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Retinol in skincare

Retinol serum

Retinol, also known as vitamin A, is one of the most effective anti-aging agents. It is a strong anti-oxidant and it protects the skin against harmful external influences. It also promotes cell renewal, protects against collagen breakdown in the skin and prevents moisture loss from the skin. All of this improves the skin's texture and reduces wrinkles and fine lines in number and depth. It also works very well against pigmentation spots. Retinol is therefore a substance that belongs in every skin care regime! You have to be patient, it takes at least 12 weeks before you really notice a difference.

The retinol family.
Retinol is part of a group of similar substances called the retinoids. Many retinoids are often sold under the name retinol, even though they are actually substances that are very similar, but slightly different. To find out which retinoid is really in it, check the ingredients list. Most retinol products contain one of the following retinoids:

  • tretinoin
  • retinaldehyde
  • retinol
  • retinyl palmitate

Of all the substances mentioned above, tretinoin is actually the only substance that has an effect in the body. All other retinoids are first converted by the skin to tretinoin before they are effective. The conversion chain goes as follows:

retinyl palmitate => retinol => retinaldehyde => tretinoin

Retinol is thus converted by the skin to tretinoin in two steps. First from retinol to retinaldehyde, and in the second step retinaldehyde is converted to tretinoin. The fewer steps that are required for the retinoid to convert to tretinoin, the more effective it is. So retinaldehyde is more effective than retinol. The disadvantage of the stronger retinoids is that they do give a greater chance of irritation.

In addition, there is also a new retinoid that we would like to mention: hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR). Just like tretinoin, HPR has a direct effect in the body and does not need to be converted first, but according to studies, unlike tretinoin, causes little irritation. The ideal retinoid in theory, only the studies are not independent, they are carried out or paid for by companies that sell the product themselves. Very little independent research has been done on HPR.

Which retinoid should I choose?
Retinyl palmitate
Because this form requires most of the steps to be effective, it is the least effective retinoid. Therefore, we usually do not recommend this retinoid.

Most of all retinoids have been researched on retinol. Choosing a product with retinol is therefore always a good choice. Retinol can cause some irritation, so start with a dose of 0.5% or lower, and if the skin becomes more tolerant to retinol after a while you can take a higher dose of up to 1%.

These are sold in percentages from 0.01% to 0.1%. Start with a mild dose of less than 0.05%. Because it requires fewer conversions than retinol to be effective, it is more effective than retinol, but can also cause more irritation. It is also less well researched than retinol.

Tretinoin is not available without a prescription in most countries, including the Netherlands. To try tretinoin, you could ask a dermatologist to prescribe it and use it under supervision. Note that compared to retinol, tretinoin can cause much more irritation. We feel that it is usually not necessary to use tretinoin, retinol or retinaldehyde are effective enough to experience the positive effects of vitamin A, but with less irritation.

Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR)
HPR is often sold in a 10 percent diluted solution under the name Granactive Retinoid. 5% Granactive retionoid thus contains 0.5% HPR. Most of the products sold contain 2% or 5% Granactive retinoid. Start at a percentage of 2%. As mentioned above, it is a promising product, but little independent research has been done on it.

What should you pay attention to when buying a retinol product?
Many retinoids are sensitive to oxidation and it is a difficult ingredient to keep stable in formulations. Retinoids break down quickly under the influence of water and most serums contain a large part of water. That is why the retinol in many of the water-based serums and creams is already ineffective or less effective when purchased. Therefore, preferably choose a retinol product without water, such as a facial oil with retinol.

If you prefer a water-based serum, choose a product with encapsulated retinol. It is sold under the English name “encapsulated retinol”. Encapsulated retinol is retinol in a “shell” so that it does not come into contact with the water in the serum and is therefore not broken down. A disadvantage of encapsulated retinol is that the dosage is often a lot lower than normal retinol, 1% encapsulated retinol equals 0.05-0.08% normal retinol.

Because retinol is also sensitive to light and oxygen, it is best to avoid products in a light transparent bottle, especially if sold without a box around it. An airless pump bottle is also recommended.

Retinol and pregnancy.
Retinol is vitamin A, and an excess of vitamin A increases the risk of birth defects. Therefore, it is not recommended to take vitamin A supplements during pregnancy. However, studies have shown that retinol that you put on the skin is almost not absorbed by the body. In theory it should therefore be safe, but to be on the safe side we do not recommend using retinol during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

When to use retinol?
It is best to use retinol in the evening or at night, as retinol breaks down under the influence of sunlight. If you still want to use it during the day, you can if you put a layer of sunscreen with a high SPF (factor) over it.

Can I use retinol with other skincare products?
Vitamin C
Like here Also described in our article on vitamin C, retinol can be used well together with vitamin C. It enhances each other's anti-aging effect when used at the same time. Some may experience additional irritation when using retinol and vitamin C at the same time. If this is the case with you, it is better to use it alternately. For example, one day of vitamin C and one day of retinol, or vitamin C in the morning and retinol in the evening.

Niacinamide (vitamin B3) can also be combined with retinol. In fact, studies say it can reduce irritation from retinol.

AHA and BHA peelers
Retinol serums can be used with AHAs and BHAs, but this can cause additional irritation for some. In case of irritation it is better not to use it at the same time.

Benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide, a popular anti-acne agent, is one of the few substances that retinol cannot be combined with. It oxidizes retinol, making it ineffective. Therefore, do not use it at the same time as benzoyl peroxide.

In summary
Retinol is an indispensable ingredient in any skincare regimen. It reduces wrinkles and fine lines, fades pigmentation spots, improves skin texture and protects the skin against harmful external influences.

Retinol is part of a family called the retinoids, these are substances that are similar and above all differ in how strong they are and how irritating they are. Therefore, the substances that give the best balance between efficacy and irritation are retinol and retinaldehyde, preferably choose a product with one of these two retinoids. The new form HPR is also worth a try, it promises to be more effective than retinol, but with less irritation, although little independent research has been done on it.

Because retinol can withstand water badly, it is best to opt for a retinol product without water, for example retinol in a facial oil. Preferably also in a dark or opaque bottle with an airless pump. Preferably use it in the evening or at night and avoid use during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Retinol can be combined well with most popular skincare agents, avoid only concomitant use with benzoyl peroxide.

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