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What is Retinol? A Balanced View

Retinol: Saint or Sinner?

“Retinol is a vitamin A compound, a retinoid that is one of the first antioxidants to be widely used in nonprescription anti-wrinkle creams. Available in both prescription and over-the-counter variants. Prescribed retinol creams are effective and they do exactly described, , not least because they contain high concentrations of their active ingredients, but as prescription only creams, they are only available from a doctor or dermatologist”

And in a few more words…

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last few years, anyone who has ever bought an anti-ageing lotion, potion or cream will have heard about a product called ‘Retinol’. Because of the claims associated with Retinol, not surprisingly it’s been labeled a ‘wonder cream’ and with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, global sales figures are only going one way – up. With global anti-aging product sales estimated to top $290 Billion by 2015, Retinol clearly has plenty of avid users and a very bright future.

So what is Retinol Exactly?

For an overview, let me quote The Mayo Clinic:

“Retinol is a vitamin A compound, the first antioxidant to be widely used in nonprescription wrinkle creams. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles”

So retinol when used in cosmetic creams is essentially an anti-ageing or anti-wrinkle cream ingredient. The role that retinol plays as a nutrient in human biology extends far beyond anti-wrinkle and anti-ageing cream ingredients but for now, let’s concentrate on it’s use as a topical (applied directly to the skin) anti-ageing cream.

Prescription Vs. Over-The-Counter Retinol:

Prescription first…

There are a number of prescription strength retinoids available today, some of which contain the following: tretinoin, tazarotene or adapalene. Tretinoin was the first of these ingredients to be FDA approved for use in medicine, as an acne treatment. All retinoids are derived from vitamin A and have been determined to be effective in unclogging pores, boosting collagen production, speeding up cell turnover, evening out skin discoloration and smoothing the skin. Without doubt, these creams are effective and they do exactly described, not least because they contain high concentrations of their active ingredients, but their use is strictly monitored and as prescription only creams, they are only available through your doctor or dermatologist.


Without trying to rain on anyone’s parade, it’s very important to remember that over-the-counter (Non Prescription!) beauty creams and potions manufacturers can and do make many claims about their products, but they are Not Required to undergo scientific research and analysis to prove their effectiveness.

It’s also worth mentioning, that no over-the-counter cream claims to remove wrinkles, rather they are careful to only claim to reduce the appearance of wrinkles which is an entirely different but much more emotive claim.
 Some, though not all over-the-counter retinol (retinoid) creams will state the percentage of retinol in their list of active ingredients, but as there is no regulatory requirement to do so, many still choose not to. But as a general rule of thumb, when a skincare product says it is for ’Sensitive Skin’ this is often a euphemism for a low concentration of active ingredients.That’s not to say that over-the-counter retinol creams are ineffective, but if they do appeal to you and your budget, you should be aware that their effectiveness is much reduced compared to their prescription equivalents due to lower concentrations of active ingredients.You can also expect to wait up-to twelve weeks (yes 12!) before seeing any visible effects.

The Downside of Retinol

Unfortunately retinol can cause irritation to the skin. There will always be a percentage of the population that are sensitive to retinoid creams with symptoms being some or all of the following; Dry skin, redness, peeling skin and flaky skin. It’s fair to say that these symptoms are much more likely in prescription creams due to their more concentrated levels of active ingredients. If you do have an adverse reaction to retinol creams, always consult a medical professional, but if you intend to use them come-what-may, then consider far fewer but regular applications to allow your skin to adjust and accept the cream. There is a suggestion that retinol, even the weaker over-the-counter creams, can render your skin more sensitive to sunlight. This may be because of the turnover of skin cells being higher as a result of using the cream, resulting in skin cells at the surface being younger and more vulnerable to sun damage. As a precaution, if you are using retinol products its been suggested that you should always use a daily sunscreen as well.

Some Absolute Retinol Don’ts:

  • Don’t use any type of a retinol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Don’t use retinol after waxing as it can exacerbate any irritation. Wait a couple of days after waxing before using retinol.
  • Benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids may deactivate retinoids, so don’t use them together.
  • If you have any adverse reaction to any retinol cream ALWAYS consult your Doctor.

Are There Any Alternatives to Retinol?

Of course! The alternative is thousands of years old, has no such side effects and is supremely cost effective. Massage, or more specifically facial massage. A self-administered facial massage will produce effective results far quicker than any miracle cream.Facial massage encourages and stimulates the flow of blood and lymph to the face naturally puffing up the skin, and reducing wrinkles as it does so. For a clearer, healthier and more vibrant face the natural way, try out our risk-free Ultimate Facial Massage course.

In Summary

It would appear that there is some merit in all the hype and hoopla surrounding retinol, and there are clearly some very real benefits to be gained from it’s use. However, be aware that there are also some very real drawbacks that make its use unsuitable for everyone.

Don’t be taken in by the hype and celebrity endorsements, but definitely feel free to give it a go but be realistic about the following:

  • It can take unto twelve weeks before you see any visible effects.
  • Cost doesn’t equate to effectiveness! Don’t be impressed by the very expensive price tags.
  • The effects of retinol stop when you stop applying it so prolonged use equals prolonged expense!

And Finally…

The choice is yours. With retinol there is a personal risk versus rewards decision to be made by each and every one of us, and only you can make that decision, but please don’t ignore your own intuition and don’t overlook the alternatives. Always consult a medical professional if you have any doubts as to the suitability of any new treatment.

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