Retinol (Vitamin A) for Anti-Aging


In This Article:

Retinol has gotten a good deal of attention in the world of skin care, and in fact, is one of the most well-researched skin-care ingredients. Why? Because research clearly shows that retinol has multiple benefits for skin.
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Recommended Products with Retinol

What is Retinol?

Simply put, retinol, is just another name for vitamin A. Retinol is an extremely effective cell-communicating ingredient, which means it can literally connect to almost any skin cell and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell. But there's more:

  • Retinol is an antioxidant, and thus can interrupt the free-radical damage process that causes skin to look and act older. This action helps prevent wrinkling and increases collagen production.
  • Retinol is effective at managing acne and eczema, as well as improving discolorations and wrinkles from sun damage.

All of these benefits are why retinol helps your skin look and act younger! In total, retinol can help more than 100 skin issues. It is a true superstar for your skin!

Retinol, Retinoids, and Tretinoin: What's the Difference?

Retinol (the entire vitamin A molecule) can be broken down into more potent compounds, which are referred to as retinoids. Although the terms vitamin A, retinol, and retinoid often are used interchangeably, each has its own distinctive actions and regulations. For example, some forms of retinol can be used freely in cosmetics, while others (retinoids) can be obtained only by prescription.

We know it's confusing; following are a few points to help clarify it for you:

  • Retinol is a cosmetic ingredient that any cosmetics company can include in its products. It does not require a prescription. Other effective forms of cosmetic-grade vitamin A that you'll see in cosmetics include retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde, among others.
  • Retinol is effective because when absorbed into your skin, it is broken down and converted into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the compound that actually can affect skin cells and their behavior.
  • Both the cosmetic forms and the prescription forms of vitamin A can cause irritation, but, as you would expect, the highest risk of irritation is with the prescription forms (retinoids).
  • You can reduce or eliminate the irritation caused by retinol by using effective skin-care products that do not contain irritating ingredients.
  • Prescription retinoids include retinoic acid (also called tretinoin), the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A; adapelene, the active ingredient in Differin; and tazarotene, the active ingredient in Tazorac.
  • All forms of retinol have similar, although not identical, functions and provide truly impressive benefits for skin, which explains their popularity in the world of skin care.

Is Retinol the Best Anti-Aging Ingredient?

Despite retinol's many benefits, it is important to remember that no single ingredient can take care of all of the skin's complex needs. For example, despite retinol's superstar status, it does not eliminate the need for a well-formulated sunscreen, for an alpha hydroxy acid or beta hydroxy acid product for exfoliation, for a gentle cleanser, or for a serum or moisturizer loaded with antioxidants, other cell-communicating ingredients, and skin-identical substances.

Keeping skin healthy and young requires a combination of ingredients and products that work together to give your skin exactly what it needs.

Together, all of these types of products and their various ingredients combine to create a powerful skin-care routine that will give you beautiful, healthy skin that looks and acts younger. (For more details, see our article All About Anti-Wrinkle Products).

What Can Retinol Do for Large Pores?

Along with retinol's proven anti-aging benefits, topical application can also improve pore function and, in time, pore size! It cannot change the pore size you have due to genetics, but it can reduce the size of pores that have enlarged due to clogging or sun damage.

Here's how: Retinol is a proven cell-communicating ingredient. There are receptor sites on skin cells that can "receive" a message from retinol. The message varies depending on the type of cell, but the follicular keratin cells that are part of the pore lining can become sluggish and build up, causing the pore wall to stretch. Retinol can step in and "tell" these lazy-acting cells to get back to work, doing what they should be doing (and likely were doing, before sun damage causes them to malfunction). The result can be improved pore function which, in time, will lead to enlarged pores going back to their normal size!

What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Retinol Product

The following list tells you what you need to know before you buy or apply a skin-care product with retinol:

  • Buy retinol products only if they are packaged in opaque containers meant to minimize or block air exposure (no jars!) because all forms of vitamin A break down and deteriorate when repeatedly exposed to air or light.
  • Look for vitamin A listed as retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, or retinyl aldehyde (also called retinal or retinaldehyde). You must see a doctor to get a prescription for retinoids.
  • Not everyone's skin can tolerate retinol. It may cause irritation, such as redness and flaking, especially for those new to using it.
  • If irritation occurs, symptoms should subside within a few days as your skin adjusts to regular use. If the symptoms do not subside or worsen, stop using it! 
  • If you are just starting to use retinol, don't apply it daily. Rather, apply every other day and/or mix it with your usual moisturizer before applying. That lets your skin gradually acclimate to it.
  • Use well-formulated moisturizers or serums and a gentle cleanser and toner to help your skin better tolerate retinol.
  • Research shows that using a retinol product in conjunction with an AHA exfoliant significantly improves its effectiveness in treating sun-damaged skin.
  • Exposure to sunlight can make retinol unstable, so it's best to apply it at night.
  • If you apply retinol during the day, be sure to apply sunscreen or foundation with sunscreen afterward and avoid sun exposure as much as possible.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Retinol Treatments.

Sources for the information above: The Journal of Dermatological Treatment, May 2009, pages 276–281; Journal of the Indian Medical Association, April 2009, pages 219–222; American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, June 2008, pages 369–381; International Journal of Cosmetic Science, June 2008, pages 175–182; Journal of Dermatological Science, May 2008, pages 99–107; Archives of Dermatology, May 2007, pages 606–612; and Clinical Interventions in Aging, December 2006, pages 327–348.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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