For this week’s Ingredient of the Week post I’m talking about one of the most commonly used anti-aging ingredients: retinol! If you’ve ever been to a dermatologist, watched a beauty ad on television, or been inside a skincare store, you’ve seen the word retinol on a label. Basically, it’s everywhere. But should you really be using it? What is retinol?
If you missed the intro to this series, it explains what “safe beauty” is, and why it’s important. The quick version is that the FDA doesn’t regulate what chemicals brands put in their products and it doesn’t set standards for words like “natural” or “organic”. Basically, a brand could put “natural” on a container full of carcinogens if they wanted (and they often do). I caveat this at the beginning of every post not to scare anyone but to educate. You don’t have to switch everything you own to safer today. Just make small changes where it makes sense for you. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, right? Let’s look more in depth at retinol.
What to look for.
This one is really easy. Most brands put retinol in big, bold letters on the packaging or on the website. You’ll even see products with the word “retinol” in the name! You’ll also want to watch out for Retinyl palmitate as well.
Retinol (Vitamin A)
All-trans Retinoic Acid
What is Retinol?
Retinol is a micronutrient Vitamin A. Just like PEGs, retinol can be “clean” or it can be… not so clean. Meaning, it’s difficult to tell from the label how the brand is manufacturing retinol. Some forms of retinol – Retinol (Vitamin A), Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate – are theoretically okay to use in small doses. Others, like All-trans/Retinoic Acid and Tretinoin (both are currently banned in the EU) should always be avoided.
Just like last week’s post on PEGs, I’d recommend doing more research before using anything with the 3 forms of retinol that are okay in moderation. There is a difference between clean retinol and retinol that is contaminated with parabens or BHT (a carcinogen, hormone disruptor, and a cause of liver damage). General Mills removed BHT from their cereals in 2015! In most standard beauty products, you won’t be able to tell if retinol is contaminated. Manufacturers and brands don’t have visibility into whether retinol is contaminated with toxic chemicals. Sometimes even the raw materials suppliers don’t know!
Why do brands use Retinol?
What girl doesn’t want to appear younger, reduce acne, minimize fine lines, shrink pores, and even skin tone? The anti-aging properties of Retinol are undeniable. It works by boosting collagen and increasing cellular turnover to make your skin look younger and healthier. Of course, this depends on the dosage or concentration of retinol in the product you’re using.
What products usually contain Retinol?
Anti-aging serums, face lotions, hand creams, and foundation often contain retinol. Acne medications can also contain retinol. If a product is being advertised as having the ability to miraculously solve some of the most common skin issues, you might want to read the label closely.
With the increased popularity of retinol, it is also now showing up in other types of beauty products like cleansers, lipsticks, and sunscreens.
What Retinol can do to you.
Again, here’s where it can get tricky. Make sure you’re using products from brands you trust. That’s really all you can do if you’re stuck on using retinol products. If you use products with contaminated retinol for an extended period of time, here are some known side effects.
Birth defects. Using a synthetic form of retinol orally during pregnancy (e.g. tretinoin or isotretinoin AKA Accutane) can cause Fetal Retinoid Syndrome. This results in head and face, central nervous system, and cardiovascular system abnormalities. Topical application has not been directly linked to these symptoms but since your skin is absorbing it, high doses can cause the same effects.
Liver toxicity. If used in high dosages or for an extended period or time, retinol and retinoids have been linked to liver toxicity, even death in rats. This is caused by the condition of hypervitaminosis: abnormally high storage levels of certain vitamins which can lead to organ toxicity. Symptoms of hypervitaminosis include blurred vision, swelling of bones or pain, skin changes, etc.
Sun sensitivity. Since retinol encourages cell turnover, new skin is delicate and should not be exposed to sun. You should never use retinol (clean or not) on your face in the morning – only use at night for this reason. Since your skin is more susceptible to sun in this delicate state, it will have the adverse effect on your skin and will cause you to age faster.
Cancer. Since retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, it makes sense that the risk of skin cancer increases with heavy doses of retinol. Other than that, there is conflicting data about whether retinoids cause cancerous tumors (and here too) or can be used to treat cancer.
Skin and eye irritation. In a study performed on animals, both skin and redness of the eye occured.
Safe alternatives to Retinol
Since it’s impossible to read a label and know if retinol is contaminated, it’s best to avoid it altogether or stick to brands who have publicly stated they use “clean” retinol. For serums manufactured without retinol, try this one if you’re under 40 years old and this one if you’re over 40 years old. I’d recommend these lotions as well – I use this one every night in my skincare routine. Tata Harper has also publicly stated they use clean retinol if you’re looking for a product with retinol in it. I found a few more clean options here but have never heard of these brands!
Do you use any products with retinol or retinoids in them? Do you have any favorite retinol-free products that work? Please share!