Retinol has long been considered the gold standard of anti-aging, and for good reason: As Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, once said, “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.”
Retinol and its activated prescription counterpart, tretinoin, have been shown in peer-reviewed studies to work in three different ways:
- Prevent collagen loss by inhibiting matrix metalloproteinases, enzymes that degrade collagen (Archives of Dermatology, 2002);
- Treat fine lines, wrinkles, and mottled skin by increasing cell turnover (Archives of Dermatology, 2002, amongst many others);
- Acti as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals (Methods in Enzymology, 1992, amongst many others)
There is a rumor that the retinol on the market in the U.S. is weaker, less concentrated, and more pricey than that on the Korean market. It is true that skincare interest in Korea has been documented for thousands of years, since the earliest Korean writings (700 BCE) (Dr. Kraffert). On the other hand, while it was true through before the 2000’s that Korean skin care tended to be about a decade more advanced than American skin care due to less regulation and more consumer interest, we are seeing a slowdown in Korean skin care technology due to their new interest in natural and organic ingredients, which are typically anything but scientific or advanced. Still, when it comes to retinol, there are a few rumors that should be addressed:
1.) Yes, there more concentrated retinol products on the South Korean market — up to 3.8%.
In the U.S., Dr. Brandt Resurfacing Serum has been the most concentrated retinol product, with about 1.9% of the powerhouse ingredient. Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM has come in second, with 1.5% retinol.
In Korea, Amarté EyeConic Eye Cream contains 3.8 percent retinol — almost double the concentration of the max Dr. Brandt serum available in the U.S. If loading your eyes with super-concentrated retinol isn’t your thing, Amarté Wonder Cream has 1.0 percent stable, nano-encapsulated retinol (the same strength found in SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0), but with greater stability.
2.) No, there are not Korean products with 10% retinol. Really. That’s just a rumor.
A close look at “10% retinol” products often available in Korea, other parts of Asia, and certain European countries is that they call “retinyl palmitate” retinol. And that’s a problem. See here for an example.
The problem with retinyl palmitate is actually two-fold. First of all, you’re getting retinol that is bound to a fatty acid. So each percentage you’re getting of “retinol” in a 10% retinyl palmitate cream is actually significantly more weighty, bulky fatty acid than actual retinol.
Proponents of retinyl palmitate say that it’s because the fatty acid takes down irritation, but truth be told, you can use ingredients like aloe vera, ceramides, witch hazel, bisabolol, and a whole bunch of others to take down irritation. So that’s rather bullcrap-ious to me.
The second reason I don’t like retinyl palmitate is because you never get the true concentration listed anywhere. It’s true that it’s illegal in the US to put ingredient concentrations with percentages on labels. This is for a myriad of reasons meant to protect people that I won’t get into here. But that is why Skinceuticals’ product label reads “Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5” and not 0.5%, and why FutureDerm’s label reads “FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5,” not 0.5%. But many brands will still let you know what’s in their stuff by putting it on their websites and marketing materials.
Yet you’ll never see accurate percentages listed with retinyl palmitate. And if you did, going along with my first point, it’d have to be something like “Retinyl Palmitate 5%” to have the same efficacy as Retinol 0.5%. I don’t like it.
3.) Retinol product labels in the U.S. and Korea cannot be directly compared.
There are two primary differences between skin care product labels in the U.S. and Korea:
- “Compounds consisting of multiple ingredients need to be broken down into individual ingredients and written out separately.” -South Korea
- “Ingredients that are part of compounds need to be listed individually according to their own predominance in the whole product.” -U.S. (fanserviced-b.com)
What this means is two-fold. First, the ingredient list order cannot be used to roughly estimate the relative amount of each ingredient in a Korean product. This is also true for all ingredients found in concentrations less than 2% in the U.S. — companies can cleverly disguise 1.9% parabens and 0.9% vitamin C by placing the vitamin C above the parabens on the ingredient list. But in Korea, any ingredient can be placed anywhere on the ingredients list.
Secondly, this means even the exact same product sold in Korea has a different ingredient list when it is packaged for sale in the U.S.. Ingredients like retinyl palmitate, which is comprised of retinol and palmitic acid, must be listed on the ingredients list as “retinol” and “palmitic acid” when it is sold in Korea. On the other hand, retinyl palmitate can be listed as “retinyl palmitate” on ingredients lists in the U.S.
So you can’t directly compare a Korean product and an American product.
4.) Even though there isn’t a 10% retinol product, you might not want one anyway…
“There’s no legal limit on the amount of retinol that can be used in topical products,” says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer, “however, high levels of retinol can produce dryness, peeling, and irritation.”
Most people generally start with what I estimate to be a 0.025% retinol product, like Neutrogena or RoC. They then go up to a 0.5% retinol product, like Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 or our own FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5. If they’re adventurous, they then progress to either prescription formulas or to the Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0 or the more exotic Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM at 1.5% or Dr. Brandt Resurfacing Serum at 1.9%.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that retinol makes the skin photosensitive. You should always wear it at night. Also, wear lots of sunscreen (but you’re doing that already… right?). Your skin will be more thin and delicate, particularly in the beginning, so you should make sure you’re keeping it protected. And since you will notice some dryness, exfoliate a few times a week to keep everything even and smooth.
I often caution skin care junkies or those who live in sunny climates from going too high with retinoids. Despite rumors on the market, retinoids cannot be used effectively with benzoyl peroxide or acidic products like AHAs or L-ascorbic acid, but these ingredients can have respective potent on-the-spot acne-fighting and lightening, tightening, and brightening effects on their own.
‘That said, if you don’t use benzoyl peroxide or acids, the right time to upgrade your retinoid is when your formula stops producing results. Generally this takes about 3-4 months with the less-concentrated formulas and about 6-12 months with the heavyweight retinol formulas.
5.) When it comes to retinol or tretinoin, go with what works best for you.
Retinol penetrates the skin better than prescription tretinoin. This one surprised me, but it is true. When retinol or retinyl palmitate are applied to skin samples, retinoids were uncovered in all five skin layers, including the deepest layer (the dermis) (Toxicology and Skin Health, 2006). This is not a bad thing at all – studies show some of the retinol in the uppermost layers have enzymes that can convert retinol to its active form, tretinoin. But some of the unconverted retinol traverses your skin and gets into the deepest layers, where collagen is formed.
On the other hand, when you apply tretinoin directly to the skin, it has been shown to work mainly on the uppermost layers of the skin.
People ask me all of the time why I use retinol instead of tretinoin. I’ve used over-the-counter retinol and prescription tretinoin, and I simply find retinol works better for me. That said, if you’re going to try a prescription, use Retin-A Micro, which is the micronized, microencapsulated version of Retin-A (tretinoin).
Despite the rumors you may read online, there is not a true 10% retinol cream or serum out there on the market. And, truth be told, unless you have the most resilient skin of all time, that may not be a bad thing, as higher retinol concentrations are generally associated with redness, dryness, irritation, breakouts, and peeling.
Confusion often arises because Korean companies have to break down their ingredients into their component parts, but American companies do not; and because Korean companies can list their ingredients on the label in essentially any order, whereas American companies have to have ingredients listed in decreasing order of concentration, unless ingredients are present in concentrations under 2.0%, in which case it’s a free-for-all, and good luck.
If you are looking for the highest concentration of retinol available on the Korean market, Amarté EyeConic Eye Cream contains 3.8 percent retinol — almost double the concentration of the max Dr. Brandt serum available in the U.S. It can also be applied all over the face, but at a cost, since it comes in a small package made for the eye area.
In the U.S. market, Dr. Brandt Resurfacing Serum has been the most concentrated retinol product, with about 1.9% of the powerhouse ingredient. Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM has come in second, with 1.5% retinol. Next are products like Skinceuticals 1.0, with (you guessed it) 1.0% retinol, followed by brands with 0.7%, FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5, and then brands like Neutrogena and RoC, which I estimate at 0.025% from my own analyses.
I’ve personally used over-the-counter retinol and prescription tretinoin, and I simply find retinol works better for me. I assume this is because, as studies show, retinol penetrates the skin better than tretinoin. That said, if you’re hellbent on the idea of using a prescription, use Retin-A Micro, which is the micronized, microencapsulated version of Retin-A (tretinoin).
Hope this helps!
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