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Advances in Age-Defying Skin Care: The Vitamin A Story

There have been a number of recent technological advances that have allowed formulators like me to create natural, alternative products that noticeably reverse the effects of time. These breakthroughs include methods that permit the much more effective delivery of age-defying heavy hitters, including vitamin A (as retinol) and vitamin C (as L-ascorbic acid). Our winner in the skin rejuvenation department is Gentle Retinol Night Serum, our age-fighting topical that holds its own against its pharmaceutical counterpart and reigning champion, Retin-A.

The retinoid family comprises vitamin A (retinol) and its natural derivatives like retinaldehyde, retinoic acid and retinyl esters, as well as a large number of synthetic derivatives. Vitamin A is the only ingredient (other than vitamin C) proven to improve cellular function of aging and photodamaged skin. Retinoids speed up cell turnover rate, reduce blackheads and minimize pores. Most importantly, in addition to stimulating new collagen production, retinoids limit rising levels of collagenase (the enzyme that breaks down collagen) that occur after sun exposure.

The reigning champion, Retin-A

The retinoid most commonly used in skin care until very recently has been tretinoin, found in Retin-A and other prescription products. Retin-A really works, and there’s plenty to like about it. Dermatologists like it because of the weight of historical evidence pointing to its efficacy, and the fact that it "remodels skin on a cellular level," as dermatologist Joel L. Cohen attests.

Formulators like it because tretinoin is efficient. Tretinoin, aka retinoic acid, is the end product of conversion from retinol to retinoic acid in the biological pathway: retinolàretinaldehydeà Using tretinoin eliminates the problems that make formulating with retinol difficult, namely, lower biological activity due to slow conversion of retinol to tretinoin, and retinol’s rapid degradation by heat, light, air and low pH surroundings. Finally, consumers like it because they see significant improvements to their skin with respect to wrinkle reduction, fading of skin discoloration and decreased pore size.

As effective as Retin-A is for many people, there are enough limitations that formulators remain motivated in the search for alternatives. First, tretinoin is available only by prescription, and it is expensive. Second, even in low concentrations, many people find it too irritating on the skin. Common side effects of Retin-A are burning, warmth, stinging, tingling, itching, redness, swelling, dryness, peeling, irritation or discolored skin. Allergic reactions like hives, difficulty breathing and swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat, though very rare, can occur. Retin-A can also cause birth defects, which is why it’s available only by prescription.

By default, the answer for many people left languishing on the Retin-A sidelines has been retinol, which has minimal side effects. But until very recently, retinol really was tretinoin’s poor cousin twice removed. While there is less irritation with retinol, the problems associated with maintaining efficacy in formulation, namely a low conversion to tretinoin rate combined with a high tendency to degrade, meant the products didn’t deliver results. In truth, it could be argued that the lack of side effects was due to the fact that nothing much was happening. Retinol products, frankly, weren’t worth the money.

New and improved retinol

Now, thanks to advances in skin-care technology, the picture has changed. Many retinol products, including Gentle Retinol Night Serum, use stabilized versions of retinol. We use retinol encapsulated into the multilamellar liposome phosphatidylcholine. Studies under a variety of conditions, varying temperatures, light exposure and different pHs indicate that degradation of retinol is significantly slowed when it is encapsulated in this way. We have also made additional modifications to our retinol product to increase its skin-renewal benefits. 

  • High concentration of retinol: Retinol products only work when the concentration is high enough to counteract the lower biological activity of retinol due to slow conversion. Ordinarily, this would lead to a product almost as irritating as Retin-A, but we have found that the addition of sodium salicylate, a powerful anti-inflammatory with rejuvenating benefits, helps to significantly reduce irritation.
  • Incorporation of stabilized L-ascorbic acid: A study concluded that repeated topical application of a preparation containing both retinol and vitamin C could reverse, at least in part, skin changes induced by both chronological and photoaging. This brings us to the grandest new breakthrough of modern skin care—the stabilization of vitamin C so it can be used in solution.

If you are using Retin-A or another tretinoin product and getting good results, look no further. If you’ve tried a prescription product and found you could not use it, you might want to try a retinol. For those of you who’ve tried retinol products in the past and have been disappointed, this is a great time to give retinol another chance. Look for products that contain high concentrations of stabilized retinol, and I suspect you’ll be happily surprised.