Tretinoin, Retinol, and Retinyl Palmitate: The Key to Anti-Aging Success?

Skin Care


According to Dr. David E. Bank, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery, researchers discovered the anti-aging properties of Retin-A, a prescription topical treatment containing a derivative of vitamin A, in 1985, when it was first used as an acne treatment. Patients reported decrease in the appearance of wrinkles and smoother skin, in addition to a reduction in acne.

The active ingredient in Retin-A, tretinoin (brand name Renova), is the only chemical to date to receive FDA approval for anti-aging and anti-sun damage properties. According to research by Fisher et. al cited by Dr. Leslie Baumann in Cosmetic Dermatology, retinoids are effective in preventing and treating the collagen loss caused by photodamage. UV exposure decreases collagen types I and III with 24 hours, but treatment of the skin with all-trans retinoic acid prevents the loss of these types of collagen synthesis. In addition, Fisher et. al demonstrated that application of tretinoin inhibits the induction of matrix metalloproteinase genes (more here), which are in part responsiblefor collagen degradation.

Side effects of retinol include skin irritation, desquamation, and redness. In addition, use of vitamin A derivatives has been associated with birth defects, and so it is advisable for women who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or those who may become pregnant to avoid use of tretinoin, retinol, or retinyl palmitate. It is further notable that patients with sensitive skin should use lower concentrations of tretinoin (0.025% rather than 0.1%) or, alternatively, lower concentrations of different metabolites of vitamin A, namely retinol or retinyl palmitate. According to Dr. Baumann, retinol and retinyl palmitate should be present in concentrations of at least 0.04% to 0.07% and packaged properly (to avoid oxidation) in order to be effective, as they are in Neutrogena Healthy Skin with SPF 20 and RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream .


So how are retinol and retinyl palmitate related to the proven-effective tretinoin? According to Dr. Baumann, retinol is classified as a cosmetic rather than a drug because it must first be converted to retinaldehyde, and then all-trans retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective. In general, retinol is considered to be about 20 times less potent than retinoic acid, and thus higher concentrations of retinol need to be used to achieve similar efficacy to all-trans retinoic acid (i.e., 0.04% or 0.07% versus 0.025%). However, although retinol needs to be present in higher quantities than tretinoin in order to be effective, patients typically experience lower levels of irritation using retinol products. Similarly, retinyl palmitate is a combination of pure retinol and palmitic acid (a substance typically used in cosmetics as a cleansing agent), and so it too must be converted to retinaldehyde and then all-trans retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective. However, when present in sufficiently high concentrations, retinyl palmitate displays results similar to that of retinol. One caveat: based on information from Dr. Baumann’s site, make-up products with retinol will expire approximately one month after opening, so use accordingly.

Tretinoin itself is available in five prescription formulas: Retin-A Micro (Johnson & Johnson), Renova (Johnson & Johnson), Avita, Differin (Galderma), and Tazorac (Allergan). According to Dr. Bank, Retin-A Micro uses microsphere technology to allow a more sustained release of tretinoin over time. Some patients may find Retin-A Micro drying, in which case Renova, a product with tretinoin delivered in a mineral-oil base, may be recommended. A third option, Avita, is considered to be less irritating than Retin-A Micro, but without the mineral-oil base that can stimulate acne in some patients. The fourth option, Differin, contains a different chemical, adapalene, and is considered to make skin less photo-sensitive than other tretinoin products. Lastly, the newest product, Tazorac, contains tazarotene, and may be drying, but was approved by the FDA in 1997 for the treatment of acne. According to Dr. Baumann, a 2000 study by Kakita et. al found that the efficacy of tazarotene 0.1% gel is clinically comparable to 0.1% tretinoin [in Retin-A Micro] and 0.025% gel tretinoin [Renova] and adapalene 0.1% gel [Differin].

Vitamin-A derivatives are thereby considered to be excellent prevention and treatment against the signs of aging caused by ultraviolet rays. However, the effects of vitamin A derivatives on sensitive skin can be harsh. As such, provided one is not breast-feeding, pregnant, or may become pregnant, s/he should talk to their dermatologist about making the right choice of tretinoin, retinol, or retinyl palmitate for a part of their anti-aging routine on a daily basis.

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    can I get Renova in stronger strength than 0.05, such as 0.1?

  • Pingback: WHAT VITAMIN A IS DOING IN YOUR SKINCARE... Plus which type will work best for you! - Honesty For Your Skin()


  • J. Bill

    One thing to consider is how retinol and retinyl palmitate break down when exposed to UV rays. New photostabilizers, such as ethylhexyl methoxycrylene, can protect it from photodegradation and keep daily wear products with retinoids in them highly effective.

  • Dear J. Tania,

    Retin-A was actually originally developed as an anti-acne cream, and later it was found to have superb anti-aging benefits. With that said, I have heard of women without acne and non-sensitive skin using the 0.1% cream for the anti-aging benefits, yes.

    As always, please talk to your dermatologist or primary care physician about this, as I am still a student. Since it is available only by prescription anyway, you might as well. 🙂

    Hope that this helps!

    • ivy

      hi nicki,
      i used retin-a for 7 months and i’m still wondering if i can use moisturising creams after it. are time intervals needed in applying tretinoin creams and moisturizing creaams? thank you

    • ivy

      hi nicki,
      i used retin-a for 7 months and i’m still wondering if i can use moisturising creams after it. are time intervals needed in applying tretinoin creams and moisturizing creams? thank you

  • I love your website, Nicki. It is full of excellent thought and research.

    I am obsessed with any and all articles on Retin-A.

    I have been using the .05% cream for more than a year now, to battle wrinkles on my 40-something skin. I like the stuff!

    I really want to try the most potent formula, the .1% cream. Would this higher strength produce even better skin care results?

    I have read that most docs prescribe the .05% cream for wrinkles, and the .1% cream for acne.

    Why is that?

    Does that mean the .1% cream would not give me any greater skin than the .05% does?

    Want to know your thoughts about this.


  • Hi Amy,

    I personally like the sample sizes better, because they are cheaper, ounce for ounce. With the bigger bottles, I don’t know if efficacy lasts 6 months or not…honestly, I’m just a student, but my best guess would be that the faster it is used and the cooler and darker the storage, the better.

    Hope this helps!

  • amy

    Testimonial on Retin A and question on Ferulic

    I have used retin a for 20 years and can vouch for effectiveness: my skin looks ten years younger. I also take great care of it but think the retin a has played a big role.

    Also…question on Ferulic bottles: do you think the efficacy really lasts 6 mos. as long as you dont leave the bottle open more than necessary to get the product out? do we think the sample sizes are better than big bottle?

    i take my big bottle and pour half into another older bottle so i’m not exposing all the serum to air every time i open it.

    other ideas?

    thanks! i love this website. great info!!!

  • Dear Mel,

    Honestly, I have never had a problem with using the sample sizes of Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, although you are correct: the sample size bottles are not sealed as thoroughly as the full-size bottles. I would say that it is up to your discretion. As a student, the money I save is worth the risk of having a bottle that is less tightly sealed (though I do inspect each bottle thoroughly), but I can’t say that I recommend the same to you.

    I hope that this helps.

  • Mel Isaacson

    I have been purchasing Skinceuticals C E Ferulic 6 travel samples from the site which you recommended last year. One of the customers reviews on this product notes that it isn’t sealed like the full sized product. What are your thoughts on this? Since Vitamin C isn’t stable is it possible this product has lost some of its effectiveness. This never occured to me until I read the customer comment. Happy New Year!

  • Danielle

    Hi, Nicki. I use Differin at night, although I am curious about the Green Cream you rave about. Would it be worth trying? Or is Differin stronger? Meaning if I’m not experiencing worthwhile results with Differin, then I won’t with Green Cream either.

    FYI-I’m 32. No wrinkles. Fair skin. Acne in the form of white puss-filled bumps. I want to get rid of these bumps! And I want to delay the wrinkles!

  • Nadia

    Hi Nicki,

    I found out about your website just a few days ago from skintype solution forum and really love it. Thanks for all your reviews. How ever I am posting this question here since I couldn’t find any other way to ask you. I was using Peter Thomas Roth Unwrinkle Serum and it is amazing, with peptides, vitamins and all other useful ingredients. I loved it but the problem is its very expensive. I wish I could keep on using it but I really want explore cheaper version. Is there any other product (definitely cheaper) in the market that is even close to this serum in terms of ingredients?

    I am 31+, have cmbination skin, prigmented and wrinkled skin. Actually dont have any wrinkle yet and like to keep it that way as long possible.
    I cant use Retin A since I am pregnant. I would really appreciate if you could give me some suggestion. Thanks.


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