“Should I be using a retinol?” We get asked this question all the time, so we thought we’d share a little bit more on this popular skincare ingredient. Our goal is to help you understand the side effects of using active ingredients (like retinoids) in your skincare routine, and give you all the facts so you can make your own decisions about using them. First, let’s start with the basics: what is a retinol, and why are they used in skincare?
The quick facts about retinol and retinoids//
Retinol is a form of retinoid, which are Vitamin A-based products used as a topical treatment for acne, approved by the FDA in the 70s. Since then, products with retinoids have been touted by dermatologists to be the skincare ingredient you can’t live without for both acne and preventing wrinkles. Retinol specifically is a derivative of retinoid and is much weaker in strength, which is why it’s available in over-the-counter products. Stronger retinoids like tretinoin (like Retin-A) or adapalene (aka Differin) are only available by prescription from a doctor.
Retinoids are naturally found in our bodies and all living organisms in carotenoids and antioxidants that help protect you from disease and boost your immune system. In the form of vitamin A, they’re essential for growth, immune system function, and eye health. (It’s why your grandma always told you to eat those carrots for eyesight!)
Retinoids work by chemically stimulating the cells in your skin by binding to receptors on the cell’s nucleus, where it performs like the gene retinoic acid to promote cell growth. It also stops the breakdown of collagen which is needed for youthful plump skin. They can also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in your skin which improves skin color, fades age spots, and softens rough skin. For acne, retinoids help unclog pores by sloughing the skin off, allowing deeper penetration of acne-fighting products. If you’re targeting dark spots it also increases cellular turnover which could aid in fading the spots away. While it might sound like a miracle cure, here’s why retinoids could actually be problematic for most skin types.
What they don’t tell you about retinoids//
At Botnia, we like to think of our organs as perfectly functioning parts of our bodies. So if we’re taking a layer off of our lungs, or liver, or heart, it wouldn’t be helpful for that organ to function at its highest level. It’s why we don’t believe in retinol in our skincare. We want our skin to function at its highest level! Would you peel off the top layer of any other organ in your body? Probably not.
Because you’re quickening the natural cycle of your skin to reproduce skin cells, most people notice irritation and dry flaky skin when they first use retinoid products. Doctors will tell you this is absolutely normal and a part of the process as if it’s no big deal, but that puts the consumer in a tough position. This is where it’s important to do your own research and come to your own conclusions about the products you put on your skin and in your body. While the result of wrinkle and acne-free skin might sound really appealing, what you might not know is that the path to get you there can come with longer-term risks.
Let’s talk about how retinoids thin the skin and why this is a concern for us. If you’re a retinol user, you must avoid the sun at all costs. The “magic” of retinoids increases the timing of cellular turnover. Your skin naturally does this every 21 days. Over time, when using retinoids, the skin becomes much thinner from this process and strips your skin of its natural barrier function and the stratum corneum. As holistic estheticians, we see a lot of compromised barrier function of the skin in retinoid users.
The top layer of the epidermis (stratum corneum) is the first barrier to fighting off the radiation of the sun. The cells underneath are not meant to be exposed to the sun, and so the risk for inflammation and hyperpigmentation or skin cancer is increased when the top layer of your skin is removed. Like the paint on a car, if exposed to the sun day in and day out and not cared for, over time the paint eventually peels off and rusts. If you wash and wax your car, adding that extra layer of protection (just like SPF) you’re helping prevent further degradation of the paint. So if you use retinol in your routine, we highly suggest covering up and layering on that sunscreen thick!
For those with olive and dark skin, using retinoids can actually cause long-lasting hyperpigmentation (patches of skin that are darker than the surrounding skin which occurs from an excess of melanin products in the skin). Dark skin is much more reactive to trauma or damage and the irritation from using this product can actually cause hyperpigmentation. Starting with the lowest dosage possible and building up a tolerance can help test if your skin has a negative reaction to using retinoids.
If you’re taking retinoids orally and are trying to get pregnant, this study has shown that taking these medicines can cause potential risks since it enters your bloodstream and should be avoided during this time. Topical use is less likely to cause harm, however out of an abundance of caution, should still not be used during this delicate time. Ask your health practitioner how much time you’ll need to wait and stop using retinoids before becoming pregnant.
Breaking down the different types of retinoids//
Understanding the type of retinoid you’re using is also very important to know how to best prevent potential risks. These are the most common types of retinoids used in OTC and prescription products from weakest to strongest.
Retinoid: This refers to all types of natural or synthetic versions of vitamin A. This is the umbrella term for all compounds of vitamin A.
Retinyl palmitate (OTC): Preformed vitamin A, used in supplements to support and maintain eye, immune system, and reproductive health. It’s the least powerful retinoid and it can be naturally found in egg yolks, fish, milk and milk products, and animal liver.
Retinol (OTC): This type of retinoid is used in most OTC products as they are the weakest in strength and don’t need a prescription to be used. They take longer to see results and are more gentle on the skin.
Retinaldehyde (OTC): aka Retinal for short, another form of retinoid found in OTC products. Stronger than its cousin retinol, it’s more easily recognized by the skin as it’s the closest to retinoic acid, which is naturally found in your body.
Adapalene (OTC): You’ll see this type of retinoid in Differin and Adaferin, which is a third-generation retinoid specifically licensed for the treatment of acne.
Tretinoin (Prescription): Prescription retinoid, most commonly known as Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Acretin, Renova, Avita, Atralin and Avage. This is a synthetic version of retinoid and is usually prescribed to treat acne.
Tazarotene (Prescription): This type of retinoid is used in Tazorac, Avage, and Zorac and is prescribed to treat psoriasis, acne, and photo-damage to the skin.
What to do if you use retinoids in your routine//
– Stay out of the sun! Your skin has been thinned by the use of retinoids and you should protect your cells from any sun exposure as you might experience an increase in inflammation, peeling, redness, and hyperpigmentation, therefore increasing the risk for skin cancer.
– Use it only at night. As mentioned above, it’s best to use these products at night when you have less exposure to the sun.
-Start with the lowest dose possible. Allow your skin to get used to these strong active ingredients. If you’re experiencing redness, dryness, itching, flaking, or peeling, you may want to try a lower dose and slowly incorporate it into your routine.
– Start slowly. If you’re starting to use retinoids in your routine, your doctor may recommend using them every other day or every third day. Your skin will need to build up a tolerance to the increased cellular turnover. This will also decrease the side effects of peeling, flaky skin, and redness.
– Don’t mix retinoids with other strong active ingredients. Using other acids like glycolic or salicylic acid can increase irritation.
Western society and culture have taught us (especially women) that aging is the worst thing that can happen to us. At Botnia, we started phasing out the term “anti-aging” several years ago, because we felt it wasn’t accurate and wasn’t in line with our values. We believe that aging is a gift and privilege and something we should be grateful for! We’d like to move the needle in giving ourselves permission to age because we definitely can’t stop it! If you do decide to use ingredients that promote a more youthful appearance, more power to you. We just want you to have all the facts you need to make your own educated decisions when it comes to trending and recommended ingredients in the beauty industry.
If you have any questions on retinol, retinoids, or any other ingredient you’re curious about, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org; we’re always happy to chat about all things skincare!