What Is Retinol And Is It Safe?
By Michael Pollak
One of the topics that gets our break room chatter going is retinol. Some believe that it is an amazing medicine cabinet staple, some tread more lightly. However, we all believe it’s an ingredient that you must be well-informed about before using, as it’s often recommended as a “cure-all” power-ingredient.
What is retinol?
Retinol, of the retinoid family, is a derivative of antioxidant-rich, Vitamin A. There are many forms, names (retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinal, tretinoin) and percentages available of retinoids and it comes in both natural forms (for example, in rosehip) and synthetically derived forms. The ingredient has long been used in skincare. In fact, it’s been around since the late 1940s (!!). By the 1950s, it was all the rage to fight breakouts and in the 1980s, it hit the market as an anti-aging ingredient. You might know the prescription strength options, like Accutane or every teens’ favorite, Retin-A. Retinol is like it’s younger sister. In over the counter dosages, it doesn’t pack quite as much of a punch, but it should still be used very wisely.
Sounds interesting. What are the benefits?
Retinol “helps increase your skin’s natural exfoliation process from the bottom up,” our Skin Therapist, Taryn says. “It works by stimulating and increasing the production of healthy skin cells.” This cell turn over can lead to more even skin tone and a brighter complexion.
It has also been touted as the closest thing to an anti-aging magic potion. In fact, a group of dermatologists told HuffPost that aside from SPF, it is their number one recommendation. Suzanne, our Skin Therapist, who once told us that the most important relationship she has in her life is with her collagen, might agree. She excitedly says, “retinol boosts your collagen production, leading to a reduction in fewer wrinkles, and firmer skin.” It can even help unclog pores, which is why so many dermatologists recommend retinoids for teens fighting acne.
That sounds great! Why doesn’t everyone love it?
The controversy with retinoids comes from a few different directions. The first is that it is being put in so many products, many of which are aimed at daytime use (i.e., makeup and SPF). Firstly, sunlight makes these items less effective, but most importantly — and we want to make this clear because it’s so, so important — retinol can make you very photosensitive. If you don’t wear sunscreen, you can get burned. There is some research out there that labels this as a myth, but you wear that daily SPF anyway, right?
Many Skin Therapists also believe that retinol is often being overused. “Retinol is useful for people who have genetically challenging acne. However, in my opinion, if you have not had consistent breakout since the onset of puberty, retinols are usually not the answer to your breakout problems,” Taryn says. Some feel that retinoids should never be used. Heavy-duty retinoid medications, like Accutane, are so strong that they can cause birth defects and liver issues. That can be a lot of pressure to put on your skin, especially if you’re young enough to need it. “Retinol is fantastic for someone who is well into their aging process and needs a boost. Typically, this would be someone over the age of 35, as our skin cell turnover rate starts slowing around 30 years old,” Taryn adds.
There is one last thing to know from those who are retinol skeptical. “It can be pretty harsh on the skin,” our Skin Therapist, Natalie, who says she opts to not use it with client. Not only can it make some clients red and peel, but, “it can prevent you from doing deeper services such as professional-strength peels and microdermabrasion depending on the strength and how often you use it.” In extreme cases, it can even thin out your skin or change how the oil glands within your skin work. “I have female clients who have been on it for forever and love it, but I can’t do extractions on them because their skin is so compromised that I don’t want to take the risk in hurting it.”
Hmmm, okay. So it seems like it’s great, if used correctly, and not great if abused.
Correct. It’s a pro product that should be used with advice of an expert (and always with sunscreen). We highly recommend talking to your Skin Therapist about it at your next facial, if it’s something you’re interested in exploring. There are tons of benefits. We just want to make sure that it’s a good match for you before you go filling up your medicine cabinet with it. If it is not right for you, don’t fret. There are lots of ingredients that can help with cell turnover, like alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin c, peptides, and others, and we can discuss these options with you.
Speaking of, what do I need to know if I want to buy it?
Retinols are a surprisingly delicate ingredient, as you can probably tell from all the information above. When it’s exposed to air and light for too long, it will start to break down. It’s a little drama queen. This means that when shopping for one, skip products that are packaged in jars or clear containers. And of course, skip any products that push you to use it during the day. No retinol-laced SPF! Get your Vampire on with this one. We’re big fans of Naturopathica’s Argan & Retinol Wrinkle Repair Night Cream. “This is not your Mother’s eye cream,” our Skin Therapist, Jenna says. “It repairs the cells of your aging skin while you sleep the night away, stimulating collagen production, and encouraging firmer skin, all while giving you a hydration boost.”
And lastly, Natalie wants you to know that, “everyone’s skin handles Vitamin A differently. Some need to slowly introduce it to their skin, some can only use it once or twice a week and in some cases the skin can totally reject it." It is a product, like with many that have to do with micro-changes to the skin's appearance (lines, uneven skin tone, etc.), that can take patience to see change. If you're looking for a quick verdict in a few short weeks, you might be disappointed. If it's right for you, and you make the investment, commit to giving it a solid go.
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