Four Things to Look for When Choosing a Retinol Product


FACT: Just because an over the counter product lists “retinol” as an ingredient doesn’t mean it will give you the intended results. As a skin care formulator with training in cosmetic chemistry at UCLA, an esthetician, someone who personally knew a dermatologist who helped get Retin-A FDA approved for the treatment of wrinkles (read this story), plus someone who’s spent many years surrounded by incredible chemists in various labs, I am very well-versed in the retinol and retinoid skincare conversation.

For starters, it’s important to know that retinol is one of the most challenging ingredients to use within a formulation. Any chemist will tell you that retinol is tough to work with due to its instability. Not only is it extremely sensitive to air and light, it can also very reactive when combined with other ingredients. Simply put, retinol doesn’t play well with others. Only a very, very experienced formulator will know how to make it most effective.

However, any brand can add retinol to their product and market it for preventative aging even though it may not be effective. Unfortunately, I see many formulas out there like this; most consumers simply don’t know any better. A well-formulated, high-quality retinol product can be rather expensive to formulate so some companies take shortcuts. Others just don’t know how to stabilize such a tricky ingredient so that it truly delivers visible change to the skin.

Which brings me to this. Not sure which retinol product is best to use on your skin to reduce the look of wrinkles, large pores, and brown spots?

Here are four things you should consider when purchasing a non-prescription retinol product.

1. Choose a formula that is STABLE. For water-based products, look for one that’s microencapsulated in a liposome, shell or membrane. Microencapsulation is a process that allows for the protection of fragile active agents in micro-sized carriers. This helps stabilize them and control their release. Most commonly used “shells” include lipids (oils and waxes), polysaccharides (celluloses, starches, cyclodextrines, and gums), and proteins (gelatin and soy proteins). Liposomes are particles that resemble membranes, into which active ingredients like retinol are incorporated. Phosphatyidylcholine is one such type of liposome. It’s extracted from lecithin, a phospholipid/oil blend derived from soybeans. It’s what I have chosen to use in my retinol formula. This means that what you’re putting on your skin actually delivers the intended resurfacing results.

Some companies use retinol mixed with either an oil or silicone. These are less expensive to create due to a less sophisticated delivery system. However, they can still be effective, especially if you’re someone that likes to use oils or silicones on your skin. (Note: These are not always ideal for those prone to clogged pores or breakouts.) Finally, some companies use micro sponges that hold retinol in their “pores”, which allow the ingredient to become part of the barrier after they degrade. Confused yet? Yes, it’s all very complex and challenging for a consumer to understand. For many of my esthetician and product formulator readers, though, you’ll get what I’m talking about.

2. Look for formulas in opaque packaging. As mentioned, retinol is so delicate that it deactivates quickly if the formula inside the bottle is exposed to light—even if it’s encapsulated. The worst offender is a clear bottle with no box. If you purchase a retinol product in a clear bottle with no box, it has likely been sitting on a shelf under lights for potentially months at a time. The light is literally rendering it ineffective. You’ll also want to keep the bottle out of the heat. This is NOT the type of product you want to keep out in your car during the hotter months.

3. Choose a retinol product in an airless container. Along with heat and light, oxygen (air) is a major enemy of sensitive ingredients like retinol. A retinol product in an airless container is best. This packaging keeps the product potent until the very last drop. The downside of an opaque airless container is that you can’t see how much product you have left. For a product like retinol, though, this inconvenience is worthwhile. By contrast, dropper bottles and traditional dip tube pump bottles will easily allow air in every time you open the bottle. This definitely breaks down the formula more quickly so it may completely lose its effectiveness halfway through the bottle.

4. Find a formula from a trusted, reputable brand. It takes a very skilled and experienced formulator to make a retinol product effective. For it to remain stable, it must be made in a high-tech lab. If you’re truly serious about seeing results, it’s not a good idea to purchase a skincare product that is made in someone’s kitchen and sold on Etsy. (No disrespect to Etsy; I love them for so many other things!)

Like with any vitamin A-type product sold without a prescription, it all comes down to how the formula is made, the percentage used, how it’s delivered into the skin and how stable it is. You’ll have to do your due diligence with any type of product you purchase to find this out. Any good formulator knows this is very important information to share with consumers, so they should show off their product stats proudly. They should openly share the percentage used in the formula as well as notes on the product’s stability.

How do I know if the formula I am using is actually working? Since prescription retinoids will cause visible dryness and irritation two days after the first use, people KNOW that it’s working. In the case of non-prescription retinol products, you may not experience any negative side effects at all. This makes it hard to know if it’s actually doing something. It could be a red flag if a brand doesn’t talk about how they keep such a delicate and difficult ingredient stable. The potential side effects of retinol will vary greatly across users, depending on what else they have going on with their skin. For a comprehensive guide on how to get started with this magic ingredient, while mitigating some of its less-desirable side effects, read this post as soon as you’re finished with this one.

A thought you might be having is why some people might be able to “feel” it working while others may never feel a thing. Either outcome is okay as long as you’re using a well-formulated, stable product. (This also includes any potential dryness or light flaking when used regularly.)

Examples of why someone might “feel” it include:

  • Prior procedures like lasers, chemical peels, and micro-needling
  • If you’re aggressively using facials scrubs or AHA or BHA exfoliating acid products
  • If you’ve washed the skin with a high pH soap or overly drying, sulfate-based cleanser
  • The state of your moisture barrier
  • Having a thin stratum corneum where products tend to sting your skin easily
  • Dry climates such as from airplane travel or any area with lack of humidity
  • A tendency for rosacea
  • Nerve sensitivity (some people have more sensitized nerve endings and they simply feel things more than the average person)
  • Injectables and the presence of silicone or collagen in the tissues

Let me touch on the formula I created and what makes it unique and most importantly—effective. I suggest that my clients use a retinol serum up to five nights a week (that’s 260 nights a year!). That’s why I wanted my product to do more than just what retinol alone typically does. In Advanced Resurfacing Serum, I chose to add clinically-proven, skin-firming peptides and antioxidants. These are what aging skin needs to help it look and act younger.

To do this, I had to use a sophisticated lotion emulsion delivery system. This ensures all of these amazing ingredients play well with one another and stay active and stable from the first to the last drop. I used a stable liposomal form of retinol (the ingredient list for this compound is water, retinol, polysorbate 20 and lecithin). It’s much more complex to use this type of system. However, this allows for oily and water-based substances to be present in the formula without damaging the retinol. Liposomal delivery of retinol increases the levels of retinol retained in the stratum corneum by targeting delivery and controlling penetration through the dermis. The retinol is carefully stacked within the lipid tails of the lecithin, protecting it from hydrolysis. (Sorry, getting a little technical here!)

In conclusion, retinol is an amazing ingredient and I highly recommend it to every one of my clients. Your skin’s aging clock is ticking, so find a formula now and commit to using it regularly for the rest of your life.

Speaking of product formulations, I’m off to UCLA next month for another round of cosmetic chemistry training. There are always changes within my industry so it’s important to keep up. Plus, I am someone who is committed to forever learning and subsequently, sharing everything I know with all of my loyal readers. So much more to come!

Retinol and Prescription Retinoids: Do They Make The Skin Get Thinner?
The Beginner’s Guide To Retinol & Retinoids: How To Prevent Dry, Flaky Side-Effects

Which skin care products are best for you? See our nine skin types or take the Skin Type Quiz and see recommended products.

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