The Return to Retinol
March 26, 2012 4:50 pm by Cristina Mueller
Imagine for a moment that a revolutionary skin-care ingredient was discovered. It visibly smoothed out wrinkles and obliterated breakouts; it improved skin texture and tightened pores into tiny little nothings. It could lessen the look of brown spots and sometimes even helped reduce precancerous lesions. It quite literally turned back the skin’s clock to a glowier, more luminous past. Imagine, too, that skeptics and researchers the world over had tested this ingredient exhaustively, scrutinizing it for decades to see if it really could be as potent as it appeared—and it was. If such an ingredient existed, who among us would not dash off to the nearest dermatologist, Sephora, or corner drugstore to snatch it up?
Such an ingredient does exist, and chances are some form of it is currently languishing in a corner of your medicine cabinet. It’s retinol. It isn’t sexy. It definitely isn’t new. In fact, it was discovered 81 years ago, making it a veritable dowager compared with all the fresh new super-ingredients that have since come onto the anti-aging scene. For the past few decades, it has been hiding in plain sight—but with a few new developments, it is stepping back into the limelight.
All retinoids—the umbrella name for a class of compounds that encompasses retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinol aldehyde, and a host of others—are derivatives of vitamin A, one of the body’s key nutrients. Vitamin A’s mighty chemical makeup was identified in 1931, and the man who isolated and described it, Swiss chemist Paul Karrer, was rewarded with a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Retinol was a slightly rickety compound, prone to quick degeneration when exposed to oxygen and light. But by the 1960s, researchers were metabolizing retinol into its more stable (and more active) cousin retinoic acid and were beginning to understand its tremendous power in skin-care applications. Retin-A—a brand name for retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin)—was FDA-approved in 1971 as a prescription-strength treatment for acne, but dermatologists noticed almost immediately that a lot more than just breakouts were vanishing. Scores of patients began reporting a reduction in fine lines and hyperpigmentation, and the stampede began.
“Vitamin A is the go-to skin-care ingredient,” says Jennifer Linder, M.D., a Scottsdale, Arizona, dermatologist. “The best anti-ager is sunscreen; the next is vitamin A. Nothing else approaches it,” she says. Virtually all skin-care experts agree on this point—and in today’s world of peptides, growth factors, glacial water, and extracts from rare Corsican flowers, that’s saying a lot. “You can imagine that the question dermatologists get asked every single day is ‘What really works?’ ” says Linder. “Retinoids trigger change in the skin to make it look clearer and more youthful; they actually help skin get back to a healthier place. And there’s strong, strong clinical data behind that.”
Why would attention have ever drifted elsewhere? The thing is, Retin-A and its various prescription descendants (Renova, Tazorac, Differin)—may have launched a thousand lineless faces, but they also launched as many irritated ones: scaly, red, angry. In those early days (fifteen years ago), retinoids could be used only at night because of their sensitivity to light; they could make skin extra-sensitive and made time in the sun, even incidental exposure, a cardinal sin. “Everyone was really excited from the beginning, but the big issues were dryness and irritation—mostly because people would apply too much,” says dermatologist Fredric Brandt, M.D., the New York– and Miami-based skin-care Svengali who has thousands of seemingly ageless women in his thrall (retinoid enthusiasts Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow included). But even when skin wasn’t in outright crisis mode, a telltale sort of “retinoid face” could develop: spookily taut and shiny, like Barbie plastic. This is because the retinoic-acid molecule works a little too well: It’s so tiny it can penetrate all the layers of the skin, prompting extra-speedy cell turnover and exfoliation in the process. “You’re helping fix photo-aging, brown spots, acne, roughness, and collagen breakdown,” says Brandt. Miraculous, yes; gentle, no.
In an attempt to tame the wildness of retinoic acid, researchers revisited its milder parent molecule, retinol. For decades it had been neglected as a skin-care ingredient because it was even trickier to stabilize than retinoic acid. The genius of retinol, researchers realized, is that it isn’t active when applied to skin. Retinol goes on in an inert form and is then switched to on-mode by your own skin. Your cells receive the retinol, hang on to it until they’re ready, and then convert only what they need into retinoic acid. This has tremendous benefits, says dermatologist Dennis Gross, M.D.: “It dramatically reduces the negative effects of retinoic acid—the peeling, sun sensitivity, redness—but has all the same fundamental results. It just takes a little longer to get there.”
The latest breakthrough has been in making retinol stable enough to live in a bottle with other active ingredients. (Until recently, says Linder, some over-the-counter products touting retinol as an active ingredient were largely ineffectual, as the retinol frequently degenerated well before application.) In the past few years, cosmeceutical companies have made big advances in the microencapsulation of retinol: The retinol molecules are each surrounded by a tiny polymer film, like a slim-fitting suit of armor that protects it from light, oxygen, and other aggressors. When you apply the cream to your face, you create chinks in the armor, which frees the retinol to do its work.
“Retinol is unique and brilliant, but now it’s part of a team,” says Gross, who has formulated his own retinol-laced vitamin D serum designed to treat dry skin, boost radiance and firmness, and address vitamin D deficiencies. “I’m a big believer in retinol, but I don’t have a stand-alone product. It would be like saying you’re only going to do jumping jacks to work out. You need a multi-vitamin approach,” he says. “It’s about synergy now.”