You’ve probably come across retinol on an ingredient list, or heard about it as an all-star anti-aging or acne-fighting ingredient. What is this all-powerful substance, and what makes it such a powerful skincare component?
What is retinol?
Retinol belongs to a class of substances called retinoids, which are derived from vitamin A. Although vitamin A promotes healthy vision, bone growth, and strengthening of the immune system, our bodies do not produce the substance naturally.
The first recorded use of retinoids actually had nothing to do with the skin — in ancient times, Egyptians ate liver, which is rich in retinol, to cure night blindness and improve vision. Scientifically, vitamin A was first discovered through the study of cow’s milk in the early 1900s.
What does retinol do?
The first use of topical retinoid treatment was recorded in a 1943 study in which topical retinoids were used to treat acne. Tretinoin, the most commonly used topical retinoid available today, was first used in 1958. From that point forward, retinol was commonly regarded as an effective treatment for acne; it wasn’t actually recommended as an anti-aging remedy until 1983.
Studies throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s found that over long periods of observation, patients using topical retinoids had long term side effects that included a minimized appearance of sun damage, uneven skin tone, and fine lines. These impressive side effects are the reason retinol is one of the most recommended over the counter skincare ingredients.
Although retinol’s use switched from targeting acne to focusing on anti-aging, it remains an effective acne treatment, used in varying doses in over the counter and prescription formulations. Differin, a major acne treatment, is a topical retinoid that recently became available over the counter for the prevention and treatment of acne.
And that’s not all retinoids are capable of! Since their inception, numerous uses for topical retinoids have come to light. Retinoids can be used to treat certain cancers and skin conditions, including psoriasis and warts. Isotretinoin was converted to be a form of chemotherapy for blood cancers like leukemia; Alitretinoin has been used to treat skin cancers like Kaposi’s sarcoma.
How does retinol work on the skin?
Retinol is so effective because the work it does is twofold: they prevent the breakdown of collagen, while simultaneously encouraging rapid cell turnover in our skin. Some believe that retinol thins the skin (probably because it can cause redness and peeling when first used) but the ingredient actually works to thicken the subcutaneous layer of the skin, which is where wrinkles originate. Retinol also works two ways on hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, on the complexion: It sloughs away dark pigmentation while curbing the production of melanin, which is what causes dark spots.
When treating acne, retinol is helpful because it effectively unclogs pores — meaning it removes the dirt, oil and bacteria that leads to inflamed, red pimples. By clearing debris from pores, retinol also ensures that other helpful, acne-fighting ingredients can reach deep into our skin.
As with many powerful ingredients, there are some serious contraindications with retinol usage. In fact, the topical’s name switched from retinoic acid to retinol in the 90’s, when sensitivities to the ingredient led to the creation of a milder form of the topical. Those who are pregnant should not use retinol, as it can have harmful effects on a developing fetus.
When using retinol, it’s imperative that a user is layering a sunscreen on the skin as well, as topical retinoids can cause sensitivity to sunlight and inadvertently worsen dark spots and sun damage. Retinol can also cause skin sensitivity in the form of inflammation, burning, and peeling, so be sure to treat skin gently and follow all instructions included with the retinol product you’re using. When first beginning to use a retinol, test your body’s reaction to the ingredient and prevent skin irritation by easing into your use — every few days or every other day is ideal.
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