There’s no denying that retinol has become synonymous with an effective skin care routine, whether you want to target acne, fine lines and wrinkles, texture, or hyperpigmentation. Dermatologists swear by it, estheticians beg you to use it, and influencers will happily wax poetic about their top 10 favorite formulas. And if you believe the experts (which I’d highly recommend doing), retinol is basically the duct tape of your beauty kit — it will fix any and everything when it comes to complexion woes, in theory at least.
For all of the praise surrounding the skin care industry's most lauded active ingredient, however, there’s often a risk of irritation, inflammation, or even worsening the problem you were trying to fix in the first place. Enter: the new wave of gentle retinol formulas.
In the age of increasingly potent beauty products and higher concentrations of ingredients, retinoids — the umbrella category for all vitamin A derivatives — are primed for a bit of a rebrand, especially since 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men report skin sensitivities. Thankfully, the shelves have increasingly been filled with a wider variety of gentle options for people with sensitive skin. “Topical application of stronger retinoids has been linked with excessive skin dryness, sun sensitivity, irritation in sensitive skin, stinging, burning, etc.,” says Krupa Koestline, cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. “Improper use can also lead to further worsening of skin pigmentation and overall skin health.” Essentially, more is not always more when it comes to this ingredient category, despite some brands claiming otherwise.
So where does that leave beauty consumers who still want to incorporate a retinoid and all of its reported benefits into their skin care routines? Luckily, with our collective interest in skin barrier health guiding their formula choices, brands have started to adopt a more moderate approach to the ingredient in recent months. All it takes is a bit of knowledge about the vitamin A family tree and recent developments surrounding ingredient delivery systems to navigate the world of gentler retinoids. Prepare for healthier, more radiant skin, ahead.
The Different Types Of Retinoids
A lot of purported magic happens when you apply a retinoid product, and no matter where the ingredient falls on the retinoid scale (more on that in a minute) the goal is still the same: to activate the three retinoic acid receptors in your skin. These all play different roles in vital skin processes and behaviors, like oil production, skin cell turnover, and pigmentation.
For context, all retinoids need to be converted to retinoic acid in order to have any effect on your skin, and there is a conversion process that happens in order to get there (unless you’re already using a prescription retinoic acid product like Accutane). The closer a retinoid derivative is to retinoic acid on the scale, the fewer steps there will be to convert to the final form and the stronger it will be. “The stronger the retinoid, the faster skin cell turnover rate,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman, M.D. “During this time, our skin is still working to replace the discarded skin cells with new ones, making our skin highly susceptible to skin irritation, dryness, redness, and flakiness.” That means retinoid derivatives that require two or three steps in order to get to the retinoic acid stage are gentler and will be the safest option for anyone hoping to avoid potential irritation.
First up on the retinoid scale are retinyl esters, which require three steps to convert to retinoic acid. Although technically weaker than their retinoid cousins, retinyl esters are significantly gentler while still increasing cell turnover for brighter, smoother, clearer skin. “Retinyl palmitate [a type of retinyl ester] is a great option to start with,” says Engelman. “However, it typically takes longer to see results.” Still, if you’re either new to using retinoids or you’re worried about having a negative reaction to a product, these types of formulas (which, in addition to retinyl palmitate, include retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinyl propionate) are an ideal entry point with less risk for your skin.
Arguably the most well-known retinoid of the bunch, retinol is one step further down the conversion process — requiring two steps to become retinoic acid — and is therefore slightly stronger than retinyl esters. “Retinol is the top performing skin repair active currently available,” says Koestline. “When topically applied, retinol is oxidized to retinal, which is further oxidized to trans-retinoic acid.” Yes, that means there is more of a likelihood that you’ll experience irritation, but you might also see more significant results in a shorter period of time. When in doubt, always patch-test a product to see how your skin reacts and then follow the low and slow method of incorporating it into your routine.
While retinol itself isn’t the newest ingredient on the block, encapsulated varieties are gaining steam in the beauty industry. “Encapsulated means the retinol is delivered to the skin in a protective casing of some sort which allows it to be absorbed into the skin and then released,” says Sofie Pavitt, esthetician and founder of Sofie Pavitt Skincare Studio. “It can also mean that it is able to reach deeper parts of the skin.”
Engelman adds that encapsulated retinol (also categorized as “time-release” retinol) is often more stable, and because of the prolonged penetration, it minimizes the risk of dryness, irritation, and redness, all of which is a major perk for people with sensitive skin. As a bonus, products that contain an encapsulated form of retinol are also less likely to degrade with exposure to light and oxygen, so they’ll stay more effective for a longer period of time (FYI, a degraded retinol product can cause major problems for your skin, so always be wary if a formula smells off or has turned a weird color).
How To Incorporate A Retinoid Into Your Skin Care Routine
So you want to finally use a retinoid — congrats! Even if you’re leaning towards a gentler formula, there are still best practices you can follow to ensure your skin avoids irritation. First and foremost is paying attention to concentration levels for any retinoid product before slathering it on your skin.
“[Products with] 0.1% to 0.4% [concentration] is best for those with sensitive skin,” says Engelman, adding that it is possible to gradually increase the dosage over time since your skin does become tolerant to the initial benefits. Koestline suggests using your gentle retinoid — i.e. a retinyl ester or encapsulated retinol — one night a week to start before increasing it to twice a week for sensitive skin. If you find one that has no negative side effects after using it a few times a week, you can either bump up to a higher concentration or move on to a retinol formula.
Once you’ve found a product that agrees with your skin and gives you the results you’re looking for, it’s crucial to properly build out the rest of your routine to keep any dryness or irritation in check. “Retinoids are not to be used in conjunction with AHA or other acid treatments,” says Koestline. Also, keeping your skin moisturized when using retinol is extremely important.” That means investing in a quality moisturizer to layer over your retinoid product is essential. In addition to using a daily SPF (as all retinoids can increase sun sensitivity), you’ll be well on your way to reaping the kind of otherworldly glow that can crack an iPhone camera lens.
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Kafi, R. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Arch Dermatol. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17515510/
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Tolleson, W. H. (2005). Photodecomposition and Phototoxicity of Natural Retinoids. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2(1), 147-155. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph2005010147
Krupa Koestline, cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants
Dr. Dendy Engelman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist