6 Facts About Retinol That May Surprise You

You likely already know that the skin care superstar takes the cake when it comes to anti-aging benefits – and are probably using it, too – but there’s more to this powerhouse ingredient than meets the eye. Here, six important facts that will surprise even the savviest of skin care buffs. We certainly learned a thing or two.

It thicken and thins the skin at the same time

Sure, it sounds oxymoronic, but retinol does both, working on the top layer of your skin and beneath the surface simultaneously. “While it thins the outer skin layer, it also stimulates production of collagen and elastin to strengthen the skin’s foundation,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, Director of Cosmetic Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The former is what makes your skin look even and glowy; the latter helps improve the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

‘Encapsulated’ means more effective

Many of the latest formulations tout encapsulated retinol, a buzzword worth looking for. Housed in a carrier system, it improves skin penetration and protects the integrity of the retinol – a double bonus. “Retinol is highly reactive and oxidizes easily,” explains cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. “Encapsulated retinol will be more effective.” The bottom line: A formula that uses encapsulated retinol will give you more bang for your buck. One to try: Philosophy Help Me ($49; sephora.com).

It’s often animal-derived

Retinoids are vitamin-A derivatives, and while vitamin A is naturally-occurring in many fruits and veggies, much of the retinol used in cosmetic products comes from animal sources such as eggs. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re vegan, or simply trying to avoid using animal-based ingredients. Look for retinol products that are specifically called out as vegan (they typically use plant-based versions instead), like the new Algenist Elevate Advanced Retinol ($98), which will be available on April 22 at Ulta.com.

It’s also an antioxidant

Ingredients such as green tea and vitamin C may get all the antioxidant buzz, but retinol has antioxidant properties, too. So much so that one of the more stable forms, retinyl palmitate, is actually commonly used in sunscreen formulas, says Dr. Zeichner. (More on the connection between sun and retinol in a minute.)

It makes your skin more susceptible to the sun

There’s a lot of conflicting info out there about this point, but Dr. Zeichner tells us that because retinol thins the outer layer of the skin, it will make your skin more likely to burn – and that’s the case whether you use it morning or night. Point being, be really diligent with SFP whenever using a retinol; opting for an SPF 50 just to be safe isn’t a bad idea. We like: Prevage City Smart SPF 50 Broad Spectrum Sunscreen ($68; elizabetharden.com).

There’s a reason why you should use it at night

Traditionally, retinol was recommended as a nighttime product because the sun can inactivate the notoriously unstable ingredient. New advances in formulation have largely made that a non-issue (see our prior point about encapsulation), but using it pre-bedtime is still your best move. “The skin undergoes daily circadian rhythms in which specific activities occur at night, and others occur during the day. Cell turnover is significantly higher at night, so applying your retinol before bed may make it work even better by stimulating collagen production when the cells are most active,” says Dr. Zeichner.

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