What EXACTLY does retinol do?
It is one of the most googled questions in skincare - and it's a really important one to answer, particularly for those of you who might be new to my channel. Retinol is probably the ingredient that gets the most attention and interest in skincare, and with good reason. It does so much!
There's a lot of fear and anxiety around starting retinol; but then there is also so much promise. Ultimately, it's the golden ingredient that's able to deliver everything from solving acne to improving the appearance of ageing skin.
What does retinol do to the skin?
Retinol is perhaps the most frequently formulated retinoid. Retinoid is the family name for the group of ingredients derived from vitamin A and retinol is a member of the retinoid family. We also have other retinoids like retinyl palmitate, retinal (or retinaldehyde) and Granactive Retinoid.
Retinoids are derived from vitamin A which functions as a hormone within the skin. When applied to our skin, retinoids get absorbed and interact with receptors called retinoid receptors. In order for retinol to interact with those receptors, the molecule has to be altered - the key does not yet fit the lock. Retinol goes through something called oxidation twice - so one oxidation step gets it to retinaldehyde and the second oxidation step gets it to something called all trans retinoic acid or tretinoin (available on prescription), considered the gold standard of all retinoids. The reason it's the gold standard is because that is the key that unlocks the retinoid receptor - no conversion is needed, it's ready to act as soon as it's applied to skin.
So we need to get retinol into the active form in order for it to have its effect on our skin. It’s the same with retinaldehyde, which is one conversion step away from all trans retinoic acid.
So what happens when the key fits into the lock?
These clever retinoid receptors, once bound to the activating all trans retinoic acid, combine with areas of our genes called retinoic acid responsive elements (RAREs). Once bound, they switch on or change their function in some way. The fascinating thing about our skin is that within the various types of skin cells, there are up to 3,000 (possibly more!) genes that are influenced by the impact of your retinoid interacting with retinoid receptors. Just remarkable.
Do retinoids improve skin texture?
So let's look at the different genes that the retinoid receptor interacts with and what impact that has on the cell and, ultimately, the skin. The first area where retinoids have a really positive impact is by increasing the rate of cell turnover - this is in reference to the epidermis, the outermost layer of our skin. So what that means is by speeding up cell turnover we improve the way the stratum corneum, the outermost part of our epidermis, looks and functions. It becomes more compact and it becomes thinner and more flexible. But equally the epidermis itself gets thicker, and differentiation occurs more effectively. So the upshot of all of that means that we get a smoother looking, more even textured surface of our skin. That translates directly to the signature retinoid rosy glow.
Do retinol help wrinkles?
The next major win is that retinoids influence fibroblast function. These hardworking cells are responsible for the building blocks of the dermis and manufacture diverse molecules like collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid. Levels decline as we age - but retinoids have the handy ability to make their function nudge up a gear, producing more collagen but also limiting the breakdown of collagen that we already have. This means fewer fine lines, greater resilience and bounce and a significantly more youthful appearance.
Will retinoids help with pigmentation?
The next target for retinol is uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation. Sun exposed skin tends to have irregular melanin distribution, with the development of solar lentigines or “age spots”. These are fixed, round, flat brown structures that appear on the skin typically on sun exposed sites and are very common in the face, backs of the hands and decolletage. Retinoids help improve their appearance by regulating the distribution of melanin through the skin. Think fresher, more vibrant and even-toned skin.
How do retinoids help with acne and blackheads?
Next let's move on to cell adhesion, a fancy way of saying the cells are attached to each other. Now in acne we have a problem with abnormal cell adhesion, which leads to comedone formation and skin congestion. The pores become blocked, the precursor event that leads to breakouts and inflammatory lesions like papules, pustules, cysts and nodules. This is the reason retinoids are so fundamental to treating acne - they solve that primary lesion from happening in the first place by preventing that abnormal stickiness in the pore. The pores become clear which, of course, looks better too. But they also reduce the risk of breakouts in the future. That's why we're so reliant on retinoids for acne prevention.
Finally, retinoids also work to increase the circulation on our skin, a process known as angiogenesis. They help build blood vessels that bring fuel to the dermis, like amino acids. These are the building blocks of structures like collagen - so more fuel results in a better supply of essential ingredients to keep our skin healthy, robust and looking beautiful.
So we can see that retinoids have an incredibly far-reaching effect on our skin. It's therefore not surprising that they have a positive impact on so many different skin disorders, whether we're talking about melasma, acne (inflammatory or comedonal), and even rosacea. These are conditions that all have an ability to respond to retinoid receptor stimulation. Of course there are lots of different types of retinoids and you have to choose the right one for your skin concern.
Final things to remember: retinoids are always used at night. They are usually not stable during the day as they tend to break down under the influence of UV rays. They shouldn't be used when pregnant (lactation is fine) and they should be used with caution with other active ingredients, in particular, alpha hydroxy acids and benzoyl peroxide. Do your research when you're starting out with a retinoid and build a routine carefully and with consideration. If you're looking for a place to start to build your retinoid routine, I’d recommend my Retinoid Revelation series on YouTube. It’ll help you through all the common challenges, especially in the first six weeks. Good luck!