Retinol seems to be in every skin care product: under eye creams, wrinkle creams, age spot treatments, every product that even slightly claims it can reduce signs of aging. So are the claims behind Retinol hype or helpful?
Wrinkles, age spots, fine lines: These are the signs that your skin is aging. Collagen starts breaking down in the skin in your face when you’re in your mid-20’s (a pretty scary thought to anyone who passed that mark some time ago). Your skin gets thinner as a result and fine lines form, which eventually may become deep wrinkles. Whether you see your first wrinkle on your face at age 25 or dark spots on your hands at 55, they’re going to get deeper and darker if they’re ignored.
If you believe the advertising for Retinol in anti-aging skin care products, it may appear as a magical solution for all of your skin care woes. While Retinol does indeed have some proven benefits, as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can cause serious health problems.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a form of Vitamin A known as a retinoid. In the 1970s, the first commercially produced Retinoid, marketed under the name Retin-A, was prescribed to treat severe acne. But if you were thinking about starting a family, Retin-A was not for you, as it was shown to cause birth defects if used during pregnancy.
Retinol, included in many beauty products, is a less powerful retinoid. It has been shown to slightly reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Retin-A, besides treating acne, was also (accidentally) discovered to fade age spots, even out pigmentation, and speed the turnover of superficial skin cells.
Retinol works by encouraging basal cells in your skin (in the lowest layer) to divide, creating new epidermal cells which migrate upwards to the skin’s surface. More retinol = more new skin, and then the excess old skin defoliates naturally. Unfortunately, these new skin cells are not yet conditioned to handle ultraviolet rays and environmental stressors. The more retinol you apply, the more sensitive your skin becomes, causing peeling, flaking, and irritation. And if you’ve been using retinol for 20 years, the ability of your skin cells to keep dividing at the rate they did at first is severely reduced, because the cells can only divide a limited number of times during your lifespan.
What do the clinical studies say about Retinol?
Retinoic acid, also made from Vitamin A, has been studied widely in the clinical setting. When applied topically, it has been shown to significantly decrease wrinkles and age spots, and increase the formation of collagen in the skin. The only problem is, retinoic acid causes substantial skin irritation and photosensitivity, which can lead quickly to severe sunburn.
Retinol is a precursor to retinoic acid – that is, when retinol is applied topically it’s absorbed by the skin where it combines with enzymes and eventually becomes retinoic acid. But as Retinol is a much less powerful and slower acting form of the acid, it only has some of the same effects, namely, reducing fine lines and light wrinkles. On the upside, Retinol does not cause skin irritation if used occasionally. When used daily for many months or years however, it most definitely can cause skin irritation, redness, flaking, and photosensitivity. Retinol has also been known to create abrasions on elderly skin when combined with waxing.
So if you’re using retinol, you must also use an SPF 15 or greatest sunscreen and a moisturizer to protect the new skin cells from UV damage – which will, of course, age them prematurely or lead to melanoma from UV damage.
The bottom line to maintaining healthy skin is to keep the skin barrier in good shape and reduce inflammation. That means moisturize and cleanse every day, hydrate frequently, and eat a balanced, healthy diet.