Advances in technology and skincare formulations have made it possible to use Vitamin A for sensitive skin.
Considered by many beauty aficionados as the holy grail of anti-ageing skincare, Vitamin A, is a stellar ingredient used to achieve younger and healthier looking skin with a more even complexion and fewer to no breakouts.
However, despite the solid clinical evidence backing up its impressive benefits for the skin, finding the right Vitamin A containing product for people with sensitive skin, particularly those with medium to dark skin tones who tend to age more slowly, remains a little tricky.
This is because when delivered far too quickly and at the wrong percentage level for your skin tolerance, retinoids tend to trigger a process called retinization, which leads to redness, dryness, and flaking, especially when you first start using them. For people with darker skin tones, an irritated or inflamed skin may lead to hyperpigmentation.
Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology and skincare formulations, a number of Vitamin A derivatives and Vitamin A containing products with slow time release delivery systems better suited to sensitive skin have come to the market.
Before we delve into that, let us first explore the difference between retinoid and retinol together with their derivative forms, their benefits for your skin health, and how to choose the right over-the-counter Vitamin A for sensitive skin.
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What is a retinoid vs what is retinol: the Vitamin A pathway
The terms “retinoid” and “retinol” are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.
Vitamin A also known as ‘retinoid’ is the umbrella term for all over-the-counter and prescription-strength vitamin A molecules and all their derivative forms, including retinyl esters, retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid.
In order to be effective in the skin, vitamin A must go through a conversion process known as the “vitamin A pathway” to reach its biologically active form called retinoic acid. There are four steps to the conversion into retinoic acid, starting with retinyl esters – the mildest forms of vitamin A, moving into retinol, then retinal, and finally retinoic acid.
The fewer conversion steps required, the more benefits delivered to the skin and the more irritating it may potentially be for your skin. There are many types of retinoids including:
- Retinyl esters
- Retinal/ Retinaldehyde
- Retinoic acid esters
- Tretinoin/ Retin-A
The benefits of Vitamin A for your skin
Adding the right retinoid to your skincare routine might deliver a number of positive outcomes for your skin health, namely:
- Boosting collagen and elastin production for more youthful-looking skin
- Enhancing the cellular renewal and repair process for a smoother skin texture
- Reduce melanin production to achieve a more even skin tone
- Decrease excess sebum production to minimise blemish formation
- Support the UV repair process in photodamaged skin
In over-the-counter retinoid products:
- Retinyl esters, the gentlest forms of retinoids, are present in their derivative forms under the names retinyl propionate, retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, or retinyl acetate. The most effective one is retinyl propionate, which research has demonstrated its ability to reduce wrinkles and pigmentation at higher concentrations. Retinyl palmitate, the next most effective retinyl ester, has some UV repair properties.
- Retinol, which is roughly 10 to 20 times less potent than retinoic acid, is included at various concentration levels in product formulas for different needs. Research has shown that retinol can effectively help improve the appearance of wrinkles, fade hyperpigmentation, improve skin elasticity and firmness, and smooth uneven skin texture.
- Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, which is one conversion step from retinoic acid, is incorporated at various concentration levels in advanced formulas. Clinical research has evidenced that retinal is as effective as retinoic acid in supporting the treatment of sun damaged skin. Due to its antibacterial properties, retinal is particularly effective in treating acne and in regulating cell turnover renewal. It also helps improve skin thickness and cutaneous elasticity.
- Retinoic acid esters, a new generation of retinoids, are available in the market either as retinyl retinoate or hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR), better known as “granactive retinoid”. Retinyl retinoate, which appears to be less irritating than pure retinol and prescription-strength retinoic acid, has been clinically proven to support collagen synthesis eight times more than retinol with less severe side effects. It is also effective in treating wrinkles and mild to moderate acne at 0.05% concentration. The second type of retinoic acid ester HPR, when combined at 1:10 ratio with a solvent, dimethyl isosorbide, was clinically found to significantly help reduce wrinkles, age spots and sun damage.
In prescription-strength retinoid products:
- Except for adapalene, a synthetic retinoid used in the treatment of acne, which recently became available in some over-the-counter products at 0.1% of formulas in the US, you will need a dermatologist’s prescription for a higher dose at 0.3% and the strongest retinoids. In the UK, the EU, Australia, and Canada, all concentrations of adapalene are exclusively available by prescription.
- Tretinoin, also known as retin-A is pure retinoic acid. Despite its severe side effects that may trigger inflammation in some people, studies have demonstrated tretinoin’s ability to reduce facial fine lines and wrinkles through collagen production and preservation. It also helps improve skin texture, fade brown spots and melasma.
- Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane, is a pure retinoic acid that is taken orally. It is prescribed to treat severe acne that has failed to respond to other medications.
- Tazarotene is the strongest topical retinoid, prescription medication for psoriasis and acne. Whilst some clinical studies claim it to have more superior or similar properties than adapalene, research shows that it is more effective than tretinoin.
- Trifarotene is the newest retinoid molecule for the cutaneous treatment of acne vulgaris of the face and/or the trunk. Research indicates that it helps reduce inflammatory acne lesions both on the face as well as the chest, shoulders and back.
How To Choose The Right Vitamin A For Sensitive Skin
The percentage of over-the-counter retinoids found in cosmetics based on efficacy studies is generally between 0.01% and 1%.
As for retinol, it is worth noting that in the EU, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has published an opinion on April 20, 2016 recommending that retinol content in cosmetics should be limited to 0.3% as highlighted on page 67 of its publication. While the opinion has yet to impact regulatory restrictions, it may in the near future, which would apply to all retinol containing products sold within the EU.
In many cosmetic products, retinoid strength levels generally fall within the following ranges:
- Low-strength retinoid – 0.01% to 0.03%
- Moderate-strength retinoid – 0.04% to 0.1%
- High-strength retinoid – 0.3%-1%
The strength level of retinoid your skin needs very much depends on your skin type and concerns as well as your skin’s tolerance for it. If you have never used retinol before or have sensitive skin, it is wise to opt for a cream with lower-strength retinoid.
If you have medium to dark skin, it is best to start using your chosen retinoid just once a week in your nighttime skincare routine until your skin gets used to it before increasing it to twice per week, or as recommended by your dermatologist.
In light of your sensitive skin, wherever possible, opt for retinoids with a time release delivery system. These skincare products feature retinoids that have been encapsulated in a polymer shell.
Retinyl ester products to try out:
Joanna Vargas Daily Serum, a hydrating and anti-ageing serum with a combination of hyaluronic acid and Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) C, E and F.
La Roche-Posay Redermic Retinol Anti-Ageing Concentrate Intensive 30ml, another starter retinoid for all skin types, including sensitive skin, combining retinyl palmitate with 0.3% pure retinol, and glycerin.
Retinol products to try out:
Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol, specially formulated for dry, sensitive skin. This moisturising serum is packed with skin-protecting antioxidants, plant-based oils, soothing ingredients and 0.01% retinol.
Beauty Pie Super Retinol (+ Vitamin C) Night Renewal Moisturiser, an encapsulated slow-release retinol blended with hyaluronic acid, ferulic acid, vitamin C Ester, vitamin E, and shea butter to boost skin’s firmness and protective barrier, and minimise the look of wrinkles.
The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane, a highly-Stable, water-free solution of 0.2% Pure Retinol with squalene to minimise skin irritation.
La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Serum 30ml, its first-ever pure and gradual release retinol serum designed especially for the needs of sensitive skin, with 2% Niacinamide (vitamin B3) and retinyl palmitate.
Retinal and retinoic acid ester products to try out:
Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1™, a 0.01% encapsulated retinaldehyde blended with hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, and glycerin to use as a night time serum.
Medik8 r-Retinoate Day and Night Serum 50ml, a lightweight formula for all skin types, including sensitive skin, blending retinyl retinoate with, Vitamin C and E, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid™ 2% Emulsion (moderate strength, no Irritation), a complex of solubilized HPR as a highly-advanced form of retinoid with retinyl palmitate
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid™2% in Squalane (moderate strength, no Irritation), a complex of solubilized HPR in oil-based jojoba oil and squalene to ease absorption.
Always patch test new beauty products on your forearm for at least 24 hours before use. If any irritation occurs, stop using the product immediately.
Use your sunscreen daily all year round to protect your skin from any UV damage and further sensitivity that may be triggered by the use of retinoids.
Finally, it is not advisable to use retinoids when trying to conceive or when pregnant.