Retinol truths & myths


Is retinol the miracle anti-aging cream?

Retinol is derived from vitamin A: 

True. Retinol is one of the animal forms of vitamin A, a fat soluble vitamin with important functions in the body. One of those functions is the promotion of faster skin cell turnover, hence its anti-aging effects.

Retinol is the same as Retin

A: Wrong. Retinol and Retin A might be related, but they are two different products with different efficacy on the skin. Retin A, also called trans-retinoic acid or retinoic acid, has a direct effect on skin cells. Retinol on the other hand has no direct effect on skin cells. It needs to be converted to retinoic acid first, with the help of special enzymes, before becoming active. This conversion rate is generally low (up to 10%) and in addition, retinol gets oxidised and destabilised easily, either during packaging and storage or purely whilst applying it on the skin, reducing the conversion rate further. 

I should apply my retinoid cream at night because if applied in the day it will make my skin react to sunlight: 

This is not the main reason for applying it at night. Retinoids are deactivated by sunlight (and air, as outlined above) and you increase the chance of your cream being effective if you apply it at night.

Retinol is contained in cosmeceuticals at different strengths:

True. Strengths range from 0.025% to 2%. 

Retinol is a miracle cream for fine lines and wrinkles:

Not quite. It does help in the long run, but the effects are much smaller compared to prescription strength retinoid. It does have an advantage however in that it causes less skin irritation.

No need to pay attention to the packaging when shopping for a retinol cream:

Wrong. Packaging is very important. Unless vitamin A is listed as one of the top 5 ingredients and the product is packaged in an airtight opaque bottle, what you will be using will probably not make that much difference to your skin.

Whilst pregnant or breastfeeding I should discontinue my retinoid cream:

True. Pregnant or lactating women should not be using retinoid creams.

Retin A is a prescription only medication whereas retinol can be obtained over the counter:

Correct. Retin A, as already discussed, has a direct effect on the skin cells, is more potent and more effective. As a result it has more chances of causing some irritation of the skin. It is prescription only, at least in the UK and US.

I should slowly increase the frequency of applying my retinoid cream:

True. Especially if you are retinoid-naive, it is advisable to start gradually and build it up, e. g. twice weekly for the first week, then alternate daily for week 2 and eventually daily (always at night) if well tolerated.

It’s fine to use retinoids if I have sensitive skin:

Yes and no. You could still use retinoids, but it might be best to get some advice by your dermatologist beforehand.

Christina Vlachou