When it comes to skincare, you can rely on a dermatologist to recommend one of the following three compounds: Vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and retinol. All three have a place in dermatology, but retinoids receive a lot of attention for their anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties.
Even then, retinol wouldn’t be so highly recommended if that’s all it could do. But what exactly is retinol, what do we know about its properties, and what potential benefits does it offer our skin?
Let’s take a look.
What is retinol?
Retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) skincare ingredient derived from Vitamin A. Retinoids are the wider group of Vitamin A derivatives. Not to be confused with prescription retinoids, which are far more potent, retinol is the most powerful OTC retinoid approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
But what does this fascinating ingredient do, and why is it so highly valued?
Retinol in skincare
Retinol is usually applied to the skin as a topical. Its anti-aging benefits come from its smaller molecules, which penetrate deeper into the skin.
Most anti-aging products focus on removing dead skin cells in the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis). Retinol‘s molecular structure is small enough to sink into the middle layer (the dermis) where it does its most effective work.
As an anti-inflammatory, retinol neutralizes free radicals in the dermis. Free radicals, also known as oxidizing agents, are unstable molecules that create oxidative stress when they’re too abundant. This stress damages skin cells and leads to premature aging.
Retinol, like the antioxidants we consume in fruit and legumes, stabilizes free radicals to reduce this cellular stress. As a topical that can penetrate directly into the skin, retinol is a more direct, effective way to maintain a healthy balance between free radicals and antioxidants.
Retinol also promotes collagen and elastin production in the dermis. As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen is responsible for giving skin cells structure. As the name suggests, elastin keeps cell fibers elastic and supple. These two proteins are what give skin that firm, full appearance.
Considerations when using retinol
For all its benefits, there are some things to keep in mind with retinol. Its properties can lead to a few side effects for people with sensitive skin, including:
Dermatologists advise against using retinol daily for this exact reason. Generally, the best way to reduce these symptoms is to only apply retinol every two or three nights, at least in the beginning. Everyone’s skin is unique, so we always recommend speaking directly to your dermatologist to get advice specific to your needs.
As powerful as its effects can be, retinol isn’t an overnight cure either. Harvard Health Publishing (HHP) offers a balanced perspective on retinoids in skincare:
“Retinoids reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen. They also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which improves skin color. . .However, it takes three to six months of regular use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent 一 and the best results take six to 12 months.”
This isn’t a bad thing. Long-term skincare is just as important as more immediate, situational care like using a daily moisturizer or cleanser. With all of this in mind, these are the skin problems that retinol can be an effective solution to.
Skincare problems treated with retinol
Inflammed skin often has a rash-like appearance to it. Depending on the cause, it can create red marks and leave the affected area warm to the touch. That warmth is the result of enhanced blood flow, which forms part of the body’s immune response.
Infections and allergic reactions are the most common causes of skin inflammation. Preclinical research suggests topical retinoids can significantly reduce inflammation lesions thanks to their powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Acne is another form of inflammation caused by clogged sebaceous glands specifically. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), acne is the most common skin condition in the US, affecting more than 50 million people every year.
Retinol can reduce the visibility of acne pimples by treating the underlying irritation. It’s particularly effective at unblocking pores and clearing the sebaceous glands directly.
Dermatologists may suggest more potent prescription retinoids for treating severe cases of acne. Side effects tend to be more present with these than with the gentler topical retinol.
Uneven skin tone
Retinol stimulants faster skin cell turnover. Also called skin cell rejuvenation, this is the process our bodies use to clear away dead skin cells while producing new ones. These dead cells discolor the skin’s surface, creating an uneven tone and complexion.
By encouraging rapid skin cell turnover, retinol speeds up the natural healing process. Retinol is most effective for evening skin tone when used in conjunction with:
Thanks to its protein-boosting properties, retinol is an effective way to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. By protecting existing collagen levels while stimulating new collagen production, retinol gives skin a “fuller” appearance. A 2006 study also found retinol can increase the production of hyaluronic acid.
A more recent 2018 study published by the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules (IJBM) found that hyaluronic acid played a vital role in:
- Tissue regeneration
- Skin rejuvenation
- Wound healing
- Skin firmness and elasticity
Dermatologist Gretchen Frieling, MD, describes retinol as “one of the best” anti-aging ingredients. Aging signs aren’t one specific thing. Rather, they’re a combination of sagging, discoloration, wrinkling, cell damage, and thinning 一 primarily caused by reduced collagen and elastin levels.
Production of these proteins declines as we get older, but this is where retinol’s long-term effects are so beneficial. As with acne, retinol treats the root cause of premature aging, not just surface symptoms.
Retinol as part of your skincare routine
There’s a reason dermatologists love retinol, and many reasons why your skin could too. Its powerful properties offer a lot of support to a skincare regimen, but only when the side effects are accounted for. When you strike the right balance, though, few ingredients can make up.