Is Retinol the Best Anti-aging Cream?

Never before have we had so many options to choose from, which begs the question:  Is retinol the best anti-aging cream?  Let’s explore the reasons and compare retinol with its cousin, Retin-A.

Retinol and Retin-A

Retinol and Retin-A are two compounds with similar names and similar backgrounds but vastly different in strength. Let’s start with what they have in common. Both are derivatives of Vitamin A and members of the retinoid family, making them important for epithelial (skin) cell growth, proliferation, and immune response. They are both derived from beta-carotene, an orange pigment found in plants and fruits. This is where they start to differ, however, as retinol is derived naturally from dietary beta-carotene, while Retin-A is created synthetically. To minimize confusion, I will refer to Retin-A by its generic name, Tretinoin. 

antiaging lotionComparing  Retinol and Tretinoin

When comparing retinol and tretinoin, retinol is much gentler; in fact, it is 20 times less potent than tretinoin. This is why retinol can be purchased over the counter, without a prescription. Despite its mild nature, retinol still works, it just takes a bit more time. Using a 1% retinol treatment everyday can noticeably improve signs of aging and sun damage. If you use a product that contains less than 1%, you may need to wait longer before seeing an effect. 

Tretinoin, at a concentration of 0.05% is very effective at reversing signs of aging. A higher, 0.1% concentration results in even more improvement but also significantly increases the rate of adverse reactions such as irritation and dermatitis. People who use tretinoin daily start to see noticeable results after about 4 months. 12-months of daily usage results in permanent changes in dermal thickness and increased collagen fiber growth. The best course is to use tretinoin for a long period of time, at a dose that causes the least amount of irritation. 

Note: In the skin, retinol is converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid.

Types of Retinoids

Retinol: Natural vitamin A. Not very stable, degrades readily. See above for more detail.

Retinal: Synonym for retinaldehyde.

Retinaldehyde: Precursor to retinol and retinoic acid. Converted into active form by skin enzymes. As effective as retinoic acid with less irritation. 

Retinyl Acetate: Acetate ester of retinol. Much gentler than retinol but also less effective than retinol. 

Retinyl Retinoate: Newish compound made by linking retinol with retinoic acid. In theory, retinyl retinoate is more stable and less irritating than retinol because the body must first break the link between retinol and retinoic acid for it to be effective. Unfortunately, more research is needed to truly determine whether or not Retinyl Retinoate is the superior compound. 

Bakuchiol: A new kid on the block and it behaves like a retinoid, but it’s not. It is actually a member of the terpene family, similar to essential oils and traditional medicines. Last year, when I learned about this ingredient, I wrote a post called bakuchiol the latest anti-ager. Since then a new study has come out which you can read here. Essentially, bakuchiol causes less irritation and provides similar anti-aging results. A 0.5% cream of bakuchiol was found to be just as effective as 0.5% retinol in a 2018 study

Products with Retinol

Retinol alternative serumI just found that Burt’s Bees jumped on the bandwagon and came out with several products containing the new ingredient. I just purchased the Dark Spot Corrector serum, so we’ll have to see how it works!

Personally, I never met a Vitamin A I didn’t like. It’s an essential part of the conversation when discussing anti-aging products. You can see that there are numerous reasons why you should incorporate Vitamin A into your routine, but here are 4 things to be aware of:

  1. Vitamin A compounds should only be applied at night. Retinol and tretinoin make your skin sensitive to sun rays. This is because they increase the production of new skin cells and these cells are more sensitive to photo-damage by sunlight.
  2. One major downside to retinol is that it is very unstable: it degrades rapidly when exposed to air and light. I would suggest purchasing smaller quantities, e.g., 1 oz containers. Furthermore, look for the cream to come packaged in a jar with an airless pump top which will reduce oxidation.
  3. If you’re planning to DIY wax your eyebrows

    or visit an esthetician, it’s a good idea to stop using Vitamin A products a few days prior to your appointment. Even though it is a skin plumper and a collagen booster, it reduces the oil (sebum) content in skin. With less oil the top layer of skin can “lift” or tear off when you remove the wax strip. Each Vitamin A type reacts differently, so it’s easier to ask clients to stop usage 3-5 days before.

  4. Pregnancy: Tretinoin is not safe to use while pregnant or lactating. Retinols are less potent than tretinoin and come with a lower risk of pregnancy problems…but why take the risk?

Foods Containing Vitamin A

Besides topical use, you can get Vitamin A internally by eating healthy foods such as leafy greens, certain veggies, fish and liver. In a previous post I went into more detail about foods that may be helpful. 

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