Retinol: What You Need to Know About Skin Care’s Most Popular Ingredient

In an anti-aging conversation, retinol is bound to come up. Whether you are calling it retinol, Vitamin A, or by one of its brand names, you are talking about a very popular skin care ingredient and powerful anti-aging tool. Sometimes you will hear glowing reviews (“My skin looks better than it did five years ago!”) and other times you will hear about the challenges (“I don’t want to deal with the redness and peeling”). So, what is retinol and how you can avoid some of the challenges that typically come with using it?

What is it?

Retinol, rentinoids, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, and retinoic acid all are forms of vitamin A, which is essential for healthy eyes and skin. You may recognize it by brand names, including Retin-A, Renova, Refissa, or Atralin. When you apply vitamin A topically, the body absorbs the retinol and converts it to retinoic acid, the active form of vitamin A. Vitamin A has the power to improve the biological function of the skin cell. This will help with overall clarity, smoothness, and elimination of fine lines and hyperpigmentation. There has been extensive clinical research supporting the use of vitamin A to help improve skin health and diminish acne and the appearance of wrinkles.

How does it work?

Retinol is inactive when it is applied and the body turns it “on” when it converts the retinol to retinoic acid. Retinol causes the top layer of skin to peel and thickens the layers below, evening skin tone and smoothing out wrinkles. Boosted collagen production keeps the skin firm, while accelerated cell turnover facilitates sloughing off dead cells to improve luminosity. Because there are different forms and different strengths, one needs to ease into a routine with retinol. It has many benefits, however depending on the form you are using, it may not be a gentle ingredient. Many people start too aggressively and because they suffer from side effects such as redness, dryness, and peeling, they stop using it before their skin has adjusted. Retinols show the best effects when used over an extended period of time, so continual use is key. It is suggested that you ease in by using the retinoid every two nights for a couple weeks, before working up to every other night, and eventually on a nightly basis.


Although the use of retinol in skin products began simply as a prescription acne treatment, it was soon discovered that the ingredient yields even more skin benefits when patients began reporting clearer, softer, brighter, and less-lined skin. Other benefits include unclogged pores, accelerated skin cell turnover cycle, increased collagen production, reduced free radical damage, reduced pore size, reduced cell buildup, and it provides the retinoid receptor required for effective Vitamin D activity. In fact, when vitamin A is used in conjunction with glycolic acid, it offers double protection against free radical damage and assists in the antioxidant, lightening, and firming effects. It is one of very few topical skin care products that is proven to get rid of existing wrinkles while preventing more from forming. Because retinol is working at the cellular level of your skin, it takes an average of 8-12 weeks to see noticeable changes.

These benefits will help to treat acne, fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, hyperpigmentation, and rough skin caused by sun exposure. Often, people who suffer from psoriasis are advised to apply retinol to help regulate healthy cellular growth.

Cosmetic vs. Pharmaceutical 

Many people ask our skin coaches about the difference between a cosmetic and pharmaceutical formula of retinol. To start with, all forms of retinol, no matter how strong, have the ability to cause irritation to the skin when first adjusting, which is why it is suggested to slowly ease into using the product to avoid a rough transition. One of the biggest keys to using a retinol product is that stronger does not necessarily mean better. Pharmaceutical formulas have more active forms of vitamin A, which results in a higher likelihood of irritation. Using the product too much, particularly during the adjustment period, will cause more irritation, not effectiveness.

The most common form of vitamin A is retinyl palmitate, which is a vitamin A ester. It is significantly more stable than the retinoic acid found in pharmaceutical strength retinoids, meaning it will stay at the targeted level of vitamin A for a longer period of time. Retinyl palmitate has been shown to be at least as, if not more, effective than retinoic acid. The retinyl palmitate penetrates the epidermis more efficiently and causes less irritation, leading people to be much more likely to use it regularly. Studies have shown that using the same amount (5000 i.u.) of retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid for 1-2 years yielded similar results, except that the retinyl palmitate users experienced significantly less irritation. You may see results after an average of 12 weeks with a cosmetic retinoid, as opposed to 8 weeks with a pharmaceutical retinoid, however you are much less likely to have negative side effects from using the cosmetic retinoid.

Vitamin A products should be used at night only. Not only is it photosensitive, meaning that sunlight renders it ineffective, but the process of the retinoid breaking down can also lower the SPF in your sunscreen. Vitamin A also has sensitivity to heat and air in addition to light, so it should be stored in opaque containers with minimal air exposure. Look for airless pumps and avoid jars. You should not use retinol products while pregnant or breastfeeding.


Despite the numerous skin benefits of retinol, it is important to remember that no single ingredient can take care of all of the skin’s complex needs. When working in combination with other ingredients such as glycolic acid and vitamin D, the retinol will become even more effective and boost the efficacy of the other ingredients. Do you use a retinol product in your skin care regimen? Let us know in the comments below!


Your Skin Authority Skin Coach recommends:

Vitamin A Cell Renewal




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