Updated 4/8/20. Using a retinol product for your skin type is without a doubt one of the most effective ways to get smoother skin. However, just because a product lists “retinol” as an ingredient doesn’t mean it will give you the intended results. The reason for this is because retinol is one of the trickiest ingredients to work with and without a proper formulation, you’re never going to see the results.
In this post, I’ll explain how retinol should be formulated plus four things to look for so you can feel confident that you’re using a retinol product that actually works.
As a skincare formulator and someone who personally knew a dermatologist who helped get the prescription version of Retin-A FDA approved for the treatment of wrinkles (read this story), I consider myself to be very well-versed in the retinol and retinoid skincare conversation.
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a cosmetic ingredient sold in non-prescription skincare products. When applied (assuming it’s an encapsulated, stable, well-formulated product), it converts slowly within the skin to retinoic acid. From there, it can increase cell thickness, affect gene expression, thin the stratum corneum, and increase the production of collagen from within.
With continued use, retinol will…
- lessen brown spots
- soften and prevent lines from forming
- lessen the look of wrinkles
- make large pores appear smaller
- encourage collagen production
- turn cells over at a faster rate to trick the skin into acting younger
- give the skin a smoother, more even-toned texture
Simply put, if you want younger-looking skin, you need to find the best retinol product and commit to using it regularly.
How Can I Find the Best Retinol Product to Give the Most Effective Results?
Retinol is one of the most challenging ingredients. Any chemist will tell you that retinol is tough to work due to its instability. Because of this, it doesn’t play well with other ingredients within a formula. Only a very experienced formulator will know how to make it effective.
However, any brand can add retinol to their product and market it for preventative aging even though it may not be actually working. Unfortunately, I see many formulas out there like this. 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 difficult ingredient.
If you want it to work, you have to choose the best retinol product from a company you trust.
Four things to look for when choosing a retinol product.
1. Make Sure the Retinol is Kept STABLE
I’m going to get a little technical here, but if you’re really wanting to find the best retinol product, you need to be familiar with the concept of stabilization. For water-based retinol 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. The 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.
What About Retinol Mixed With 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 so if you’re a skin type #2, #3 or #4, you’ll want to avoid these.) Finally, some companies use microsponges that hold retinol in their “pores,” which allows 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. Just remember, The main question you need to be asking is this: “How is the product stabilized so I know that it’s actually working?”
2. Look for Retinol Formulas in Opaque Packaging
Retinol is so delicate that it deactivates quickly if the formula inside the bottle is exposed to light—even if it’s encapsulated. This is why it’s important to look for a retinol product with the right packaging. 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 the retinol product 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. The best retinol product will be in an airless container. 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 Retinol Formula from a Trusted, Reputable Brand
It takes a very skilled and experienced formulator to know how to make the best retinol product be effective. For the formula to work, it must be made in a high-tech lab. It’s not a good idea to purchase a retinol 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, 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’m Using is Actually Working for my Skin?
The short answer is, it’s hard to know. This is because it can take up to two months of retinol use to start seeing textural improvements in your skin. 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 can cause some people to give up since the results will never be immediate. Trust me on this, even though there is no immediate gratification, stick with it!
Does a Retinol Product Need to be Yellow in Color?
There is talk online that says a retinol product must be yellow in order to be effective. If it has turned white, it means it has destabilized. So is this accurate? While it’s true that retinol is yellow in color, it’s not accurate to make a blanket statement like that since retinol is a very complex ingredient. There are many different retinols on the market in different delivery systems that are not necessarily yellow in appearance. Manufacturers can use various ingredients that happen to reduce the yellow color of the retinol, such as TiO2 (titanium dioxide). Bottom line, many advanced retinol formulations may not have a distinct retinol color. The retinol product in my line does have a yellow tone but don’t rule out ones that don’t. Instead, focus on finding out how they stabilize the formula.
Why Do Some People Say They “Feel” Retinol Working, While Others Feel Nothing?
A thought you might be having is why some people might be able to “feel” a retinol product working while others may never experience much of anything. 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” retinol 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
Do You Have a Recommendation for the Best Retinol Product to Use?
Let me share information about the retinol 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 line to do more than just what retinol alone typically does.
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!)
What Other Ingredients Should I be Using in My Routine Along With Retinol?
While using a stable retinol product is best used in the evening for skin repair, it’s very important that you use a stable antioxidant formula during the day to prevent the damage that the retinol is attempting to repair.
Hands down, a product with potent forms of vitamin C will help keep your skin protected and shielded from a lot of the collagen damage that occurs from oxidative and environmental stress.
It’s also really beneficial to use an exfoliator within your routine since retinol is not technically exfoliating the skin. It kind of is, from inside out but using a surface exfoliator such as an acid serum will ensure that your retinol works even better. However, don’t use an acid serum on the same night as your retinol. If you take this Skin Type Quiz, it will recommend the best one for you.
Retinol is an amazing ingredient and I highly recommend it to almost every one of my clients. Your skin’s aging clock is ticking, so take the time to do your research to find a product that you’re confident has been properly stabilized. Then, commit to using it regularly for the rest of your life. You’ll thank me for it.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”