Retinol: effect and application on the skin

Water drops on pink medical background with words vitamin A and retinol.

Did you know that Robert de Niro and Retinol have something in common? Both have been in the business for around 50 years - and are still superstars in their field! We don't know whether Mister de Niro uses a retinol serum or creams (recent photos don't seem to indicate this), but one thing is certain: If there were an Oscar for active ingredients, retinol would have won it long ago. Because retinol can really do a lot for the skin's appearance and is not without reason the ingredient against skin aging best confirmed by studies. That's why retinol is also known as the gold standard for anti-aging ingredients. However, as is always the case with potent active ingredients in cosmetics, it is also worth taking a closer look at retinol.

Beauty Booster: Retinol and Vitamin A

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. The word "retinol" is used in skin care in a very generalizing way, because in our skin effective is another form of vitamin A, namely its acid:

RETINOIC ACID (retinoic acid or vitamin A acid)

It is the purest active form of vitamin A. And it is precisely this active ingredient that we are talking about when we talk about retinol. Pure retinoic acid is a highly potent dermatological active ingredient that is not permitted in over-the-counter skin care in the EU. Therefore, precursors and even precursors of vitamin A acid are used here. These are only converted into the active retinoic acid by the body in the skin. The generic term for these precursors is retinoids. 

This is how the ingredient is created

The precursors of retinoic acid are much milder, but also less potent - depending on how far away they are chemically from retinoic acid. The conversion happens in this order:

  3. RETINALDEHYD (also called RETINAL for short)

What does retinol do for the skin?

Retinol, or its active form retinoic acid, improves skin condition on several fronts:

1. cell renewal in the epidermis

Retinol boosts cell renewal in the epidermis, helping to refine the skin's surface. At the same time, it reduces hyperpigmentation.

2. slow aging: Combating age-related collagen degradation

Retinol is a potent antioxidant that fights free radicals and counteracts the breakdown of collagen fibers. This degradation of collagen fibers is the core process of skin aging, the skin just shuts down collagen production over the years. Therefore, any strong antioxidant is also an efficient slow-aging agent.

3. stimulation of collagen synthesis

This is where a special ability of retinol comes into play that sets it apart from other antioxidants: It is a true motivational coach for skin cells, whispering to them that they are young again. The result: collagen production is boosted, wrinkles are plumped up from below. The precursor RETINALDEHYD has additional antibacterial properties and is therefore particularly suitable for use in acne therapy.

Use of retinol: what to consider?

Liquid yellow-orange retinol or vitamin A gel or serum from a pipette against a white background

The application of Retinol & Co. is not difficult. Nowadays, retinol (or vitamin A active in the skin) is available in many products as a cream or serum, and in various concentrations. However, you should keep some points in mind and not simply cream on it. It depends on the correct application to avoid skin irritations. 

With the following rules you get the most out of this great ingredient for your skin:

1.) Slow acclimatization

The most important point to accept before integrating retinol into your daily skin care routine: The side effects come quickly, the effects rather slowly. Let's start with the side effects. These include: 

  • Skin irritation
  • Feeling of dryness
  • Slight peeling or scaling of the skin

In sum, these symptoms resemble those of a mild sunburn on the skin, hence the name "retinol burn". They are practically to be expected in sensitive skin conditions or dry skin. However, it depends on other factors whether these effects occur at all due to the application of retinol on your skin. This depends, for example, on the thickness of the facial skin, the current state of the skin barrier as well as the individual tolerance to active ingredients. If the irritations listed above do not occur, this does not mean that retinol does not work for you!

Retinol care: How to avoid retinol burn on the skin

The best thing is to avoid retinol burn in the first place. You can avoid this by slowly getting your skin used to retinol. Here, too, the magic word is "perseverance": Do not use the retinol product as a daily skin care product at first, but only twice a week. After a few weeks, apply your cream or serum every two days, preferably in the evening. 

When the retinol burn becomes noticeable on your face, simply lower the frequency slightly. The goal of this slow acclimation should be to use retinol regularly and continuously. Give your skin time. It's perfectly normal for this acclimation to take two or three months. Don't worry, you won't miss anything. The effect of retinol (vitamin A) lasts at least as long.

2) Regular use of retinol (serum or cream). 

Which brings us to the second point: the staying power you need if you want to use retinol. Retinol needs time to take effect in the skin. Especially the anti-aging effect of retinol, i.e. the build-up of new, additional collagen fibers, needs many months rather than a few weeks to achieve visible results on the skin. By the way, retinol is only suitable as a friend for life - it is less suitable as a fleeting acquaintance. As soon as you stop using retinol, the age-related breakdown of collagen fibers in your skin resumes and everything was in vain.

Even after getting used to it, the following applies: Regularly does not necessarily mean daily. Studies show that retinol improves the appearance of the skin and is effective against skin aging even with an application frequency of one to three times a week.

When does retinol start to have an effect on the skin?

The superficial effects, on the other hand, i.e. the fight against bacteria (retinal) and the production of new skin cells in the epidermis, are already noticeable after about a month, sometimes even after just a few applications. Nevertheless, I'll pass on to you a smart tip I read recently: don't think any more about retinol for the time being, once you've successfully integrated it into your routine. It will work silently and slowly in the background for your skin against wrinkles. 

3) Dosage and useful forms of retinol 

As described at the beginning, the effectiveness of retinoids decreases the further they are removed from the active retinoic acid in the conversion chain. Thus, only two precursors are really recommended in retinol products: RETINOL and RETINAL(DEHYD). The retinol precursors are even milder, but their efficacy is not sufficiently proven.

The dosage recommendation is lower for RETINALDEHYD than for RETINOL because it requires only one conversion step. The current state of research assumes that it is converted into RETINOIC ACID by the body almost without loss. A maximum concentration of 0.1 percent has proven to be as potent as it is proven to be for the active RETINIC ACID. To achieve this dose, 1 percent RETINOL or 0.1 percent RETINALDEHYD is required. 

Tip: Start with low concentration

The difference in concentrations already indicates what studies confirm: RETINAL is considered to be significantly more tolerable than RETINOL. But it is also not nearly as widespread as RETINOL - and the decisive factor is always one's own skin reaction anyway. Good and long-term similarly effective concentrations are 0.3 percent (RETINOL) or 0.05 percent (RETINAL). In general, I always recommend starting the familiarization phase with the low concentrations. For this purpose, our Retinol Care Retinaid is available in two variants: We recommend retinol beginners to start with RETINAID and only from the 2nd bottle to switch to RETINAID FORTE .

A bottle Retinaid Forte  from Highdroxy against a sand-colored background. Next to it five green text boxes with the product benefits.

Retinol can be combined with other active ingredients

Studies show that the effect of retinol can be wonderfully complemented by other active ingredients:

            - Niacinamide (vitamin B3)

            - Fruit acids (AHA)

            - Vitamin C 

If you have read or heard somewhere that retinol does not mix well with any of the active ingredients mentioned: This is one of the many persistent myths that are repeated and copied so often that no one questions them anymore. Fact is: Retinol is compatible with fruit acids or vitamins, regardless of their pH value. Depending on the skin condition, the combination is even highly recommended. In all cases, the following applies: The prerequisite for a combination of retinol with another active ingredient is always a successfully completed retinol acclimatization.

These active ingredients combine well with retinol

Bakuchiol: The herbal alternative to retinol (vitamin A)

Bakuchiol is a promising alternative for those who would like to use a retinol product and for whom the odyssey of choosing a suitable product and getting used to it is too time-consuming. This active ingredient, extracted from the seeds and leaves of the Indian babchi plant (also known as "resin clover" in German), has been called the best alternative to retinol . Although it is chemically in no way related to retinol, it shows an almost identical effect - but without stressing the skin. 

In cosmetic skin care, bakuchiol has been experiencing a real boom for some time now. In traditional Indian and Chinese medicine, on the other hand, the oil of the babchi plant has been known for many decades for its reliable mode of action on various skin problems such as eczema, irritation or psoriasis.

Beauty duo for the skin: bakuchiol and retinol 

However, bakuchiol does not only seem to make sense as a herbal alternative to retinol. Studies show that a combination of retinol and bakuchiol also makes sense. In this case, bakuchiol actually enhances the effect of retinoic acid, but not its irritant potential. In addition, bakuchiol improves the stability of retinaldehyde through its antioxidant properties - all in all, a perfect pair of active ingredients! 

However, I must add a caveat: The number of studies on bakuchiol is still very limited compared to retinol & co. However, there is at least one methodically cleanly conducted clinical study at the University of California from 2018, which compares bakuchiol and retinol with each other (each in the concentration 0.5 percent). The result is impressive: no relevant differences between the two active ingredients were found in the improvement of hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and redness.

The right retinol care: conclusion for the use of retinol

Especially with retinol, there is a lot to understand - and also to consider - so that it can work optimally and achieve the best possible effect for your skin. 

  • If you tend to have sensitive skin, the acclimation of retinol is enormously important. Especially at the beginning of the application, pay attention to concentration and dosage: At the beginning, your retinol serum or retinol cream should not contain more than 0.1 percent retinol. It is sufficient if you apply the retinol care twice a week in the evening. After a successful acclimatization, you can apply the retinol serum or cream more frequently. 
  • We recommend that you protect your face from the sun during this time. This is because the active ingredient pure aldehyde can reduce the skin's own protection against UV radiation. This is a side effect, because the body's own skin renewal is stimulated. And this "fresh" skin does not yet have a pronounced inherent protection against UV radiation. It is therefore absolutely advisable to protect the skin with sun protection factor 30 or higher during the time of application. 
Used correctly and over the long term, retinol has been proven to counteract the visible effects of skin aging such as wrinkles, and dermatologists believe it poses no risk even to sensitive skin or for sensitive skin.