The Rise Of Retinol, Skincare's Unsung Hero

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
In the skincare world, retinol (another name for vitamin A) is your typical bad boy. A misunderstood rebel, you’re magnetised by his reputation, presence, strength, not to mention his exceptional skills in bed. Then all of a sudden, the rumours you shrugged off become hard to ignore. Now he's difficult, irritating and has more issues than Vogue. Definitely not the catch you first thought. And therein lies the problem with beauty's biggest powerhouse: retinol is one tricksy character.

Since the 1980s, just about every skincare pro has preached countless sermons on retinol being the biggest boon for beauty. It’s mightily efficacious at waging war on wrinkles and obliterating breakouts. Even 30 years on, “there are no new products that can rival retinol” explains Dr. Ross Perry. There is an encyclopaedic amount of research to justify its utter brilliance but here’s what you really need to know. Its prowess lies in its ability to rev up cell turnover to lightning speed, which is the aim of the game in our quest for glowing skin. Now, you’re probably thinking, 'My AHA exfoliators speed up cell turnover just fine'. But retinol is far superior because it works in a more sophisticated way.

"Your average exfoliating AHA acids work by dissolving the surface layers of the skin, thereby encouraging cell turnover as your body is forced to replenish itself with new skin. Retinol, however, works in the opposite way; it binds itself to receptors in our skin cells, which then force them into making so much new skin that top layers of dead skin fall off” explains Victoria Hiscock, product and education specialist for Alumier Labs UK. There’s also one big drawback. Retinol causes so much irritation that most people give up on it before they see results. As a consequence, it’s been unable to shake its stigma, losing out to South Korea’s bright, quirky and highly advanced formulations. New breakthroughs, however, are finally challenging the status quo – the next generation of retinol-based products might be one of beauty's biggest comebacks.

The first quantum leap? Microencapsulation. This technology has actually been used in skincare for a while. It’s based on the premise that the retinol is encased in a nanoparticle (think balloon) before being added to the formulation. This protects the retinol, making it more stable in the cream or serum. It also means the retinol is time-released, allowing it to be drip-fed into the skin over time, reducing the risk of a reaction. Genius, right? Not so, says Clare Muir, director of training for Environ Skincare. "It sounds very captivating, but on testing liposome technology [the techy term for encapsulation] we've found it's too problematic to make sure the encapsulated retinol particle actually bursts when it hits the skin and then travels down into the various skin layers. There's too much to rely on to ensure the process is going to be successful. We don’t use it because we don’t think it really works.”
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One brand, however, believes they've finally cracked it. "Encapsulation has come a long way since its inception," reveals Victoria. "Advanced cosmeceuticals companies now have anywhere up to five materials they use to encapsulate it. In our Retinol Resurfacing Serums, we use a special time-released polymer to encase our retinol and then team with an oil-encapsulated peptide so that the two work together in harmony to diminish irritability." It's much more user-friendly because your skin metabolises the retinol over a longer period of time. "It’s like food, your body copes much better when you eat little and often. Encapsulated retinol works in exactly the same way", says Victoria. Murad’s Retinol Youth Serum, £65 is another new player, containing three types of retinoid technology. It has the time-released encapsulated retinol, meaning you needn’t worry about a red and ravaged complexion, but – for those who are super-impatient – it also boasts a hydroxypinacolone retinoate. Essentially an alternative, rocket-fuelled derivative of vitamin A, it trickles into the skin quicker while enhancing its ability to dust off damage. Elsewhere, Neutrogena’s Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream is the new sports car of vitamin A creams. It contains an Accelerated Retinol SA, a proprietary compound, allowing it to be used more frequently for speedy results.
Another huge achievement is that the newer formulations of vitamin A maintain stability in the presence of light. Previously, wearing retinol during the day was a big no-no because a) it makes skin ultra-sensitive to UV rays, and b) like Dracula, it depreciates upon contact with sunlight. However, a new photo-stable retinol derivative, called retinyl retinoate, has been formulated in a Korean super-lab by skincare brand Medik8. Backed by impressive clinical results, it’s found in their r-Retinoate Youth Activating Cream, £135, which is suitable for slathering on first thing in the morning.

Environ, meanwhile, have worked tirelessly to harness vitamin A without encapsulation and on making sure it doesn’t irritate the skin. Their new range, Youth EssentiA is a step programme, so that you start off with the weakest levels of vitamin A – known as retinol esters – and work your way up to retinol palmitate, then retinol. What’s really special is that every product in the range is packed with a brigade of antioxidants, vitamins and nutrients. “For vitamin A to have the best chance of working, it needs partners in crime” reveals Clare. Skin cells, like humans, live in close contact with each other as individuals, families and communities, and the success of these communities relies on communication and working together to achieve common goals. So if you’re deficient in vitamins or nutrients, your vitamin A will be rendered practically useless, regardless of potency or how much you use, while your cell communication will be the equivalent of President Trump having a chat with Iran’s supreme leader.

Of course, there are still some retinol rules to play by. If you’ve never tried a vitamin A product, you need to build up your tolerance levels. “A person that buys a retinol without understanding its strength has potential to do some real damage” warns Victoria. Check the percentage on the package – retinol starts at about 0.25% – or look out for retinol palmitate. “Always pair with an SPF and, if in any doubt, see a licensed skincare practitioner” advises Victoria. Overall, formulas have come a long way and are only going to get better. It appears skincare’s favourite bad boy is finally getting his shit together.
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