Retinoid Revolution Webinar

It’s no secret that retinoid products are among the most popular active ingredients in the skin care and beauty industries. Often considered the “gold standard” of actives, retinoids vary in use and efficacy and can range from oral and topical prescription drugs to over the counter topicals common in popular beauty products. 

The range of products that retinoids produce make them one of the most powerful and diverse ingredients on the global beauty market, but that becomes a double edged sword when consumers become confused or misinformed about what retinoids are, what they do, and how to use them. 

The Retinoid Revolution Webinar hosted by Covalo happened on November 16th and took some of those common concerns and misconceptions into consideration and found a way to address them through three professional perspectives: through their chemical makeup, their formulation, and from a dermatological perspective. The webinar brought together three professionals—one from each category—and asked questions that would clear the air on retinoids, so to speak. 

The webinar was hosted by Jen Novakovich, a formulation chemist and founder of The Eco Well. Guest speakers included:

  • Lalita Iyer, a cosmetic chemist with experience in formulating, regulatory and product development who has worked with leading brands globally. 
  • Dr. Aegean Chan, a double board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. Dr. Chan has a lot of experience on complex medical dermatology, and has heavily researched the science of the skin barrier. 
  • Ralph Spindler, a technical director for Health and Beauty Solutions (a Minerals Technologies company). Spindler has been working on the delivery of active ingredients for more than 30 years.

The term retinoid is used to describe molecules that are found throughout the body and skin, as well as in natural products like vegetables and fruit in the form of beta-carotene and vitamin A. Retinoids are important to biological responses, and in products, retinoids is used as an umbrella term to describe derivatives of retinoic acid or other molecules that have retinoid function in the skin, while the most commonly used versions are retinoic acid, retinol, and retinaldehyde—which are three related ingredients that all show similar benefits in topical formulations. 

Retinoic acid, as described by Chan, is the train conductor that can help skin cells increase cell turnover, which increases collagen production and helps boost elastic fiber production. Scientifically speaking, retinoic acid helps to make your skin cells less “sticky” by regulating how they divide. This prevents them from clogging your pores, which can lead to breakouts. 

Products made with retinoids range from oral and topical prescription medications to over the counter topicals used in skincare and beauty products. Products like tretinoin (retinoic acid used in RETIN-A MICRO) and adapalene  are two types of prescription retinoids. In some places, though, adapalene , also known as DIFFERIN, is available both as an over the counter and pharmaceutical product.

Non-prescription retinoid products include active ingredients like retinol and retinaldehyde (retinal). Over the counter cosmetic formulations are often better tolerated.

Common Misconceptions about Retinoids

“Retinoids cause photosensitivity”
Despite chronic online resources suggesting that consumers use more sunscreen if they’re using a retinoid product, there is little evidence to show that retinoids alone can increase photosensitivity in the skin. A 1986 study suggests that some retinoid products have the potential to increase photosensitivity, but refers specifically to oral retinoid products that are available by prescription only. 

“Retinoids can’t be used with other active ingredients.”
One of the bigger misconceptions on retinoids is regarding their safety. Misconceptions about whether retinoid products are safe to use largely come from the internet, where many blogs suggest that retinoid products should not be used in tandem with other active ingredients like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Iyer clarifies that whether this is true comes down to the formulation of the products, as well as your own skin, and not the ingredients themselves.

Iyer further clarifies that the combination of a retinoid and an AHA can often play nicely on your skin, but that others could find it irritating. Acne prone and sensitive skin types might not react well to these ingredient pairings, but a lack of education on how to treat acne properly might contribute to misleading information about negative side effects. Just as many people would consider it counterintuitive that the way to treat oily skin is often to use an oil-based skincare product, using less active ingredients on acne prone skin could help prevent future acne and irritation.

Other products with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, vitamin C or emollients can help diminish adverse effects from retinoid products, and many experts suggest using topical hyaluronic acids or emollients like vitamin E alongside retinoids if you do have acne prone or sensitive skin. 

“Retinoids cause extreme side effects like dryness and sensitivity.”
Many people do experience side effects with retinoid products, such as dryness, redness, irritation, peeling, tightness and sensitivity. These side effects are not as common as advertised, though, and can be caused by a number of things like skin type and formulation. Advancements in skincare formulation technology are also helping to prevent those side effects from happening, such as extended release encapsulation and retinaldehyde.

Extended release formulation limits the side effects of retinoid ingredients in topical skincare products by releasing the active ingredient over time, rather than all at once upon use. Slowed release limits the probability of experiencing irritation, and Spindler says you’ll still see efficacy in the formulation even in extended release products (learn more about Minerals Technologies’ retinoid products that Spindler discusses on Covalo). 

Chan says side effects are commonly seen within the first several weeks of using a retinoid product because your skin can go into a sort of shock when you first introduce it. Most people that experience this phenomenon see it go away within a couple of weeks. It is best to start with a lower concentration retinoid and work your way up in strength.

“Bakuchiol is a great natural alternative to retinol.”
Both Chan and Iyer admit that there is not sufficient data on Bakuchiol to determine both its safety and efficacy in comparison to retinoid ingredients in a discussion about the ingredient that starts at around 20:00 in the webinar.

It’s important for consumers to understand that Bakuchiol is not a retinoid molecule, though the ingredient is often marketed as an alternative. Chan suggests that there is some overlapping activity that could cause similar results, but there is more hype than data on the ingredient simply because it’s often labeled as “natural” by green beauty brands. 

Iyer also questions whether beauty brands have the data needed to be able to label Bakuchiol products as safe for pregnant people to use. Studies are still limited so Iyer says she cannot say with confidence whether Bakuchiol is safe during pregnancy. Chan agrees because it’s such a new ingredient and adds that doing clinical studies are ethically and legally complicated, so many brands and formulators opt out of them.  

“Over the counter retinoids are less effective than prescription retinoids.”
The big misconception here is primarily that over the counter retinoids are often used for different reasons than prescription retinoids. Over-the-counter retinoids, like retinaldehyde and retinol, are converted to the prescription grade retinoic acid in the skin, so the prescription and over-the-counter retinoids work the same way. Topical, over the counter retinol beauty products are often marketed as anti-aging products for their ability to increase collagen production. 

Spindler says that it’s important to look at both types of ingredients as tools. Now that things are more stable there is often not much of a difference because the over the counter products are often similarly effective. Cosmetic retinoid products are a good start for people looking to dip their toes into retinoids—especially as an anti-aging product.

Common Formulation Questions

“Retinol comes with BHT, BHA and PEGs which aren't allowed in EU. Any suggestions?”
The form that neat retinol comes in as a crystalline material, which is very uncommon form to find in the market, is what this question is referring to. Cosmetics manufacturers and formulators don’t buy retinol in the crystalline form but in a mixture with some sort of carrier, which can sometimes have ingredients that are either controversial or are not allowed in certain countries. Spindler addresses this concern at the 53:00 time stamp. 

“What is the pH required in formulation when working with retinoids to keep them stable?”
In general between 5.5-7 is the normal pH that the retinoid works and has its optimal effectiveness, according to Iyer. Iyer also clarifies that you can have a lower pH depending on the formulation, such as if the retinol is encapsulated, but that manufacturers should be able to formulate specifically for encapsulation.

“Can retinol be used with Vitamin C?”
There is a common misconception that retinol products cannot be formulated with vitamin c such as vitamin c derivatives or ingredients like ascorbic acid. According to Spindler, the retinol will likely degrade upon mixing with something like an ascorbic acid because it has a low pH, but if you neutralize the ascorbic acid it is possible to put them together. You have to be very careful about the formulation and the pH that the product will be at, but it is possible to combine the two into a topical formulation. 

“Can you formulate retinoids into alternative forms such as sticks or powders?”
Alternative formulations can be a challenge for many retinols due to the carrier the retinol comes in, according to Spindler. If formulators intend to use a retinol in a delivery system like a microparticle delivery system, for example, it can be possible to make a wide variety of formulations forms. There is no inherent reason why you can’t formulate in those environments as long as you have good manufacturing techniques and packaging that can accommodate these alternative formulas. Individual manufacturers have found it possible to stabilize the retinol into a stick formula. 

“How much of a difference does encapsulation make?”
One benefit to encapsulation or delivery systems, according to Spindler, is that it can diminish the irritation that it might cause on the skin. Not all consumers experience irritation but for those that do, encapsulated products and delivery systems can provide a sustained release which has the benefit of reducing irritation. 

“Does encapsulation reduce the efficacy of the product?”
There would need to be well controlled clinical studies that look at the retinol penetration and long term depth to be absolutely clear. Overall, however, there has not been a noticeable reduction in efficacy on encapsulated products. 

All three experts emphasize that retinoid products are very patient dependent. What one patient experiences with one formulation or ingredient could differ greatly from the experience of another. Retinoids are powerful active ingredients that can produce great results over time, but should be used for several weeks before you as an individual determine whether the product is right for you. If you experience any extreme side effects, though, Iyer suggests halting your use of the product altogether.

Liked this article? Share it with your colleagues by clicking one of the social media like or share buttons above, and make sure to leave a comment. We love hearing from you!

Disclaimer: The information provided (on our blog) is accurate to the best of our knowledge, however, there may be errors. As a neutral organization, we at Covalo do not advocate or promote certain products or ingredients on our platform as better than others. The Site may contain (or you may be sent through the Site) links to other websites or content belonging to or originating from third parties or links to websites and features in banners or other advertising. Such external links are not investigated, monitored, or checked for accuracy, adequacy, validity, reliability, availability or completeness by us. For more information on our blog, contact