When it comes to skin-care ingredients, you really can't beat retinol. An exfoliating ingredient and antioxidant, retinol is a vitamin A derivative that can help with everything from acne to hyperpigmentation to wrinkles. It also has an unfortunate reputation as a skin irritant. That's because using straight retinol in high doses can lead to skin sensitivity, dryness, redness, flaking, and cause damage to your skin's barrier function.
But, that was old retinol. New retinol has evolved over the years to offer those same great skin benefits without the negative side effects. Whether its through time-released or encapsulated molecules, new versions of the ingredient, formulas that combine it with ultra-calming extracts, or natural sources of vitamin A, there are a bevy of new, more gentle ways to add retinol to your routine without freaking out your skin. Keep reading to learn what's new with retinol and some of our fave products that feature these kinder, gentler versions.
What Is Retinol & What Does It Do?
We talked a little about it above, but we'll let a pro — Decree founder Dr. Anita Sturnham — give you the full skin science explanation. "The retinoid family comprises retinol and its natural derivatives, such as retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and retinyl esters, as well as a large number of synthetic derivatives," she says. "Like vitamin C, there are receptors for vitamin A in our skin, demonstrating its importance when it comes to supporting skin cell function. Retinoids work at a deep cellular level, where they work as cell signalers, helping to boost collagen and elastin production, reduce cellular aging, reduce pore congestion, regulate sebum production, and also have pigment stabilizing and anti-inflammatory properties. I like to think of this as the ultimate multi-tasking skin nutrient for the skin." So, like we said, it's kind of a big deal in skin care.
But, it's that same overachieving that can cause it be problematic for the skin. As Dr. Sturnham notes, retinol works a little differently than exfoliators like alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids because instead of working on the surface to get rid of dead skin, it works from the deeper layers up to promote cell turnover. Because it goes below the topmost layers, it can cause those with already compromised skin barriers to have redness, stinging, and irritation if they use too high a concentration or use a retinol product too frequently.
However, many brands have taken this skin sensitivity into account in their product formulation to come up with some pretty genius ways to counteract the irritation while still making sure you get all those high-powered skin benefits.
New Types Of Retinol
Decree's solution to the retinol-irritation conundrum is something called granactive retinoid, which is used in the brand's Treat Tincture. A "next generation retinoid," Dr. Sturnham says this form of retinoid has all the goodness and benefits of a traditional retinoid, but greatly reduces the risk of redness, flakiness, or irritation. "Granactive retinoid is immediately bioavailable and ready for the skin to use, unlike other retinoids such as retinol and retinaldehyde, which need to be metabolized before they are active within the skin," says Dr. Sturnham. "Granactive retinoid works by binding directly to the skin's built-in retinoid receptors, called RAR receptors, where they kick start their multitasking skin benefits, such as reducing pigmentation, collagen remodeling, and calming breakouts."
Another option to counteract that dreaded retinol redness is to combine it with ultra-nourishing and hydrating ingredients that immediately soothe and calm the skin to prevent that irritation and dryness from occurring in the first place. MBR does that beautifully with its Cream Extraordinary, which intensely moisturizes the skin using jojoba and argan oils, plus soothes with vitamin E, chamomile, and propolis. This allows the retinol to work below the skin's surface to stimulate cell turnover and rev up collagen production without worrying that you'll damage your skin barrier in the process.
Natural Retinol Alternatives
Then, of course, there's the natural alternatives to retinol — botanical sources of vitamin A that offer the same powerful benefits with fewer side effects. As Vintner's Daughter founder April Gargiulo explains, "Just like a meal replacement bar is great for a quick meal on the go, your body will always benefit more from real, whole foods over a lifetime. And while retinols are a gold standard in skin care, they can leave the skin in a fragile and compromised state." These ingredients can include bakuchiol, an extract from the babchi plant that's been dubbed "natural retinol," which can be found in products like Lernberger Stafsing's Overnight Retinol Mask (alongside retinyl palmitate, the most gentle form of retinol available), and Alpyn Beauty's Plant Genius Line-Filling Eye Balm.
Vintner's Daughter's Active Botanical Serum replaces traditional retinol with carrot seed oil, one of nature's most potent sources of vitamin A, which promotes rapid cell turnover in the same way as retinol without the harsh side effects. As an added bonus, the serum is also enriched with supportive plant actives and nourishing plant oils that help the skin become stronger and more resilient.
And, for those people who already love retinol and don't have any big issues with it, Gargiulo says products with natural vitamin A can help boost the efficacy of their regularly scheduled retinol. "I always suggest anyone using a retinol add Active Botanical Serum as the step preceding it to amplify the cellular turnover function of the retinol, but also balance out the sometimes harsh side effects," she says.
So, whether you're just getting started with retinol or an old pro looking for new ways to get the most out of this miraculous ingredient, check out these products to see just how advanced vitamin A has become in the past few years.