The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion Serum Review

Reviews, Skin Care
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion Serum

Love ’em or hate ’em, you have to admit that the Ordinary has a way of making headlines (and, in particular, its CEO, Brandon Truaxe, has a way of doing so).

Despite the controversies surrounding the brand, Deciem, the parent company of The Ordinary, has continued to raise eyebrows and revolutionize the beauty industry. With products like a 20% vitamin C serum and a 2% retinoid serum priced for less than your typical big city lunch, it’s no wonder that bottles have been flying off of the shelves and Estee Lauder made a sizeable investment for an undisclosed amount last year.

That said, from a business perspective, I have no idea how Deciem is producing this line without taking a loss of some kind. Large conglomerates like J&J and P&G can offer drugstore prices, with ultra-low margins, because long-established drugstore and grocery store placements practically guarantee volume to compensate. Although it has been reported that as many as tens of thousands of Deciem bottles have been placed on pre-order (like for their foundation when it first debuted), I am skeptical that this particular business model is long-term sustainable. Rather, I have a feeling that Deciem offers a lot of value to larger companies like Estee Lauder via their customer list and insights — understanding the beauty market in the post-brick-and-mortar retail era is complicated, and having a list of millions of customers is highly valuable to potential partners, even if you’re break-even or losing money on each bottle of product you sell. (I don’t know this for sure, but I am speculating based on our own business and manufacturing process here at FutureDerm).

With that said, The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion Serum hasn’t been without its own changes on the business side, changing its name from The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% Serum earlier in the year, to avoid controversy. That is because this product doesn’t contain 2% of a retinoid, but rather, 2% of a retinoid emulsion. To clarify, this means the serum ***could*** contain any amount of active retinoid less than 2% + filler, such that the total “emulsion” totals 2% of the serum concentration.

Despite its name being somewhat previously misleading, it’s not out of the ordinary (no pun intended) for brands to use percentages of emulsions or “complexes” rather than ingredients. (The brand Peter Thomas Roth in particular is infamous for this in the past 5-6 years or so). And the retinoid used here, a form of retinoid ester called HPR (Hydroxypinacolone retinoate), has a lot of scientific backing for a relatively new ingredient.

Retinoid Esters

Retinoid esters have been gaining in popularity since their development in 2012. There are two major forms: Retinyl retinoate and hydroxypinacolone retinoate. Their development has met a longstanding want in the marketplace for forms of retinoids that are gentle and less irritating than retinol, but still as effective and suitable for over-the-counter use.

Esters simply have a larger chemical structure than retinoids, so they take longer in the skin to be fully absorbed. However, they are active from the beginning, so they work in the skin for longer periods of time than retinol. It remains to be seen if they penetrate the skin as deeply as retinol, however.

HPR has recently been found to be a suitable way to stave off acne (source), and it has been found to be an effective depigmenting treatment for melasma (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2014).

However, the research on retinyl retinoate out there is currently more substantial than the research out there supporting HPR. A 2011 study in Skin Research and Technology determined that 0.060% retinyl retinoate cream decreased depth and area of wrinkles similarly to a 0.075% retinol cream. (In case you hate math: If less of ingredient A produces the same effect as ingredient B, ingredient A must be stronger.)

In the study, which was double-blind, randomized and controlled, 11 Korean women used a 0.060% retinyl retinoate cream for three months. Every four weeks, a series of measurements including a global photodamage score, photographs and image analysis were taken.

Results revealed a statistically significant improvement in facial wrinkles (p < 0.05) in all eleven volunteers and the successive application of Further, the visual wrinkle improvement and maximum roughness improvement rate (R2) for 0.060% retinyl retinoate cream were 22% higher than that of 0.075% retinol cream after 12 weeks. Finally, a statistically significant increase was observed after eight and four weeks for dermal distance and dermal intensity, respectively (p < 0.05).

Therefore, there is evidence that retinol esters may be more effective than regular retinol, but that remains to be definitively proven. More research also needs to be done to compare the efficacy of esters retinyl retinoate and HPR as well, although early studies show retinyl retinoate may improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, whereas HPR may improve melasma and acne. (For the record, because I know you’re wondering, the best product I know of at this time with retinyl retinoate is Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum).

Bottom Line

From my own personal use, I find The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion Serum to be about as potent as your typical 1% retinol serum. (And, given that it is 2% of a retinoid emulsion, containing fillers as well as retinoids in that 2% total, I speculate it is probably about the equivalent of 1% retinol technically as well, although I cannot prove this). That means, if you have dry or sensitive skin, I definitely recommend starting with either a lower concentration of retinoids and working up to this, OR starting with once/week use, and gradually building up to nightly use. This formulation is very strong, and despite claims that it is time-released and gentle, I found it to be drying for my own normal, somewhat sensitive skin.

That said, The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion Serum is only $9.80 at this time, and it’s a very cost-effective way to infuse what I believe to be the equivalent of 1% retinol into your skin care regimen. I give this product a 7 on a 1-to-10 scale — it’s pretty good, but not sensational. If you do want a product with potent concentrations of retinol esters (and admittedly less controversy around the brand), I recommend Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum — it’s in the slightly-higher $30 price range, but it’s a very good product with a great reputation, and the research for its form of retinol ester (retinyl retinoate) is greater at this time than the research supporting HPR anyway.


Apply a small amount to face in the PM as part of your skincare regimen, after water serums but before heavier treatments. Do not use with other retinoid treatments. Avoid unprotected solar exposure. Store in a cool, dry place.


Aqua (Water), Glycerin, Ethyl Linoleate, Propanediol, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Dimethyl Isosorbide, Cetearyl Isononanoate, Bisabolol, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, Retinol, Tasmannia Lanceolata Fruit/Leaf Extract, Inulin Lauryl Carbamate, Glyceryl Stearate, Ceteareth-12, Ceteareth-20, Cetearyl Alcohol, Carrageenan, Xanthan gum, Acacia Senegal Gum, Cetyl Palmitate, Sucrose Laurate, Polysorbate 20, Isoceteth-20, Behentrimonium Chloride, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Disodium EDTA, Dehydroacetic Acid, Benzoic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Chlorphenesin.

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