If you've nosed around your department store counter lately, you're probably curious about retinol, an ingredient included in many anti-wrinkle creams and other anti-aging products. Retinol is a type of cosmeceutical, an active ingredient that improves the skin's function. Cosmetics and skincare expert Paula Begoun notes that retinol is beneficial as a cell-communicating agent and antioxidant—and it can be a desirable ingredient in your anti-aging cream.
Retinol should not be confused with prescription topical retinoids such as Retin-A and Renova. Topical retinoids, explains Begoun, contain retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, found in prescription medications. Retinol is the "entire vitamin A molecule," Begoun says, a weaker form of vitamin A than the derivatives found in prescription retinoids. An August 2008 New York Times reports states that retinol was one of the first cosmeceutical ingredients that was proven to be beneficial in anti-wrinkle creams, exerting its effects by encouraging new collagen production in sun-weathered skin.
Does It Work?
One problem with early retinol wrinkle creams was its lack of ingredient stability, Begoun says, further noting that retinol "cannot communicate with a cell until it has been broken down into retinoic acid." The question consumers must ask is if the retinol in their skincare products will indeed be broken down into retinoic acid, which allows it to be absorbed into the skin. Begoun indicates that in the past two years, more stable forms of retinol are being included in skincare products. The American Academy of Dermatology also states that retinol was one of the first cosmeceuticals to require chemical alteration to increase its stability so that it could have more pronounced effects on the skin.
Choosing Your Product
Don't let cosmetic "buzzwords" mislead you. Any anti-wrinkle cream can slap "retinol" or "vitamin A" on the label, but the New York Times states that they often don't indicate the concentration of this ingredient. Dermatologist Gary Fisher of the University of Michigan indicates that a concentration of between 0.2 and 0.6 percent is generally sufficient. Using too much retinol may cause a rash called retinoid dermatitis. Begoun also points out that it's important to examine the packaging of your retinol wrinkle cream. Jar packaging that allows air into the product or clear containers that expose it to sunlight "just won't cut it," she says. Retinol's stability is affected by oxygen, heat and light.
Prescription retinoids such as Retin-A and Renova make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, and so do retinol products. Using adequate sun protection, including daily application of a sunscreen, is important when using a retinol-based anti-wrinkle cream. Begoun also stresses that retinol alone isn't the answer for wrinkled or sun-weathered skin, indicating the need for a skincare product that includes an alpha hyroxy acid (AHA) or beta hyroxy acid (BHA) to help exfoliate layers of dead skin.
The AAD stresses that cosmeceuticals such as retinol don't have to undergo the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's rigorous approval process. There are no double-blind, vehicle-controlled studies to support their efficacy, compared to prescription creams, which must undergo clinical studies that employ objective measures. Most retinol wrinkle creams are assessed through what the AAD terms "open-label user studies," in which people use the product for a certain amount of time and report their results–and your own may not meet your expectations. Dermatologist Robyn S. Gmyrek of Columbia University told the New York Times, "A cream bought over the counter is certainly not going to do what prescription-strength retinol will do," he said.