The Science Behind the Skin Care All-Star Retinol


[Images: Getty Images]

Retinoids, the umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives
including prescription strength retinoic acid and over-the-counter
(OTC) retinols, are not new to the skincare industry. The U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first retinoid,
tretinoin, almost 40 years ago as a prescription acne treatment,
yet dermatologists quickly noticed that it demonstrated clinical
potential for treating a wider range of concerns, from photodamage
to fine lines.

Although prescription formulas are more potent, OTC retinol has
since been hailed as an antiaging skin staple with proven and
impressive results. “Retinol is the safest form of vitamin A that
can be used on the skin,” says Christine Dunn, national director
of education for Pevonia.
“By enhancing cellular performance and helping to repair mature
and sun damaged skin, it’s the ‘renovation architect’ of
dermal layers.” With four-plus decades of research supporting its
ability to boost cell turnover, build collagen and fight acne,
retinol is an essential ingredient for clients seeking a clearer,
younger-looking complexion.

Skin Deep

As people age, the cycle of cell production and replacement
slows, dead cells accumulate on the skin’s surface, collagen and
elastin degrade, and skin becomes thinner—all of which leads to a
duller complexion and causes sagging, lines and wrinkles. When
applied topically, retinol converts to retinoic acid, the active
ingredient found in prescription versions. It works on the
molecular level, binding to DNA and activating retinoid receptors
that regulate how cells function. “Retinol is a communicator that
signals aging cells to continue their renewal process, increasing
the rate of new cell formation,” explains Elizabeth
Stankov-Giralt, DermaSwiss
director of education and product development.

In other words, retinol helps skin act younger, kick-starting
desquamation (the peeling and shedding process) and bringing new,
healthy cells to the surface for a more youthful complexion. “It
also increases collagen density by slowing down degradation,”
adds Lorrie Klein, MD, dermatologist and medical director of OC
Dermatology in Laguna Niguel, California. Plus, retinol’s
antioxidant properties interrupt the free-radical damage that
contributes to signs of aging.

A true multitasker, retinol works intrinsically and
extrinsically on the skin. “It helps make cells more organized,
improving texture and minimizing the appearance of wrinkles, acne,
hyperpigmentation and dullness,” says Alison Adams-Woodford,
senior manager of research and development and communications at
PCA Skin. “It does this by compacting and thinning the stratum
corneum; dispersing melanin granules to reduce visible
pigmentation; and correcting abnormal desquamation.”


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Retinol

When it comes to acne, retinol works on multiple fronts. The
increased rate of cell turnover helps prevent dead skin from
clogging pores, and has been shown to unblock oil glands, suppress
sebum production, reduce comedone formation and lessen the
inflammation associated with breakouts. This works to both prevent
and reverse acne, while improving skin texture.

Less Is More

OTC retinol products typically contain 0.5 to 2 percent of the
active ingredient, which is 20 times less concentrated than
prescription retinoids—but potency isn’t always a skin win. The
prescription version acts fast, yet it can be overly drying.
“While retinoids are suitable for most skin types, sensitive skin
may not tolerate the stronger formulations well,” adds Dr.
Klein.

The OTC option is less likely to produce irritation and other
side effects because of its lower concentration and the fact that
it’s converted into retinoic acid at the cellular level. So, on
the whole, OTC retinol is beneficial for most skin types, and
especially sensitive and dry skin.

However, plenty of retinol products tend to be misused by
clients who think that more is better. “People hear retinol is
good for their skin and start applying it every single night, which
can result in redness, irritation and excessive desquamation,”
warns Stankov-Giralt. Others may also be afraid of the ingredient,
as they’ve bought into myths that retinol will blemish skin.

This makes education all the more essential. Retinol is highly
effective, but it’s not a quick fix, so estheticians should
remind spa-goers to use patience and restraint. “It must be
introduced into a regimen slowly, allowing the skin time to
acclimate,” says Adams-Woodford, who warns that overuse can
result in signs of retinoid dermatitis, a common side effect
characterized by dryness, sensitivity and peeling. “If they
aren’t sure how they’ll react or how strong the product is,
have the client try it one night first and see if they get
irritated, then build up slowly to every night if their skin can
handle it,” suggests Dr. Klein. Additionally, pros should advise
guests not to use too much—no more than a pea-sized dab for the
entire face—and to “avoid the sensitive eyelids,” she
continues.


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Another important consideration is sun exposure and protection.
Retinol rapidly breaks down when exposed to the sun, so clients
should only use it at night on clean, dry skin, followed by a
moisturizer to ensure maximum benefits. Again, retinol encourages
cell turnover, and can therefore make skin more vulnerable to the
sun and its effects. “Skin must be well protected from UV
exposure, so guests should use a sunscreen during the day—even if
they’re only applying retinols at night—to avoid unwanted
sensitivity and possible hyperpigmentation,” says Dunn.

If clients follow these recommendations and still notice
excessively dry skin, flaking or peeling, Dr. Klein advises them to
further “slow down how much and how often it’s used.” They
can also apply an OTC hydrocortisone cream to calm inflammation,
she notes. Another way to nix irritation is by mixing a pea-sized
amount of retinol with a super moisturizing night cream. “With
that added layer of hydration, the risk of sensitivity is lower,”
says Stankov-Giralt.

Of course, guests with especially sensitive skin or those who
struggle with inflammatory skin disorders may have to follow an
even more specialized protocol. “At one time it was believed that
all regenerating ingredients should be avoided with conditions such
as rosacea and eczema; however, we now know that clients who suffer
from these issues can experience the benefits of retinol,” says
Dunn. She advises such spa-goers to strengthen their skin first
with a regimen of hydrating products containing ingredients like
hyaluronic acid (HA), sodium PCA, bisabolol and allantoin. That
said, there are still some whose skin won’t tolerate retinol at
all, in which case they should simply avoid it.


Formulation
Information

Creating effective retinol products can be challenging for
several reasons. “Retinol is naturally unstable and quick to
interact with other ingredients. It tends to oxidize quickly and
lose efficacy,” says Dunn. Air and light exposure can negatively
effect the retinol, adds Stankov-Giralt, so packaging is also
important.
Given these issues, formulators are working on ways to help
stabilize retinol, as well as reduce the potential for irritation
or compromised efficacy once it’s been applied. The newest
approaches include encapsulated, time-released and nanoparticle
formulas in airless pump containers. It’s also common to blend
retinol with ingredients that keep it from breaking down:
“Vitamins C and E help stabilize retinol and preserve the
skin’s density and nutrients,” says Dunn, adding that HA can
help offset dryness while better distributing the retinol.


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In addition to the currently available formulations designed
specifically for acne, hyperpigmentation and aging, the next
generation of retinols will become even more tailored to
individuals, says Adams-Woodford. “This could be via genomic
testing to select already available products for a particular
patient, or developing ingredient combinations that would best
serve a person’s unique needs,” she posits. Not that retinol in
its current form is going anywhere. “It will continue to be one
of the most trusted gold standards in skin care,” concludes
Adams-Woodford.

The Science Is In

  • A four-week treatment with 0.1 percent retinol increased levels
    of procollagen types 1 and 3 (the body’s precursor to collagen),
    and wrinkles were reduced after 12 weeks. (Journal of Cosmetic
    Dermatology, 2015)
  • Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School found
    that applying a 0.4 percent retinol lotion three times a week for
    24 weeks helped reverse skin aging. After just four weeks, fine
    lines began to fade, and continued to improve throughout the
    study. Skin roughness was also significantly reduced. (JAMA
    Dermatology, 2007)
  • A combination of retinol (0.3 percent) and hydroquinone (4
    percent) more effectively diminished the collective signs of
    photodamage than a 0.05 percent tretinoin emollient cream in terms
    of dyspigmentation, fine wrinkles and tactile roughness over the
    course of 16 weeks. (Dermatologic Surgery, 2005)

Retinol Do’s and Don’ts

DO be proactive: Clients can start using retinol in their early
30s!

DO store products in a cool, dark place.

DO apply to the neck and décolleté, as well.

DON’T use retinoids if pregnant or breastfeeding.

DON’T layer with benzoyl peroxide, which can deactivate the
retinol.

DON’T apply retinol during a rosacea flare-up.

–by Allison Young

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The Science Behind the Skin Care All-Star Retinol
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The Science Behind the Skin Care All-Star Retinol