Retinol and retinoids: an 89-year-old powerhouse ingredient that has made a comeback in recent years

In 1931, Swiss chemist Paul Karrer changed the trajectory of skincare forever. He identified retinol alongside other retinoids as the chemical makeup of Vitamin A, one of the body’s essential nutrients for boosting cell turnover. Retinol was a tricky compound, prone to quick degeneration when exposed to oxygen and light.

In 1971, Retin-A, a brand name for retinoic acid, was FDA approved as a prescription-strength treatment for acne. Suddenly, dermatologists started reporting a variety of benefits such as reduction in fine lines and hyperpigmentation. But, due to the lack of knowledge in how much and how often to use the product, major concerns regarding side effects like dryness and irritation shelved the product for a few years. For decades, retinol was not an option as a skincare ingredient because it was harder to stabilize than retinoic acid.

Over the years, researchers began to focus on retinol (the milder parent molecule) for everyday use and over-the-counter products. Researchers soon discovered that when retinol goes onto your skin, your cells receive the retinol and retain it — to then convert only what your skin needs into retinoic acid. This made the ingredient even more consumer friendly than Retin-A, leading to the technological advances that have had more to do with the appropriate packaging of retinol than retinol itself. Pharmaceutical companies have now taken major strides to make retinol stable enough to live in a bottle with other active ingredients.

Today, you can find a variety of serums, creams, and oils containing retinol. Consult your dermatologist to appropriately incorporate this powerhouse ingredient into your regimen and achieve your best complexion to date.