A comprehensive guide to retinol

Far from a fad ingredient type, retinoids (the category of ingredients that retinol belongs to) are clinically demonstrated actives that are here to stay. Attention to retinoids is well justified, with beneficial clinical evidence spanning the gamut from anti-aging to improving acne.

There are many things to understand about retinoids and why they’re so effective before deciding to integrate them into your routine. Let’s take a deep dive into retinoids and how to use them for ultimate effects.

The what and why of retinoids

Retinoids are a group of molecules that are similar to or mimic the function of Vitamin A (the same vitamin A found in carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables and fruits). Retinoids work by binding to receptors in the skin that encourage cells to grow and replace themselves faster. Think of retinoids like the gas pedal in a car: they send a signal to the skin to grow faster just as a gas pedal sends a signal to the car to travel faster.

Retinoids have also been shown to unclog pores, exfoliate the skin, reduce immune response in the skin, and increase collagen production. These benefits result in reduction of the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as a brighter and plumper appearance.

Retinoids in skincare suffer from some Achilles heels, but luckily we’ve got you covered to make an informed choice if you decide to integrate a retinol into your routine.

  • Retinoids can be unstable: Many retinoids are unstable and are easily broken down by light, other molecules, and/or oxygen. When broken down, retinoids no longer function as effectively (if at all). Breakdown renders retinoids unable to provide the potent anti-aging effects they’re so well known for. To reduce breakdown of retinol, innovative formulation technologies can be employed, such as encapsulation. Additionally, there are also unique retinoids out there (including adapalene and tazarotene), which have been designed to have more stability.
  • Many retinoids cause side effects: Retinoids generally cause side effects such as irritation, dryness, and sometimes peeling. No fun! These side effects can be unpleasant and even painful. Each retinoid has a unique side effect profile, but in general retinyl palmitate, retinol, and retinaldehyde (the retinoids found in most skincare products) have low side effects. However, the retinoids with fewer side effects offer less potency. The retinoids with more side effects (and greater potency) are adapalene, tretinoin and tazarotene. A careful balance must be made to optimize the potency of the retinoid with ensuing side effects. The following table illustrates six common retinoids.

So why use retinoids if they’re unstable and can cause side effects such as dryness and irritation? Because they’re some of the best and most studied anti-aging, brightening, resurfacing, and overall appearance-improving ingredients available!

There are over 5000 studies to date that have looked at the efficacy of many retinoids. Generally prescribed and OTC retinoids (adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, among others) have been shown to be most effective, but also cause the greatest side effects. Direct to consumer retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde have also been studied extensively and have been shown to impart impressive efficacy.

One study with over 500 participants showed that tretinoin produced significant improvement in fine wrinkling, discoloration (known as hyperpigmentation), roughness, and skin thickness (Bwahan et al, 1991). In another study, retinol was shown to cause substantial improvement in wrinkle depth and cellular signals that cause aging after only 7 days of treatment (Varani et al, 2000). And in a study of retinaldehyde, considerable reduction roughness and wrinkling was observed in concert with minimal side effects. The low side effect profile was then further demonstrated when retinaldehyde was compared to tretinoin. Retinaldehyde treatment was better tolerated by patients and resulted in significantly lower irritation and redness compared to the tretinoin.

Considering adding retinoid to your routine? 

Perform a patch test

Before using a retinoid containing product on our skin, perform a patch test: apply the product to a small area of skin (we recommend patch testing on the skin beneath the ear lobe). If your skin isn’t irritated or red after a few days, you should be comfortable adding the product to your routine.

Use it at night

Retinoids can cause an increased sensitivity to sunlight and can lose efficacy when exposed to sunlight. For these reasons, it’s best to use them in the evening before bed. Add a retinoid to your evening routine!

Use a low concentration while your skin gets used to the retinoid

Retinoids are offered at a variety of concentrations. Utilize a lower concentration first while your skin gets used to the ingredient. Once your skin adjusts, you can increase the concentration for maximum effects.

Apply a sunscreen during the day

SPF is your friend when using a retinoid. It’ll not only help protect your skin from damaging UV rays, but also reduce light sensitivity that’s sometimes experienced when using a retinoid. Even if you apply your retinoid product at night, you should still always follow up with an SPF during the day.

Use a high quality moisturizer

A moisturizer will help your skin stay moist and primed to react positively to the retinoid. It can also reduce the severity of side effects such as redness and irritation.

Don’t use it every day to start

You may want to consider using a retinoid every other day, every two days, or once a week while your skin adjusts to it. As your skin adjusts, you can increase the application to once or twice a day.

Consult a physician or dermatologist

A physician or dermatologist can provide guidance and may recommend prescription-strength retinoid such as tretinoin. We recommend consulting your doctor if you have any questions or experience side effects from using a retinoid.

Retinoids in Voyager products

We’ve leveled up the retinoid game at Voyager and developed what we’d consider is the best all-purpose retinoid-containing moisturizer on the planet. With a host of synergistic moisturizing, soothing, brightening, and calming ingredients, our retinaldehyde containing formulation provides one of the most potent retinoids available over the counter without harsh side effects.

We also encapsulate our retinol in an algae bubble that’s a fraction of the diameter of a human hair, resulting in unparalleled stability and delivery directly to your skin. Try out Dark Side of the Moon today to experience the Voyager difference.