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The best form of retinol for wrinkles, oil control and generally smoother, more youthful skin

Written By The Lab Team 03 Aug 2021
The best form of retinol for wrinkles, oil control and generally smoother, more youthful skin

Retinol (a.k.a., Vitamin A) and retinoids (any ingredient derived from Vitamin A) are known as THE gold standard for... just about every skin concern you can think of:

  • Oil/blemish control
  • Reversing/preventing aging symptoms,
  • Improving skin smoothness & filling in wrinkles
  • Fading hyperpigmentation & sun spots
  • Boosting skin tone evenness & brightness

    But there are hundreds of retinol products on the market that all make the same bold, miraculous-sounding claims. So how do you decide which retinol product is best for you?

    The first thing to note: There are many forms of “retinol.” But not all of them have skin-renewing power. 

    In fact, some of the more common ones have been measured to have no renewing power at all.

    Here’s how complicated the skincare industry has made this situation. All of these can legally be called “retinol serums”:

    • Retinyl palmitate 
    • Retinyl acetate 
    • Retinyl propionate 
    • Retinyl linoleate
    • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
    • Retinol (regular Vitamin A)
    • Retinol retinoate
    • Retinal (with an “a”)
    • Retinoic acid 

    Because the FDA doesn't regulate cosmetic skincare products, it’s totally legal for companies to use derivative (chemically altered) forms of retinol and still call them “retinol.” Sometimes brands use clever marketing names for the derivatives “Time-Release Retinol,” “Encapsulated Retinol,” “ProRetinol” etc. 

    We like to call these derivative forms of ingredients “mutants” or “3rd cousins” because––chemically speaking––that’s pretty much what they are. Retinyl palmitate, for example, is technically a chemical relative of retinol (vitamin A) and thus is allowed to be called "retinol" in skincare products. But it's also been clinically proven to be fully stripped of any skin-renewing retinol properties. As legendary dermatologist Leslie Baumann states, retinyl palmitate "is topically ineffective.” And yet, retinyl palmitate is one of the most common forms of retinol used on the market today because it checks all the boxes that most skincare companies are concerned about: it's cheap, shelf-stable and allows them to call their product "retinol." 


    Why derivative forms of retinol aren't worth your time:

    When you apply a derivative (3rd cousin/mutant) form of retinol to your skin, your skin has to perform complex chemical reactions to convert it into the only form of retinol your skin cells can actually use: retinoic acid. Retinoic acid (the type of retinol used in prescription retinol products) is the 100% “bioactive” (or “bioavailable") version of retinol, which means it's the form that your cells can use right away to boost their renewing activity. With modern lab technology it is easy to measure how much retinoic acid a specific form of retinol can produce when applied topically. Unfortunately, the data has shown that derivative forms produce minuscule amounts of retinoic acid at the end of this complex conversion process and thus, have minuscule renewing power. 

    The skin's retinol conversion process works like this:

    retinol serum conversion chart

    As you can see from this chart, derivative forms need to be converted THREE times by enzymes in your skin before they reach the bioactive retinoic acid form that your skin is looking for. As a frame of reference, it’s estimated by clinical dermatologists (ref.) that topical Vitamin A retinol is about 1/20th the potency of retinoic acid. Derivatives are exponentially less effective than the Vitamin A form, which is why most dermatologists consider them to be pretty similar to applying plain water to your skin. You may see the benefit of the moisturizing ingredients in a product with derivatives––but this should just show you the benefit of applying moisturizer more often in your routine!

    The main takeaway:

    Whether it’s a $10 drugstore retinol or a $300 “proprietary,” “doctor-formulated” retinol with gold flakes and diamonds, all of these products use the same (relatively weak) forms of retinol. Because of this, the effectiveness of all of these products will be limited to the specific form of retinol they include. No amount of proprietary technology or fancy formulation will change this. 

    In fact in many cases, added “technology” can actually just diminish the effectiveness by interfering with the proper absorption ingredients. What’s worse, since the formulation science to maximize absorption of each of these ingredients is pretty simple and has been established for decades, it’s safe to assume that the skincare companies making these products are well aware their fancy proprietary add-ons do nothing at best and decrease already poor effectiveness at worst. But again, because no one is holding skincare companies accountable to building clinically-sound products using established formulation guidelines, they’re completely at liberty to develop products around catchy marketing stories instead. 

    Given this lack of accountability, brands do their best to make it difficult to see what’s actually in their products, so make sure to check out our post on 4 Tips to Shop Skincare Like a Biochemist to help cut through the noise and know exactly what you’re paying for. 

    So which form of retinol is the best/most effective?

    Based on published, peer-reviewed, academic studies, only one form of retinol has top scores for both clinical effectiveness AND gentleness: retinal (with an “a).

    Retinal or as we like to call it, Enzyme-Active Retinol, is the form that is naturally created by enzymes in your skin when you apply regular Vitamin A retinol to it. As you can see in the chart above, it’s also the immediate precursor (closest relative) to retinoic acid (the prescription form), which means your skin effortlessly converts it into retinoic acid. However, by applying the precursor form of retinal instead of the 100% bioavailable form, two great things happen:

    First, clinical studies (here) show that you get all of the extreme clinical benefits (boosted collagen production, reduced wrinkles, reduced sunspots and controlled oil production) that you would by applying retinoic acid (prescription only) directly.

    Second, this form allows your cells to divvy up the renewing power ONLY to the cells that need it most (in tech speak, to keratinocytes at a key point of cell differentiation). This allows for a controlled release of retinoic acid that completely reduced the irritation that is commonly seen by applying retinoic acid directly. (As always, we strongly recommend that you send this to your dermatologist or prescribing physician before making any changes to your medications.)

    So you get all the renewing power and none of the irritation/dryness/peeling etc.

    In the words of Board Certified Dermatologist (and host of the Radiance Revealed Podcast), Dr. Jennifer Haley:

    Retinoids have been the gold standard for decades to achieve beautiful, clear skin. The problem with prescription strength retinoids, like tretinoin or Retin-A, is that they often cause redness, burning, peeling, and irritation during the first few months of use. Although highly effective, most people are unable to achieve these results because they just can’t tolerate it. Protocol's Enzyme-Activated Retinol Serum solves this problem. Unlike other retinols on the market, Protocol's enhanced delivery system and oxygen-free bottling method stabilizes their unique form of retinol so that it can get to where it needs to be in the skin to provide results. At the same time, the formulation is elegant so that my patients can actually use it without the irritation of prescription retinoids. I find this product to be an essential component of any skincare regimen and the most sophisticated non-prescription retinol on the market.

    So why isn’t everyone using the enzyme-active form of retinol in their products?

    Though the enzyme-active from of retinol (retinal) and its incredible clinical performance was initially discovered in 1998, few companies have even attempted to use it in their products since then because it’s extremely sensitive to oxygen and light––which makes it extremely difficult to bottle. So difficult in fact, that we had to invent completely new bottling technology to make it happen. Working with engineers and concepts from the aerospace industry, the Protocol Lab Team created a completely oxygen-free and light free bottling environment to capture retinal in its pure form for the first time ever. 


    Check which form of retinol is ACTUALLY being used in the product you're looking at. The commonly-used derivative forms of retinol (like retinyl palmitate) are so ineffective, they’ve been pretty much dismissed by the dermatologist community. Retinal (Enzyme-Active Retinol) is know as THE holy grail of retinoids because is has the perfect balance of maximum effectiveness and gentleness. 

    Further reading: 4 Tips to Shop Skincare Like a Biochemist