Is Retinol Really the Skincare Fountain of Youth?


Is Retinol Really the Skincare Fountain of Youth?

— Karen Saunders delves into Retinol, the contentious, highly coveted and ultra popular ingredient heralded for youthful, glowing skin.


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Karen Saunders
Naturopath BHsc. /
Content writer

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Ever wondered what the big deal is with retinol when it comes to skincare? Retinoids are touted as the fountain of youth but do they actually work? And what’s with all the side effects?

Noéma investigates.

Your skin can (and will) age in two ways

Firstly – intrinsically: This is an inevitable biological process caused by age, genetics, hormones and pollution. And secondly – via photo ageing. This is from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. The latter is by far the major factor for ageing skin and what retinol gets to work on. Perhaps you have heard of retinoids before, or retinol or vitamin A; or one of the other myriad of names retinoids are known as.

Retinol has pervaded both the conventional and natural skincare market such with brands like Sans [ceuticals] and their Activator 7 oil. Image via  Sans [ceuticals]

Retinol has pervaded both the conventional and natural skincare market such with brands like Sans [ceuticals] and their Activator 7 oil.
Image via Sans [ceuticals]


Ok – But what are retinoids exactly?

‘Retinoid’ is the umbrella term for all retinol products. Retinol is vitamin A, and very important for the skin. Any deficiency of vitamin A can result in dry, rough skin, acne and inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis. It is shown to be extremely effective in slowing the signs of ageing.

Various natural and synthetic retinoids are used for the treatment of acne and ageing and do show clinical improvement. There are many different types of retinoids and they vary greatly in strength. Retinoic acid is the active form of retinol in the skin and the most potent. Most retinoids found in skincare need to undergo some sort of transformation into retinoic acid once applied to the skin. 

However there are some synthetic prescription medications for skin conditions that already exist in the active form of retinoic acid. This makes them very potent and more prone to reaction: Isotretinoin used orally for acne in the prescription drug Roaccutane. There is also tretinoin (or Retin-A) or tazarotene which is used topically for acne, age spots and wrinkles. You can get prescription for this from your doctor. These purge old skin cells and causes new, healthy cells to form quickly. However – due to their strength, side effects can be severe and commonly cause reactions known as a ‘retinoid reaction’. Therefore they are generally not recommended for use. 

Over-the-counter beauty products often contain retinols which are less potent and first need to be converted by the body to form retinoic acid. This extra step means retinols take longer to work compared to prescription products, but can still be as effective, however with less side effects.

For Retinoid classification see here.

Are they worth the hype?

In a word – yes. Research has shown that retinoid improves skin texture, pigmentation and tone, working at a deep level in the skin cells by affecting gene expression. The results are enhanced collagen production, and a reduction in sun, hormonal and environmental skin damage.

Benefits of retinol include:

  • Reduction in fine lines and wrinkles

  • Can fade pigmentation or age spots

  • Increased collagen production

  • Increase skin firmness and elasticity

  • Effective treatment for pimples and acne

Are they safe?

Due to their potential potency – there are a lot of questions regarding the safety of retinoids.

The stronger retinoids can commonly cause a retinoid reaction – redness, burning, itching and peeling. It is also debated that retinoids can cause sun sensitivity (photo-sensitisation) and consumers are instructed to avoid sun or use sunscreen in the first few weeks of use. This is again, debated in the literature.

Generally speaking, if you are wanting to use retinol safely, look out for plain retinol in off-the-shelf products as it is gentler than its more reactive cousin retinoic acid or see our handy reference table below. Retinol will do the same thing as retinoic acid. Sure – it may take slightly longer – but its safe. Stronger is NOT always better.

If you are prone to sensitive skin – other retinol derivatives to consider are retinyl palmitate, reinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate. They are an even more gentle, less irritating form of vitamin A.

Minimise reactions

At the end of the day – if you experience any sort of skin reaction using retinoid consider the following:

  • Apply only at night, using only a pea-sized amount

  • Use a natural sunscreen during the day

  • Reduce the frequency of application, applying every second night

  • Switch to a less irritating retinoid or formula

  • Herbs such as gingko, raspberry, schisandra, gotu kola have been shown to reduce retinoid reaction and may be used in some formulations

  • If you are experiencing an extreme reaction or symptoms don’t improve within ten days, stop applying retinoid application and consult your dermatologist

Note that when using retinoids – many products state that you will see change within weeks. But in reality results will take on average twelve weeks to produce change as the skin cells take this amount of time to renew.

Egg yolk and spinach are sources rich in Vitamin A. Image by  Daria Shevtsova

Egg yolk and spinach are sources rich in Vitamin A.
Image by Daria Shevtsova


Use Food As Medicine –
Eat often for your daily dose of vitamin A:

  • Egg yolk

  • Sweet potato

  • Beef liver

  • Spinach

  • Foods rich in beta-carotene (your body converts these to vitamin A). Look for foods bright in colour such as pumpkin, carrot, and tomato.

Plant-based retinol skincare alternatives to look out for:

  • Psoralea corylifolia ‘babchi’: This plant contains an active constituent bakuchiol, It mimics the benefits of retinol and used in ayurvedic and chinese formulas. Check out these products that contain bakuchiol.

  • Rosehip oil: Contains small amounts of retinol precursor beta-carotene, and fellow antioxidants vitamin C and E. 

Bonus —

Quick Reference Table for Commonly Found Retinols in Skincare


Retinol – aka Vitamin A

Precursor for internally produced retinal and retinoic acid. Commonly found in off-the-shelf skincare. Good to slow the signs of ageing, gentle with less irritation potential, takes longer to have effect




Direct retinoic acid precursor, works faster than retinol, with less irritation, reduces wrinkles acne and pigmentation

Retinol Esters / Derivatives

Retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, retinyl palmitate and retinyl linoleate

Gentle retinoid. Synthetically developed to improve stability.

Retinoic acid esters

Hydroxypinacolone retinoate


New generation retinoid, converted in the skin easily to active retinoic acid. Less irritating than retinol and very effective

Retinoic Acids

Tretinoin & Tazarotene


Prescription only – strongest topical retinoid for acne, fine lines and premature ageing. Can be irritating and drying


Prescription only – oral use for cystic acne. Many side effects.

Disclaimer: Please note this article is not intended to diagnose, treat any disease or health condition and is not a substitute for any professional medical advice. Please keep in mind this is for information purposes only. Please consult your healthcare practitioner before engaging in anything suggested in this blog article.


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