A Closer Look At Retinol


This article will attempt to unravel the true ins and outs of Retinol, also known as Vitamin A. We look at what this substance actually is and where it comes from. We will look at how it affects your skin and other characteristics such as safety and suitability. If you have ever come across this ingredient in a beauty cream or lotion and wanted to know everything about it then this article is for you. The take away is that yes Retinol is a highly effective yet inexpensive skin care solution. I can help rejuvenate your skin, smooth over fine lines and wrinkles and restore that youthful glow you once had. However, there are some things you need to know before drowning yourself in layers upon layers of the nearest Retinol cream.

Vitamin A, retinol

What is Retinol

Retinol is a fat soluble vitamin also known as Vitamin A. It is naturally found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, fish oils and dairy. It is termed fat soluble in that is has a long half life in the body and stored in the liver and fat. This in contrast to a water soluble vitamin such as Vitamin B which has a short half life and is not stored for very long. From a health perspective you need smaller amounts of Vitamin B more often and can have larger amounts of Vitamin A less frequently and still meet your nutritional needs for these nutrients. Retinol can also be produced by the conversion of Carotenoids to Retinol. For example, Beta-Carotene, the orange pigment found in carrots is commonly known as ‘Pro-Vitamin A’  or a Vitamin A precursor. We will focus on the form used in topical skin care products.

Retinol In Skin Care Products

Retinol naturally occurs in foods, however what is in your skin care product is most likely ‘Retinol Palmitate’ or ‘Vitamin A Palmitate’. This is the ester (storage) form of Retinol, made from the combination of Retinol and Palmitic Acid.

Synthetic Retinol

Some of the most common synthetic forms of Retinol include Tretinoin, ATRA, Retinoic Acid, Adalpalene, Tazarotene and Isotretinoin. Technically these are known as ‘Retinoids’ and are extremely potent. In fact, creams and serums that offer high concentrations of these Retinoids are prescription only and carry black box warnings.

Synthetic VS Natural

Both forms of Retinol have slightly different affects on the body and the skin. They both activate receptors in your skin known as RARs (retinoic acid receptors). Each receptor has its own unique affect on things like cell turn over, skin barrier, skin elasticity and various other functions of the skin cells. All Retinol is eventually metabolized into Retinoic Acid as the result of Vitamin A metabolism. You can think of Retinol as a slow release form of Retinoic Acid as there will be a gradual conversion process from one to another.

Retinol And Your Skin

In order to understand the role of this substance on your skin, its important to first explore the skin cell turn over cycle and how this process works. Keeping your skin soft, moist and beautiful is a delicate balance. What is happening is that your epidermis (skin) is constantly shedding cells every second of the day throughout your whole life. As cells die off and shed, your skin sends a signal that it needs more skin cells. When this happens, a stream of new stem cells are produced and under go a process called differentiation. This process transforms the stem cell into a skin cell. When the system is well balanced, the rate at which your skin cells are shedding and replenishing happen in equilibrium. As you lose cells at a certain rate, you get new ones at that same rate. If you loose skin cells too quickly before they are able to replenish, then your skin can be thin and dry (and flaky). If you replenish more skin cells then what you are loosing then your skin can be very thick and moist. Most skin issues can occur when this balance is disturbed.

It just so happens that Retinol speeds up the skin turn over cycle. This means it that your skin cells will speed up their life cycle and cause more new skin cells to be manufactured to replace the old skin that has now shed much much faster. This is how Retinol works to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and create more beautiful skin. It is essentially stimulating more skin (and collagen) to be produced as the result of your skin cells turning over at a faster rate. Not only is it stimulating more skin to be produced, it is also intensifying the process, creating more collagen which helps with skin tone and elasticity. The more collagen, the smoother and more baby like the skin becomes.

Some people mention the ‘Retinol Burn’  as a slight burning and reddening of the skin as it reacts with Retinol. This process is similar to a chemical peel that effectively ‘burns’ away the very top layer of the skin, making way for new fresh vibrant skin. We will discuss ways to reduce the undesirable effects of Retinol later on below.

Is Retinol Safe

In high amounts Retinol is not safe. The National Institutes of Health presents evidence that the intake of Vitamin A does have an upper limit and that going above that limit can cause Hypervitaminoses A. This temporary but nasty condition has terrible symptoms such as fever, headaches, liver damage and more. However don’t be alarmed as the dose makes the poison and almost all natural substances have an upper limit where they can be toxic. Even too much water can harm you. The small amounts present in most over the counter creams, serums and lotions should not cause an over exposure to Retinol. In addition, if used sensibly and safely, you can harness all the benefits without having to bear any of the side effects.

But I Am Not Eating My Skin Cream

No I would hope you are not eating your skin cream. So how can be skin cream be associated with an overload of Retinol ? Its quite simple, your skin absorbs many of the chemicals found in your skin care products. Does that mean it will absorb all of it ? Different chemicals have different absorption rates and it depends on other variables such as moisture levels, cream adjuncts and skin barrier integrity. We will explain exactly how to use a Retinol cream safely and effectively to minimize absorption into the deeper layers of your skin and body.

So Is Retinol Really Safe

There is no one size fits all answer to this question. Pregnant mothers are urged to be cautious and minimize the risk of over exposure to all forms of Retinol or Retinoids. However for the average adult wanting to explore potential skin care solutions and achieve that youthful glow then a trial and error approach might just be the most sensible decision one can make. Most dermatologists swear by Retinol as one of the most effective skin rejuvenation substances with demonstrable results. It provides a great bang for buck as its inexpensive and most people have had great results from using it.

How Long Until I See Results

Doctors citing the research say that it takes a few months for you to notice a positive result. Some say 12 weeks and some even sooner. Lower concentration skin care products will take longer to work, i.e a .5% concentration of Retinol.  Higher strength formulations, including prescription only products such as Retin-A, will have a more dramatic effect and much sooner.  If you are being cautious, then its best to start slow and evaluate your position weekly to determine if this is right for you. For this very reason, we recommend you start with a lower concentration skin care product.

How much to apply

Start with a low concentration of 0.05%-0.5% and watch for the effects. The redness, itchiness and flakiness is an indication it is working. The top layer of skin cells are now shedding and your skin will respond by rebuilding more collagen and more beautiful skin. If the redness or dryness is bothersome then you can add a moisturizer cream to keep the area moist and well hydrated.

How To Apply Retinol

In general its best to follow the product instructions and guidelines, here is an example:

  1. Cleanse your skin, making sure the sure the surface is clean and dry and ready to apply. The drier the skin, the less chance their is for deeper penetration beyond the top layer of skin and the less risk of any resulting redness and irritation.
  2. Apply a pea sized (small amount) of the product to the target area and lightly spread it around in a circular motion until it is evenly distributed and ‘rubbed-in’. You want just enough to coat the area and not more. Too much will mean you have to rub it excessively or else you will experience a prolonged wetness and the feeling of a mask rather then a cream.
  3. Allow a few minutes for the product to set in and absorb.
  4. Apply a moisturizer to safeguard against any dryness or flakiness that may occur from the Retinol. In fact, it is sometimes recommended to mix your Retinol product with a moisturizer in order to dilute the Retinol and create a more subtle impact to your skin. If you are looking to start low and slow, then this just might be your best strategy. If your skin is sensitive, then you will need to follow some suitable guidelines for sensitive skin.

Caution: The skin around your eyes is delicate and thinner then other parts of your face so be sensible and take all precautionary steps to ensure you do not damage this area. This means using an appropriate  product designed for the delicate areas around your eyes and following the tips presented below. The skin around your eyes will be more prone to damage and irritation so keep that in mind. As stated earlier, Retinol causes the skin to shed faster and thus become temporarily thinner.

What If My Skin is Sensitive

If you have sensitive skin then do not despair, you can still use Retinol based skin care products, but you will just have to take note of the following tips:

  1. Start low and slow: Start off with using your skin care product every 3rd day and watch for signs. Its normal to have some redness and some burning. This is often mostly experienced in the first few weeks as the skin adjusts. If however you are finding that your skin is looking worse, i.e. more redness and or pain then consider 1 once weekly application.
  2. Dilute the Retinol: Having a slower release through diluting your Retinol based product with your moisturizer can help with a more subtle and gentle delvery of the active ingredient to your skin. You will also be using less Retinol.
  3. Try a time-release skin care product: This achieves a similar effect to dilution in that the Retinol is more slowly released in the skin.
  4. Timed dosing approach: This involves applying the product to your skin for a period of time (15 minutes) and then washing it off. Whilst this may help control any unwanted symptoms for sensitive skin, it may be too low of a dose to provide any actual value. Trial and error is required here to assess the effect on your own skin.

When to Apply Retinol

You will often read about using Retinol at night and here is why. Sun light does degrade Retinol. However, the real concern about sunlight and its skin damaging effects, come from the fact that Retinol is impacting your skins ability to protect itself from the sun light. As your skin cells are shedding faster, the top layer of skin becomes more vulnerable and susceptible to UV skin damage. This is why it is often recommended to apply an effective sun screen or avoid the sun entirely. This is why manufacturers create day creams and night creams. We recommend you use Retinol products any time of day or night that you feel is convenient for you but limit your sun light exposure so that you don’t end up with worse skin. Based on what we know about Circadian Rhythm,  your cells rebuild and repair at night, especially during sleep. Therefore using Retinol at night time could be a good idea as you are inflicting the controlled shedding during a time where your skin is most likely to rebuild and repair and a new stream of healthy cells can flourish to provide you with the highly sought after youthful glow.

When to Worry

It is always recommended to speak to your dermatologist for appropriate specialist advice regarding your own skin care needs. If however you have chosen to try Retinol and are unsure if it is having a detrimental impact then here is what to look out for:

  • Redness: Some redness is expected and is a sign the product is providing its value. However, if the redness is spreading and becoming more red then stop and evaluate and reconsider.
  • Pain: Some irritation and itchiness / burning is also a sign that the product is actively working however if you feel actual pain or feel like your skin is on fire then you may have sensitive skin and follow the steps outlined above for sensitive skin. You may also consider stopping all together and allowing the area to heal.
  • Swelling: With redness you may experience some minor inflammation. Distinctly raised or inflamed skin that is highly noticeable means you should stop, evaluate and reconsider.
  • Acne, Rosacea, Dermatitis, Psoriasis, excessive flakiness: Time to stop and see your doctor / dermatologist. This is a clear sign your skin is not happy and it would be wise to get a professional opinion.

What is the best product to use

With so many products available it can feel like navigating minefield. The sheer plethora of skin creams and serums can make the process feel quite daunting and even stressful. To help you on your journey to vibrant glowing skin, we have looked at several nutritional and topical products and even written about them in our guide to removing swollen bags from under the eyes. If you just want to know which is the standout favorite, then look no further than the Baebody Eye Gel. This video below showcases some of the more expensive but highly effective skin care products.


ThisWorks No Wrinkles Night Repair 30ml
ThisWorks No Wrinkles Active Serum 30ml
Alpha-H Beauty Sleep Power Peel

Are we finished yet

In the near future we will be releasing comprehensive guides to using Retinol and writing more about this substance. In the meantime, we hope you find this article useful and if you want to know more then contact us.


One Response

  1. October 12, 2019

Leave a Comment