Curious About Retinol? What To Look For On The Label & Why It Matters

Retinol, retinoic acid, retinal—if you’ve ever read anything on skin care, you’ve likely read up on this group of vitamin A derivatives that fall under the umbrella term “retinoid.” For good reason: “Among dermatologists and other skin care experts, retinoids are one of the gold-standard ingredients for delivering anti-aging benefits. Many clinical tests show this,” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson.

And if you’ve read up on the all-star ingredient, you’re likely up-to-date on all the application and care advice (introduce it slowly, don’t let it get exposed to air, and the like), but: Do you know what to look for on the ingredient label? Or why that even matters to begin with? I mean, given you’re an mbg reader, I’m going to assume you are well versed in reading labels, but this can be a tricky one.

Here, a breakdown.

Understanding the mechanism on the cellular level is essential to understanding the rest. This will give context to why the different types of derivatives work the way they do. “When applied to the skin, your body converts these to retinoic acid, which then attaches to retinoic acid receptors on fibroblasts in the cell,” says cosmetic chemist Marie Veronique, founder of the namesake brand Marie Veronique. “This is how they normalize skin cell development. Your DNA becomes damaged in the skin cell itself—due to UV exposure, age, or environmental aggressors—so you are producing cells that exhibit abnormalities that lead to wrinkles, dark spots, increased sebum production, or even dermatitis. With retinoids, everything goes back to normal, and this is the only ingredient that does this.” They also help speed up skin cell turnover, so they’re incredibly effective: You see results, fast. And, as you might have read before, the ingredient also tends to be very unstable: meaning it becomes inactive easily, usually due to light, oxygen, and with time. “Retinoids are only as effective as they are active,” says Veronique.

This is by prescription only. Since it’s already retinoic acid, it doesn’t need to convert when it comes in contact with the skin, so it gets to work immediately. “With the other forms, they convert as your skin needs it—this obviously doesn’t do that, so it will start changing your skin profoundly,” says Veronique. And because of this, it often causes irritation like redness and peeling. (There’s definitely an adjustment period.) This is also the most unstable form, which is why you’ll see it packaged in an opaque and airtight tube.

This is available over the counter and converts very quickly to retinoic acid because there is only one conversion step, says Veronique. (Read: highly effective.) It also, because of this, can be irritating.

This is the most common form, and like the above, available over the counter. It converts into retinaldehyde and then into retinoic acid and will only do so as needed, as Veronique tells us. This makes it much more tolerable for most people (so: less redness and irritation and a shorter adjustment period). “Your skin only needs so much, as you only have so many receptors—too much is overstimulating the skin, like static,” she says.

Retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, retinyl linoleate are all lesser forms of vitamin A that are often found in products. They all have a longer conversion process (if at all) into retinoic acid, making them less effective—but also offer little chance of irritation.

This derivative should be avoided at all costs, says Veronique. Studies have shown that it can speed up tumor growth on the skin (it does not directly cause tumors, however, but it will accelerate them if they are already present). The EWG also notes how dangerous this is—and many brands have begun removing it from their formulations.

“Retinol from natural sources, like plant oils, don’t actually convert to retinoic acid on the skin,” says Veronique, about these retinol alternatives. “They are high in antioxidants and have other skin care benefits, but they don’t actually convert, so they’re not altering cell production.” So if you find a natural oil that says it has vitamin A in it, you’ll still get anti-aging properties, just not in the same way as above.

This trendy ingredient exploded on the market not too long ago—and we tested it here at mbg, too. “A newly discovered natural ingredient called bakuchiol (a plant extract) has been shown to work in a similar pathway to retinol but without the irritation that can be associated with traditional retinol products,” says Robinson.

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