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Above: The mechanism of action of retinoids. Source: Nature.
Editor’s Note: There is an updated version of this post on FutureDerm.com, available on June 3, 2011.
Retinoids are one of the most effective ingredients in skin care products today, running the gamut from increasing collagen production to decreasing the appearance of wrinkles. Although this 2001 study in the journal Clinics in Dermatology found over-the-counter retinol is 20 times less potent than prescription retinoic acid in the skin, over-the-counter retinol use is still recommended, as Dr. Ranella Hirsch, president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons says in the December 2007 issue of Allure magazine: “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.”
Some Notes About Retinol…
According to experts cited in this article, retinol should be used at night only, in small quantity (a pea-size amount to make a thin layer on your face) after cleansing, and NOT in conjunction with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Retinol also should be used in conjunction with sunscreen every morning, as retinoids/retinol make your skin more photosensitive (sensitive to the sun). Finally, retinol may cause redness, flaking/peeling, and possibly stinging at first, and most experts recommend using retinol products once every 2-3 nights at first for the first 2-3 weeks. The negative effects should be short-term as the skin acclimates to retinol, but if they worsen, the product may not be right for your skin. If ever in question, ask your dermatologist! Now onto the products…
Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 ($35.70, Amazon.com)
Overall Rating: 9/10 (great product)
What an expert says: According to Paula Begoun, the Cosmetics Cop: “Because it contains a significant amount of retinol, the claims you can bank on are building collagen and stimulating cell regeneration…Fortunately, this water-and-silicone-based serum does contain many other beneficial ingredients for healthy skin, including ceramides, cholesterol, lecithin, antioxidants, and the anti-irritant bisabolol. The opaque bottle with pump applicator helps maintain the stability of the retinol, which is a prerequisite for products with this ingredient.” Begoun gives a similar review for Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0, with twice the concentration of retinol.
Based on ingredients alone: On the plus side, the formulation contains both vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (as tocopherol acetate), which are network antioxidants that synergistically enhance the power of one another, increasing sun protection and reducing free radical damage by impede or slowing the free radical chain reaction. On the down side, while this product says it includes 0.5% pure retinol, only retinyl palmitate (retinol combined with a fatty acid) is listed in the ingredients. Correction from L’Oréal/Skinceuticals representative Mary Mills Kennedy: The ingredients list on Amazon.com is incorrect, and Skinceuticals 0.5 and 1.0 does in fact contain retinol. I apologize – my source (Amazon.com) was incorrect, and I have contacted Amazon about their error. A new post about Skinceuticals 0.5 and 1.0 is available here. According to this 1997 study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 0.6% retinyl palmitate is less effective in penetrating human skin than 0.025% retinol (the concentration similar to that found in many other over-the-counter skincare formulations). However, even though retinyl palmitate is less potent than retinol, it has been shown to exhibit the collagen-stimulating, smoothing, and wrinkle-reducing properties of retinol over time, and has also been shown to be less irritating.
Ingredients: Water, Dihydroxyacetone, Octyl Palmitate, Glycerin, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Oil, Erythrulose, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearic Acid, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Tocopherol Acetate, Retinyl Palmitate <–Retinol, Cholecalciferol, Assorbic Acid, Dimethicone, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, Polyacrylamide, Isoparaffin C 13-14, Laureth-7, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Fragrance
Overall Rating: 8/10 (great product with retinol, but only one network antioxidant, and not good for oily skin or skin prone to breakouts)
What the experts say: According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, Director of Cosmetic Dermatology at the University of Miami, “Philosophy Help Me retinol night treatment is less potent than a prescription retinoid but can diminish fine lines just as effectively over time.” Unfortunately, Begoun notes that the product should only be used normal to very dry skin, because it contains a fairly high concentration of emulsifying wax.
Based on ingredients alone: Contains retinol (rather than less penetrating retinyl palmitate) and tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), a potent antioxidant, along with hydrating fatty acids, emulsifying wax, glycerin, and dimethicone.
Ingredients in Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment: Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Emulsfying Wax, Glycerin, C10-30 Cholesterol/Lanosterol Esters, Cetyl Ricinoleate, Cetyl Alcohol, Dimethicone, Benzyl Alcohol, Cyclomethicone, Retinol, Tocopherol Acetate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Acrylates Copolymer, Stearic Acid, PEG-10 Soya Sterol, Phenoxyethanol, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Methylparaben, Triethanolamine, Disodium EDTA, Bisabolol, BHT.
Overall Rating: 10/10 (great product with retinol, plus green tea in high concentration and two forms of vitamin E in low concentration)
What an expert says: According to dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo in the October 2007 issue of Allure magazine: “With regular use, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream improves skin’s brightness, color, and texture, and softens existing lines and crepiness. If you start using it in your twenties, before you see these changes, you could push them off further.”
Based on ingredients alone: Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream contains a better form of retinol than Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and a high concentration of antioxidant green tea for a lower price than either Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 or Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment. Unfortunately, it does not contain network antioxidants that reinforce the power of one another like Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 , but it still contains an impressive concentration of antioxidant green tea.
Ingredients in Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream: Purified Water, C12-C15 Alkyl Benzoate, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Camellia Oleifera Extract, Octyl Hydroxystearate, Dimethicone, Retinol, Panthenol, Disodium EDTA, Tocopherol, Cetearyl Glucoside, Tocopheryl Acetate, Polysorbate 20, Triethanolamine, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Diazolidinyl Urea, BHT, Carbomer.
And the Winner is…
Thankfully, the cheapest product, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream, for having a better form of retinol than Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and for being suitable for most skin types, unlike Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment, with a high concentration of emulsifying wax. Keep in mind that the effects of retinoids are best with a prescription from your dermatologist. At any rate, if you are in the market for a retinol over-the-counter cream, happy shopping!
*Update January 8, 2008: Thank you to Mary Mills Kennedy from L’Oréal/Skinceuticals. I was unaware that the ingredients information at Amazon.com was incorrect for Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5, and I have e-mailed Amazon.com to make them aware of this error. Please visit this new page for more information on Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and 1.0.