Updated 3/26/21. Retinol is a clinically proven vitamin A ingredient that offers a number of skin benefits. It stimulates cell regeneration, boosts the production of collagen, promotes skin elasticity, and offers firming, brightening, and smoothing effects. It’s a true multi-tasking skincare ingredient, which is why I formulated my Advanced Resurfacing Serum with it. With continued use, I know that this serum can literally transform the look of your skin by reversing the visual effects of sun damage, softening lines and wrinkles, fading brown spots, and smoothing texture. This product has been in the making for a long, long time, and there’s a whole back story to how it came to be. Let me share it with you.
Watch: Retinol for Sensitive Skin
The Retin-A Back Story:
I saw very early on in my esthetics career how the prescription form of vitamin A, which is called Retin-A, could reverse the signs of aging. It was the late ’80s, and I was living in Boston as a fresh graduate of the Catherine Hinds School of Esthetics. As a young, 18-year-old esthetician, I couldn’t wait to get my career started. I got my first job at a full service salon, which offered skin treatments along with hair and nail services.
One of the salon’s regular clients was a man named Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, who, at the time, was the Chief of Dermatology at Mass General Hospital (for any estheticians reading this, he was the inventor of the Fitzpatrick Skin Type testing). When he would come in for his haircut appointments, he would make conversation with the estheticians since we were all in the skincare industry. Because he was such a prestigious dermatologist, I was always asking him questions about skin and hanging on to every word he said…
I’ll never forget the day he showed me his hands. He held out both of his hands and said, “Renée, can you see the difference in my hands?” I looked and couldn’t believe my eyes. One hand looked so much younger than the other; it had less wrinkles, less brown spots, and less uneven texture. This was a man who was in his mid-60’s, so his hands were showing the effects of aging, but one was much more prominently aged than the other.
How did he get one hand to look so much younger than the other?
The answer is prescription Retin-A. For many years, Retin-A was a topical cream used exclusively to treat acne. Since it had harsh side effects, such as dryness, redness, and peeling, a doctor would need to give very specific instructions to their acne patients about how much to use to lessen these negative effects. Dr. Fitzpatrick would always demonstrate by taking a pea-size amount (which was his recommended amount for the entire face) and rubbing it on ONE of his hands. He would do this, day in and day out. To his surprise, he began to notice that one hand looked much younger than the other! This realization was what led Dr. Fitzpatrick to become one of the doctors instrumental in getting the FDA to recognize Retin-A as a cream that could help reduce wrinkles.
In 1991, even though it hadn’t received FDA approval for treating wrinkles yet (this would happen in 1995), word got out about this “fountain of youth.” Soon, Retin-A was all the rage, and women were lining up at their dermatologists’ offices. However, the use of Retin-A didn’t go so well at first. There wasn’t enough awareness about how to use it properly to lessen the drying side effects, so women were slathering it on. They soon discovered the downside of trying to achieve younger-looking skin; peeling, flaking, dryness, redness and overall irritation set in quickly.
I remember the initial popularity of Retin-A so vividly, because my appointment schedule filled up with clients coming to see me to address their dryness. They would come in and say, “I need your help, Renée. I’m using this new prescription, and my skin is a mess!” I even had a client whose skin was so dry that when she smiled her skin cracked and she began to bleed in front of me. To treat my clients with extreme dryness, I would give them moisturizing and rehydrating facials, but within a few days the moisture would evaporate and dryness would set right back in again so long as they continued to use Retin-A.
Since it was such a new product, and skincare technology was so much more basic in the early ’90s, I couldn’t develop a home care plan to use along with the cream to lessen the side effects. After constant dryness, clients using Retin- A simply gave up, because they couldn’t tolerate how bad their skin looked—an effect that was the exact opposite of what they had hoped. So much for that.
However, I remained a firm believer in the power of Retin-A to reduce wrinkles. I saw what it did to Dr. Fitzpatrick’s hand, and I would never forget it. I had a few clients who stuck it out, and after three to five months or so of use, the side effects lessened and the anti-aging, skin-smoothing, wrinkle-reducing benefits kicked in. Sure, they had to be careful when out in the sun, but the side effects would become manageable. In fact, I had one client named Madeline who stayed with it, and every time I saw her, her wrinkles were diminished.
I wouldn’t necessarily encourage my clients to get the prescription for Retin-A, because it takes effort and commitment to get the true benefits, and most clients simply didn’t have the patience. However, if a client asked me about it, I would encourage them to try it (after consulting with their doctor, of course). Then, I would develop a home care plan to give their skin the best result.
When I turned 35 and my own signs of aging were appearing, I decided it was time to try Retin-A myself, so I visited a dermatologist colleague of mine for a prescription. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that it didn’t agree with my skin. Although I introduced it slowly, and used it sparingly, I developed eczema on my eyelids a week after starting it (even though I never even used it on that area.) The reason for this is that Retinoic Acid (the FDA-approved active ingredient in Retin-A, Renova, and Tazorac) works within the entire skin—not just on a surface level—so it would stimulate a breakdown in my skin’s lipid barrier on the thinnest area of my face (my eyelids) and cause irritation.
Aside from the eczema, I do recall one other peculiar thing that would happen the few times I used it a night. I would wake up in the morning and feel what I can only describe as a little heartbeat in my face—almost like a little pulsing sensation. I knew this meant that something was occurring within the skin (almost as though I could feel my collagen being stimulated?). I’m not sure what it was, but I could feel it “working.” Ultimately, I decided to discontinue it, due to the eczema.
In the early 2000s, cosmetic companies started introducing non-prescription retinol products. They were were marketed as a way to reap the results of the prescription versions, without the side effects. My chemists had access to these ingredients, so I played around with developing a formula, yet I just never felt that the formulas I came up with would get the same results as the stronger prescription form. I decided to wait until new technology presented more effective options.
Finally, a few years ago, I created what I consider to be the perfect retinol serum. When I was testing the new formula, I applied it at night, and much to my surprise, I could feel the pulsating sensation in my skin when I woke the following morning—the same one I experienced when using Retin-A! Wow. This was it. I was now convinced that I could get prescription-strength results with an over-the-counter product.
Since then, I’ve been using the formula consistently, and I’m happy to report that I’m extremely impressed with the skin-smoothing results. My pores appear smaller, my brown spots have lessened, and my lines and wrinkles have truly softened. What’s more is that I haven’t experienced any extreme sensitivity (or eczema!). I get more compliments on my skin than ever.
Here’s what I know for sure about retinol: when it’s used LONG TERM, along with exfoliating products to enhance the absorption of this active ingredient, you can get beautiful results.
Note: There is no instant gratification when it comes to using a retinol product (even the prescription form) like there is with an acid-based product. Also, you may not experience the pulsating sensation in the skin like I do. Finally, it can take at least two months to see visible results, but trust me, if you use this product long term, your skin will look younger.
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.”