Ingredient Decoder: Retinol

Experts agree that Vitamin A and its derivatives, known collectively as retinoids, are something of a skincare panacea. But despite its wrinkle-busting powers, the miracle molecule once had a bad rap. Retinoic acid (or tretinoin), a first generation retinoid approved by the FDA in 1971 as a prescription-strength treatment for acne, makes skin extra sensitive, often causing redness, irritation, and peeling. Now, thanks to cosmeceutical advances, which have focused on the more stable retinol, Vitamin A is the next big thing—again. Here’s everything you need to know about this age-defying skincare ingredient.

Where it’s from

A form of Vitamin A, retinol occurs naturally in animal sources (cod liver oil, milk, eggs) and in certain fruits and vegetables (sweet potatoes, apricots, spinach). It can also be manufactured.

Where it’s found

Until recently, retinoids were only found in prescription-dose topical creams. And while retinoic acid is still classified as a pharmaceutical—and is therefore verboten in over-the-counter products—its parent compound, retinol, has been popping up in the drugstore as an ingredient in antiaging balms, salves, and serums.

What it’s good for

Originally used to treat acne, retinoids aren’t just for breakouts. Dermatologists tout retinol for its ability to improve cell turnover, smooth wrinkles, boost collagen production and reduce brown spots—without resulting in lobster face. In the past few years, scientists have discovered a way to encapsulate light- and oxygen-sensitive retinol—which is tamer than retinoic acid—so that it’s more stable and less likely to degenerate. The result: Retinol can now be combined, in varying concentrations, with other active ingredients. TAUN's Face Repair Formula, for example, pairs retinol with hyaluronic acid, jojoba and apricot kernel oils, and niacinamide to target frown lines, crow’s feet, and under eye circles.

Need to know

Even in its milder form and diluted with other ingredients, retinol can cause a little skin sensitivity. When introducing a product that contains retinol, start slowly, using a small amount a couple times a week—or do a patch test on the inside of your arm. If you have extremely dry skin, rosacea, or eczema, you may want to take a pass.

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