General Overview

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that is primarily formed in living animals. It is a basic form of Vitamin A which can be altered into other forms of Vitamin A, each of which has a different function: retinal, one of those forms, is a variant of Vitamin A that is essential for vision, while retinoic acid, another form, plays an essential role in the continued health of skin, teeth, and bones. Functionally, retinol is essential for healthy skin cells. Without the presence of retinol, cells which secrete mucus (Which keeps skin well hydrated and flexible) instead begin producing keratin, the same brittle compound found in hair and nails (Which dehydrates and damages the skin). Organic retinol can only be found in animal products, like liver and eggs. Synthetic retinol, however, can be manufactured in a laboratory or factory. Most, if not all, retinol that is used in cosmetic and beauty products is produced synthetically.

Side Effects & Potential Dangers

The most common side effects that should be expected when applying retinol topically are skin reactions, which typically include itching, burning, redness, scaling, and peeling of the skin. When taken persistently over a long period of time, retinol can reduce the thickness of the skin. Another documented, but much less frequent, side effect from topically applying retinol is chronic photosensitivity, which can increase your chance of developing sunburns.

Women who are pregnant, or may become pregnant, should consult a primary care physician before applying products that contain retinol. Oral prescriptions of retinol have been linked to severe fetal birth defects, and there remains a lurking threat of similar birth defects for topical products that contain retinol. No studies have been conducted, yet, and it remains unclear if retinol that is absorbed in the bloodstream through the skin can affect fetal development in the same way that oral-prescriptions of retinol do.

Clinical Research

Retinol has been subjected to various clinical studies in recent years, with most studies lauding its benefits and highlighting the potential side effects that can result from using the compound, both orally and topically. A 2009 study made a significant step towards making retinol much safer for consumers by establishing recommended safe dosage range of the compound: Over the course of a 36-week study, a 0.1 percent concentration of retinol provided results that typical of the compound, but failed to confer any harmful side effects. As that concentration approached 0.4 percent, however, subjects started developing rashes, peeling, and inflammation of their skin. So, these studies concluded that topical cosmetic products should be composed of no more than 0.4% retinol, with 0.1% as their recommended concentration.

Before using products that contain retinol, or one of its derivatives, check to make sure that the amount of retinol in that product is less than 0.4% of its overall mass (Both measurements should be included on the packaging). 

To find out information on which anti-wrinkle products contain this ingredient, have a look at our product comparison chart.