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What is Retinol and How Does It Work?

Vitamin A is one of the most common ingredients in cosmetic skincare products. If you buy an anti-wrinkle cream, chances are the ingredient that makes it work is part of a class of compounds called retinoids that are made from vitamin A.

Chemical Names

Retinoids have been used in skincare products for decades and are supported by a significant body of research demonstrating their ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Some types of retinoids such as tazarotene and tretinoin are only available with a prescription from a dermatologist. In cosmetic products, retinol is the most potent retinoid that is available without a prescription. It has been shown to have the same anti-aging effect on the skin as the prescription retinoids, but takes longer for visible results. Other retinoids called pro-retinols are also available in cosmetic products. These are weaker and gentler than retinol and include retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate.


There is no FDA monograph for retinol. This means that products with retinol are regulated as cosmetics, not over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. This categorization limits the labeling requirements and regulatory oversight associated with retinol anti-wrinkle products and also limits the claims that can be made for the products. That is why you will see claims like "reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles" and not "reduces fine lines and wrinkles." For a refresher on FDA monographs and cosmetic claims, refer to Cosmetic or Drug? Regulatory Basics and FDA Monographs.


So how do retinoids work? Collagen and elastin give skin its elasticity and youthful appearance. As you age, your skin produces less collagen and elastin which leads to sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles. Retinoids work at a cellular level to increase skin cell turnover, support the production of collagen, and reverse skin damage from UV exposure.

Retinoids can also be used to treat acne and decrease inflammation by unclogging blocked pores. Topical retinoids can work together with antibiotics to enter the pore and kill acne-causing bacteria.

Technical Challenges

Retinoids are difficult to formulate with because they are unstable when exposed to heat, light, and oxygen. As a consumer, you may have noticed that the packaging for anti-wrinkle creams with retinol are opaque and limit exposure to air. Retinol creams are also often formulated as night creams so consumers will not wear the product in sunlight.

These considerations also have an impact on the entire supply chain, including raw material handling and storage, compounding, and packaging processes. Controls on temperature, light, and oxygen exposure are necessary to prevent the degradation of the retinoid during production and ensure the final product is effective.

Consumer Considerations

If retinoids are so effective at reducing wrinkles, why doesn't everyone use them? Common side effects experienced by consumers using retinoids include skin redness, drying, and irritation. These effects are correlated with the strength of the product used and the frequency of use. Unfortunately, that means that in order to avoid irritation, you may need to wait longer for results.

To mitigate unwanted side effects, it is recomended that you start with a lower concentration and increase over time or start with a less frequent application and gradually build up to daily use. You can also start with a gentler retinoid such as retinyl palmitate and slowly move to retinol or prescription strength tretinoin over time.

If you find that retinoids are not right for you, there are other options out there. Some people with sensitive skin find retinoids to be too harsh and irritating and opt for different anti-wrinkle ingredients such as glycolic acid.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found today's post informative and now know a bit more about the most common anti-wrinkle ingredient family - retinoids. As with any skincare product, it's best to experiment with different products until you find a brand or formula that works well for your skin. If you'd like to learn more about common cosmetic ingredients, check out Ingredients 101: Cosmetic Ingredients Broken Down by Source, Class, and Function.

Do you have more questions on retinoids? Is there another common ingredient that you would like to learn more about? Let me know in the comments!

Retinol Chemical Structure

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