Cosmeceutical | Ageing

Is Retinol the Holy Grail for Lines and Wrinkles?

Are fine lines and wrinkles a problem?

Or stubborn dark spots and uneven texture.

Maybe your skin is prone to frequent breakouts due to excess oiliness.

Well, what if we told you that there is one ingredient that has you covered, and that is retinol,

It has a stellar rep as a balancing, wrinkle-fighter.

However, while you’ve undoubtedly heard of it, using retinol can sometimes be perplexing.

So, join me as I demystify this skincare powerhouse.

And impart my retinol wisdom to you.

First things first. 

With over 30 years of experience as a clinical esthetician, it is safe to say that I know a thing or two about skin as the founder.

When it comes to anti-ageing skincare, I always recommend that my clients adjust their approach to their products and focus on ingredients rather than looking for the next “holy grail” product.

And when that attention is focused on retinol, a chemical compound that is related to Vitamin A, you know you are onto a winning routine:

Just look at some of its benefits on the skin

  • dullness
  • age spots
  • skin firmness
  • rough texture
  • excessive oiliness
  • inflamed breakouts
  • fine lines and wrinkles

I think you’d agree; with a laundry list of benefits, it sounds like an A-list ingredient for celebrities.

So, what exactly is retinol?

Retinol is a retinoid used in over-the-counter products rather than prescription medications. Although it is super effective, it’s different molecularly from prescription retinoids.

The big difference between retinol and retinoid—specifically, prescription retinoid—is strength. Retinols contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient. They work gradually, so they are less irritating.

Why is it the holy grail ingredient

Great question! I’m glad you asked. Retinol is a topical vitamin A derivative and the most researched anti-ageing ingredient globally.

To understand how it works, I need to get a little technical so you can understand collagen, the major structural protein in your body, which I liken to internal scaffolding – without collagen in your skin, there would be nothing to hold your skin’s cells together.

When you are young, your body produces collagen, but collagen synthesis slows down with age. This, combined with environmental factors such as UV exposure, diet, stress, and smoking, also undermines collagen, making your skin appear uneven, saggy, and lined.

How does retinol help?

For this ingredient to become active in your skin, it must first convert to tretinoin, and enzymes do this in your skin in several ways:

  • First, it increases the amount of collagen in your skin by inactivating damaging Matrix Metalloproteinases (MMPs), the proteins in the skin that break down collagen. UV rays also make these MMPs more active.
  • Next, it boosts cellular turnover, increasing the rate at which new skin cells replace old ones.
  • Finally, it blocks reactive free radicals generated by UV exposure and environmental toxins, which can cause premature ageing.

Understanding retinol

On ingredient labels, it can be identified as retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, or propionic acid.

These ester forms require more steps to be converted to the active retinoic acid—the more conversions, the weaker your product.

Retinol palmitate, for instance, is an ester form of Vitamin A that has been considered a milder, though still very active, form that is easily tolerated by the skin.

Once it enters the cell, retinol palmitate is converted to retinol and then retinoic acid, which accounts for most of its effects.

Retinol palmitate and Retinol acetate

Cell walls are not easy to penetrate, and they have to facilitate the transfer of chemicals from outside your cell wall through the membrane and into the cell itself.

Fascinatingly, tiny secret passageways through the cell wall have been found where various chemicals – only those with a required ‘password’ or shape —can enter the passageway.

There are also places on a keratinocyte cell wall where vitamin A, in the form of retinol palmitate, acetate, or retinoic acid, can enter the cell, referred to as retinoid surface receptors.

Understanding retinol palmitate

The most popular non-prescription form is vitamin A, which is converted into potent retinoic acid inside the keratinocytes—the cells responsible for creating your skin’s physical barrier.

Retinol is less irritating than retinoic acid, and it is found naturally in tiny doses in skin tissues; when higher doses are taken up by the skin’s cells, the cell membranes become damaged.

This may explain why it causes mild skin peeling when first used. As the surfaces of your cell walls develop more retinoid receptors, the irritation starts to disappear. This is why I recommend going low and slow with this ingredient.

A percentage of 0.5 to 1% is far more healing to your skin because the higher the percentage, the more inflammation you will cause, which is counterintuitive because inflammation is at the heart of all premature ageing.

Retinol is another form of vitamin A and will produce the same results if used in the exact dosage as retinyl palmitate or acetate.

It is, infact, only two metabolic steps away from being retinoic acid – this is one of the falsities that has deceived many formulators and clinicians into believing it will deliver retinoic acid more efficiently than retinol palmitate.

What is overlooked is that retinol is only one metabolic step away from retinol palmitate, which is the preferred metabolic route for retinol when applied to the skin—this is why we prefer to use retinyl palmitate in our formulations.

When topically applied, it is almost completely converted into retinol palmitate, and only a tiny fraction remains as retinol, which can be metabolised to retinaldehyde and retinoic acid.

So why use it if it is converted into retinol palmitate? One reason is that various isomers of vitamin A are essential to impart the full effects.

Supplying it in multiple forms can increase the chances of getting widespread retinoic acid isomers — your cells naturally make different retinoic acid shapes.

If you want to learn more about retinol palmitate, follow the link.

Retinol Versus Retinoid

Retinoid is a term for over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids.

Retinoids cover all vitamin A derivatives converted into retinoic acid in personal care products.

Many are applied topically, but some—such as Accutane—are oral medications.

Retinol should not be confused with its fast-acting cousin, which requires a pure retinoic acid prescription, which is retinol’s sister.

It works much more effectively but has irritating side effects, such as flaky skin and inflammation.

The most potent retinol is available by prescription only, except for Differin (adapalene), a powerful and well-tolerated acne treatment.

Retinoic Acid

Retinol comes in many forms, including tretinoin, retin-A, renova, and others.

It is the most potent form of vitamin A, working on your cell’s DNA. A doctor’s prescription is required as it has the potential to have many irritating side effects like inflammation, flaky skin or redness.


This is an intermediate form of vitamin A, one step away from retinoic acid; retinol is oxidised into retinaldehyde, which is further oxidised into retinoic acid.

Is retinol More effective than vitamin C?

Whilst these ingredients significantly benefit your skin, retinol has more research behind it, and we have seen some great retinol before-and-after results in our clinic.

It works deep in the dermis to encourage cellular turnover and reveal youthful, bright skin. Unlike vitamin C and salicylic acid, which slough off dead cells that build up over time, retinol promotes cellular repair on a deeper, microscopic scale.

How do you get started?

Using retinol at night is the best option, and then it builds up slowly.

Some of our clients can tolerate using it every night, but if you have sensitive skin, you may only be able to accept it every other night or even less.

Long-term use is best to maximise results. Although retinol speeds up the process, it will still take several weeks to see results. Your skin will turn over in about six to eight weeks.

Begin by introducing our A+ retinol skin shot into your evening routine.

At 1.0% strength, you should start seeing some great results within weeks because they are cosmeceuticals and can be active; if your skin is not used to them, build this ingredient into your routine over time.

The retinol uglies

So, how do you avoid the “uglies” “and other potential side effects? To mitigate the side effects, use retinol slowly to give your skin time to acclimate.

Retinol palmitate is your best option if your skin is sensitive; it is the most gentle form of vitamin A, enabling your skin to build up tolerance slowly.

Generally, when using a retinoid, it is best not to layer too many products. Doing so can reduce the effectiveness of the products and cause chemical burns.

Don’t overstimulate your skin with too many actives, such as vitamin C, niacinamide, or alpha/beta hydroxy acids; instead, listen to your skin and treat it respectfully.

Bottom line. If in doubt, stop immediately, and then re-introduce slowly.

To conclude. The naked truth

I hope this helps you to better understand retinol, a topical vitamin A derivative.

There are many Vitamin A derivatives; retinoic acid, also known as tretinoin, retin-A, and renova, is only available by prescription.

While they have a powerful effect on the skin, they also have harmful side effects, so use them cautiously.

Retinyl palmitate is a high-energy molecule that is very desirable to skin cells. More than 80% of the vitamin A typically found in your skin is retinyl palmitate.

It increases the amount of collagen in your skin by inactivating matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), the enzymes that break down collagen.

It also increases cellular turnover and is a potent antioxidant, blocking the free radicals generated by UV exposure or environmental toxins that cause premature ageing.

I think you’d agree that our skin could all use a little vitamin A love in your life.

2 replies on “Is Retinol the Holy Grail for Lines and Wrinkles?”

What is your opinion about natural alternatives to retinol? (For example, Eminence product such as Bamboo firming fluid.) I have sensitive eczema-prone skin but at 57 I’m definitely needing something more.

Hi Ana
I don’t use these products so can not recommend them. retinol is the most researched ingredient there re4ally is no comparison. if you have sensitive skin that is fine just use low strength and build up over time as your skin re densifies. Samantha

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