Does Retinol Thin the Skin? And Does Vitamin C Slow Elastin Production? … And More!

Skin Care
FutureDerm Vitamin CE Caffeic Silk Serum

Though I like to think of FutureDerm as a skin care and lifestyle blog now, I still get the most questions from readers about skin care. Specifically, readers tend to ask about how the staples I recommend for everyone affect the skin:

  • Vitamin CE Serum for day
  • Sunscreens for day
  • Retinol for night
  • Peptides, amino acids, growth factors, and repair factors for night

Here, I’ll talk about the most commonly asked questions about vitamin C, sunscreens, retinol, and other ingredients I love!

Q: Does retinol thin the skin? I’ve heard conflicting reports!








For the first 4-6 weeks you use retinol, it will thin the skin.

A few unorthodox dermatologists and aestheticians now tout to magazines that new forms of retinoids do not thin the skin, but if you dig deeper, these same experts tend to consult for the brands that manufacture these new forms of retinoids. I should know — I am a trusted beauty blogger, but I sell my own line, and have had to go so far as to reformulate when new knowledge came out!

In truth, all retinoids exfoliate the skin, and all forms of exfoliation will temporarily thin the skin. According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., founder and president of the Baumann Cosmetic Institute, retinol should not be used during the day. In addition, she notes retinol should not be mixed with other exfoliating photosensitizers, like BHA (salicylic acid) or AHA (glycolic acid). Use of retinoids has also been documented to decrease skin’s production of sebum and natural oils, making the skin initially appear less plump (Journal of Investigative Dermatology).


However, after the first 4-6 weeks, retinol may paradoxically make skin thicker! This is because retinoids inhibit the creation of three distinct collagen-degrading enzymes: collagenase, gelatinase, and stromelysin (Nature). When these collagen-degrading enzymes aren’t functioning properly, your skin appears firmer, stronger, and more elastic. Fine lines and wrinkles also appear to be repaired. This is why dermatologists and aestheticians claim retinoids are the gold standard of skin care — they are, but you must be patient with them through the initial skin-thinning period!

Q: Does vitamin C slow elastin production? I’ve heard this lately!

FutureDerm Skin Diagram

Yes, but this is a good thing! This rumor has come to light as a negative as many natural and organic companies are trying to encourage consumers to use only their non-concentrated forms of vitamin C, such as those found in plant extracts.

But this is just a “convenient” misinterpretation of facts. What really happens is this: When your UV light bombards your skin, it may respond with a repair mechanism in which elastin is overproduced (Journal of Biological Chemistry). UV light may also cause excess elastin to morph into a blobular substance that has been noted with light microscopy (Cosmetic Dermatology). This is one of the reasons why the sun is so bad for your skin!

Elastin is not a protein you want to stimulate within your skin. When elastin is overproduced, its regulation slows or stops altogether. These defects of elastin are associated with wrinkled and sagging skin. In fact, when you speed up elastin production too much, elastin fibers develop very specific cross-links that create less elastic and less firm skin!

When you get out of the sun, elastin production slows to normal, healthy levels.

What you want to stimulate in the skin are fibroblasts, which turnover more slowly with age, and collagen, a structural protein that has been found to increase skin firmness, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and improve skin smoothness. Vitamin C has been shown to increase the cellular turnover of fibroblasts, resulting in younger, less-lined, less marked skin (Journal of Investigative Dermatology). Vitamin C has also been shown to stabilize collagen as it is synthesized in the form of collagen mRNA. This means that vitamin C is effectively increasing the synthesis of collagen in damaged skin (Journal of Investigative Dermatology)! Unlike elastin, increases in fibroblast turnover and collagen production do not seem to result in defective collagen or accelerated signs of aging — quite the opposite!

What’s more, after UV light exposure, the skin recuperates by accelerating its collagen production and decreasing its elastin production (Journal of Biological Chemistry). This is just what vitamin C does for your skin! So this slowing of elastin production is really your skin making itself more beautiful.

Q: Should skin care ingredients all be edible? I’ve been hearing the best ingredients are healthy to eat as well as apply.

Let me start off by reciting some of the ingredients in an all-natural banana (source: JamesKennedy):


And none of this is because fruits are treated with pesticides, or because of the environmental pollution, or because of the chemicals we endorse in society today. None of those chemical names above are pesticides or products of a toxic environment. Rather, these are the ingredients in a banana consumed in 1900, or a banana consumed today.

Skin care ingredients do not have to be edible to be safe is because the skin and the digestive tract are vastly different! The skin evolved to protect your internal organs from potential harm. On the other hand, the digestive tract evolved to absorb as many nutrients as possible!


Obviously, there are key differences between protection and absorption! For instance, your skin cannot absorb any ingredient larger than 500 Daltons (read more), but trace amounts of molecules much smaller than 500 Daltons are regularly absorbed when ingested. Think of trace amounts of arsenic — your skin could not absorb this, but your stomach sure can!

This is one reason why I am so opposed to studies that show an ingredient is harmful when ingested, and someone assuming that this ingredient must be harmful to the skin. The skin is a part of the integumentary system, and the stomach is a part of the digestive system. These are completely different organ systems, with vastly different functions and absorption rules!

pH is another reason it’s vital to understand food is not skin care. A slightly alkaline/basic, or high-pH, diet is best for your health. Dietitians and nutritionists teach alkaline is better because the hydrochloric acid in your stomach has a very acidic pH. In order to properly digest, your very acidic stomach needs to neutralize and break down basic foods! The vast majority of healthy fruits and vegetables are either alkaline (like leafy greens) or leave an alkaline ash when digested in your system (like lemon and other citrus fruits).

pH Matters Skin

On the other hand, a slightly acidic skin care regimen is best for your skin! This is because your skin has a natural barrier that is significantly disrupted by agents with a pH higher than 7.0 (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2006). Your skin becomes more exfoliated with products that are highly acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5. (Hence why glycolic acid peels are so popular!) And your skin’s healthy physiology, containing microflora and healthy bacteria, is maintained at a neutral pH (Acta Dermato-venereologica, 1990).

So it is very important to understand that food is not skin care. While there are some fruit, vegetable, and plant extracts that may be beneficial for the skin, they should be properly formulated in a way that is friendly to the skin!

Bottom Line

In summary:

  • Retinoids generally do thin the skin for the first 4-6 weeks, no matter how gentle the retinoid claims to be. However, after this time, the retinoid may very well increase skin thickness! So stick with it!
  • Despite popular belief, slowing elastin production is a good thing!
  • When UV light hits the skin, it becomes damaged by increasing elastin production, decreasing collagen production, and decreasing cellular turnover.
  • When the skin repairs itself, it decreases elastin production, increases collagen production, and increases cellular turnover. This is the same way vitamin C may work!
  • Food is not skin care. The stomach and the skin are vastly different in terms of pH, enzymatic function, and absorption/protection rates. Don’t believe what every natural and organic company tries to tell you in the name of “safety”!

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop

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