin aging.

Retinol anti-wrinkleThere are other non-prescription retinoids, but they don't all work equally well to fight the signs of skin aging. Of the over-the-counter (non-prescription) retinoids, retinol is the one to use. The others, which are technically called pro-retinols (a.k.a. retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate), are much weaker at providing all of the retinoid goodness that I mentioned above. I don't recommend them.

Retinol at higher concentrations will give your skin more age-defying results.  

It's also more irritating. To help your skin tolerate higher retinol levels, look for products that include calming ingredients and slow-release formulations - but the devil is in the details because retinoid product formulation is tricky. Our new retinol cream is state of the art to help you work up to higher concentrations, so that you get more retinoid goodness with less risk of irritation.

Retinoid products are best used as your night cream.  

That's because retinoids, including retinol, break down on contact with light. I recommend applying them at bed time.

If you have enjoyed these retinol and retinoid tips and how they can help you look and feel younger, please show your thanks by commenting on, sharing, “liking,” Google+, tweeting, and “pinning,” using the social sharing buttons above and below this blog post with friends and family.



Retinol & Retinoid References:

Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol), Reza Kafi, MD; Heh Shin R. Kwak, MD, Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:606-612

Improvement of photoaged facial skin in middle-aged Japanese females by topical retinol (vitamin A alcohol): a vehicle-controlled, double-blind study. Kikuchi K, Suetake T, Kumasaka N, Tagami H, J Dermatolog Treat. 2009;20(5):276-81

Choosing Topical Retinoids for Aging Skin, Sachs, DL, Dermatology Focus, Summer 2013 Vol 32 No 2 page 4

Application of Retinol to Human Skin In Vivo Induces Epidermal Hyperplasia and Cellular Retinoid Binding Proteins Characteristic of Retinoic Acid but Without Measurable Retinoic Acid Levels or Irritation, Sewon Kang, Elizabeth A. Duell, et. al., J Invest Dermatol 105:549-556, 1995

Vitamin A Antagonizes Decreased Cell Growth and Elevated Collagen-Degrading Matrix Metalloproteinases and Stimulates Collagen Accumulation in Naturally Aged Human Skin, James Varani, Roscoe L Warner, Mehrnaz Gharaee-Kermani, et. al., J Invest Dermatol (2000) 114, 480–486;

Mechanisms of Photoaging and Chronological Skin Aging, Gary J. Fisher, PhD; Sewon Kang, MD; et. al., Arch Dermatol. 2002;138(11):1462-1470

Topical Tretinoin for Photoaged Skin: a Double-blind Vehicle-controlled Study, Weiss JS, Ellis CN, et. al., JAMA. 1988, 259: 527-532

Tazarotene Cream for the Treatment of Facial Photo Damage: a Multicenter, Investigator-Masked, Randomized, Vehicle-Controlled, Parallel Comparison of Tazarotene 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% Creams and Tretinoin 0.05% Emollient Cream Applied Once-Daily for 24 Weeks. Kang S, Leyden JJ, Lowe NJ, et al., Arch Dermatol. 2001;137:1597-1604.


If you have found these retinol facts helpful, please show your thanks by commenting on, sharing, “liking,” Google+, tweeting, and “pinning,” using the social sharing buttons above and below this blog post with friends and family.

Sincerely, Dr. Bailey Skin Care Team

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