The Science Behind Retinol

How does retinol reduce the appearance of wrinkles, blemishes, and other skin problems? We explain. Use retinol for younger and better-looking skin.

How Retinol Works to Treat and Prevent Wrinkles

We’ve all heard about the amazing benefits of retinol. In fact, we’ve been hearing about it now for decades. But for those of us who first tried retinoic acid products back in the 1990s, the word “retinol” makes us shudder with distaste as we recall weeks of dry, irritated, flaky skin which we were assured was normal and would pass. And the flakiness did pass … usually just in time for us to have run out of the small, expensive little tub of retinol cream and have to decide if it was worth the trouble to buy more.

But for those of you who turned your back on those early versions of retinoid products with a shrug of distaste, it’s important to know that today’s retinol products bear little resemblance to those earlier versions. Today’s Retinol products are much milder, cause little or no irritation, and yet achieve the glowing results we were first promised back in the '90s.

What is Retinol?

Retinol sounds mysterious and high-tech, like something developed in a bubbling beaker in some obscure laboratory. However, Retinol is simply a form of vitamin A. It, and other forms of vitamin A, are important antioxidants found in the foods we eat and are necessary to maintain the health of our skin, eyesight, cell regeneration, and immune system.

Retinol is beneficial when applied topically to the skin because our skin cells contain receptors that are very open to directly receiving retinoic acids, which are typically converted into retinol in the body from vitamin A received in the foods we eat.

In our skin cells, retinol is the agent that tells our cell parts to function normally, the way a healthy young cell does. Our cells are then better able to reproduce quickly, dead cells slough off faster, the structures that our cells support will then have more elasticity, and collagen production—which slows down as we age—will be increased. All of these effects have anti-aging benefits.

As the retinol increases the production of new basal cells in the lower layer of our skin, the new epidermal cells move up to the top level of our skin, and the older cells die and slough off in order to make room for the newer, better-functioning cells. This results in younger-looking skin.

Improvements in Retinol Formulas of Today

Retinol products were originally available only through prescription and were used to treat acne in the late fifties. While retinol was—and still is—highly effective for reducing acne breakouts, it was the unexpected anti-aging side effects that inspired further studies into the use of retinoids in skincare products to help reduce the signs of aging.

While retinoic acid products were originally marketed for anti-aging at the same strengths they were used for treating acne, today’s products are much milder forms of retinol. Today’s retinol creams and serums cause minimal irritation during initial use and go on to be very beneficial to skincare. In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, retinol can be used by anyone hoping to slow or reduce the signs of aging. Retinol should be used at night, and the skin should be protected by a sunscreen during the day, especially since retinoid use can increase photosensitivity.

Today’s retinol products are also beneficial in improving the evenness of skin tone by increasing the production of new blood vessels as well as skin cells. It also significantly fades age spots and improves patches of rough skin as older cells are replaced with new, better-functioning skin cells.

How to Use Retinol to treat wrinkles and skin imperfections

Retinol should be used nightly and the use of retinol must be continuous in order to maintain skin benefits. Use your retinol serum or cream after washing your face and applying eye cream. Eye cream should be applied first to protect the delicate skin beneath the eyes. Make sure your face is completely dry, and then dab a pea-sized amount of retinol with your fingertips at your chin and then gently massage upwards. If retinol is applied to damp skin it is absorbed too deeply and can cause irritation, so it’s important to apply it only to dry skin. Follow up in the morning by applying sunscreen to protect from harmful UV rays.

Resources— Dermascope, Harvard Health Publishing, 111Skin, Dermstore

Share this article