Retinol 2.0—Clean and Nontoxic
Retinoids—vitamin A derivatives—have more proven skin benefits than any other anti-aging or anti-breakout compound: They can (individual formulas vary greatly in terms of strength) boost collagen to soften lines; increase cellular turnover; dissolve oil to make pores appear tighter and smoother, along with discouraging clogging; and even gradually disperse melanin clusters to even skin tone and fade dark spots. “Retinoids win by a long shot over any other skin care product in terms of skin rejuvenation,” says Dr. Robert Anolik, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine, pointing to a multitude of conclusive studies (see below) that confirm the skin-supporting powers of retinoids. “Studies have shown that repeated topical application of tretinoin can reverse the effects of photo-aging, stimulate healthy blood vessel development, inhibit collagen breakdown in the presence of UV exposure, and even correct atypia—the medical term for unusual and precancerous cells,” he says. “This research explains the effects we see: smoother skin, rosy glow, and diminished lines and wrinkles.”
But along with gold-standard status in skin care, retinoids are also controversial and confusing: On the one hand, certain retinoids are used to prevent and even treat some cancers, and on the other, some are implicated in birth defects, liver toxicity, and cancer. To understand the issue, start with vitamin A, where retinoids come from. Vitamin A is an essential antioxidant for human life—but if you consume too much of it (hard to do through food, but possible), it causes all sorts of problems, particularly for the liver, and can even kill you. “We don’t have an issue with retinoids when they appear in cosmetics apart from SPF products,” says David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Like vitamin A itself, retinoids—retinols are weaker, over-the-counter versions—have both good and bad effects: The oral retinoid acne medication Accutane is often the miraculously effective drug of last resort for severe-acne sufferers, but is known to cause birth defects and liver toxicity. Topical retinoids like prescription tretinoin treat acne, the signs of aging, and even precancerous lesions; they can also cause serious sun sensitivity if you don’t apply them only at night and you fail to wear sunblock during the day.
Sun sensitivity can go beyond redness and peeling, as the problem of retinyl palmitate illustrates: Because of their anti-aging qualities, over-the-counter retinols—among them retinyl palmitate—were embraced by conventional beauty companies and mixed into every sort of product that might benefit from an anti-aging claim. This includes SPF products, which is where EWG discovered a serious issue: “Thirty percent of the sunscreens we see have retinyl palmitate,” says Nneka Leiba, M.P.H., EWG’s director of healthy living science. “The concern is about photocarcinogenicity, the cancer-causing potential of retinol in the presence of UV light.” Studies linking retinol to photocarcinogenicty link it only in terms of direct application: A cream is applied and then exposed to artificial or actual sunlight. “Our stance on retinols is that consumers should be wary of them only in products designed to be worn in the sun. So we don’t flag the presence of retinol in, say, a night cream, because that’s not something people wear during the day when they’re exposed to sunlight. We focus just on retinols in sunscreen—and we do feel they are dangerous in that context.”
Another disturbing drawback of many conventional prescription and non-prescription retinoids: They’re stabilized with preservatives including parabens and BHT. A 2002 International Journal of Toxicology report linked short-term repeated exposure of BHT to toxic effects in the liver; when applied to skin, BHT has been associated with toxicity in lung tissue. The findings were serious enough that in 2015, General Mills made the decision to remove BHT from their cereals.
In conventional beauty products, there’s no transparency about BHT in retinoids; even the raw-material suppliers often don’t know whether their retinols contain BHT, and so it can show up in formulas that don’t list it on the label.
Clean retinols, by contrast, insist on transparency—and on no BHT. Tata Harper extracts retinol from rosehips, which are rich in vitamin A. “We achieve the skincare benefits of retinol by using plants with high retinol content in our formulas,” says Cara Bondi, the brand’s VP of research and development. “Rosehip is an incredible ingredient because the high vitamin-A and retinoic-acid content provides skin with retinol benefits—the retinoic acid slow-releases as the retinol in the formula is being converted into retinoic acid within the skin—without some of their unpleasant effects such as severe drying.”
The result, the company’s Retinoic Nutrient Face Oil, is superbly hydrating, nontoxic, and highly active, infused with radiance-bestowing vitamins and plumping botanical extracts.
Retinoic Face Oil goop, $125
For supple, elastic skin with increased clarity and smoothness, this rich face oil reduces the appearance of wrinkles as well as breakouts, creating dramatically healthier-looking and -feeling skin overall. Made with naturally occurring retinoic acid extracted from rosehips, the formula combines antioxidants, amino acids, and minerals to nourish and renew dull, lackluster skin. It feels incredible going on, and you’ll notice the glow almost immediately.
IF YOU WANT TO TRY RETINOL
Apply it only at night.
Wear daily (clean, non-toxic) sunblock. Conventional SPF presents all sorts of skin issues, among them the dangers retinyl palmitate in formulas presents. (Wear daily sunblock even if you don’t try retinol: 90 percent of the visible signs of skin aging come from the sun’s UV rays, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation).
If you want more powerful results, apply it to wet skin. If you’re worried about irritation or dryness, apply it to dry skin.
Vitamin C is great to use in the morning as an adjunct: A 2005 study showed that repeated topical use of both retinol and vitamin C may lessen signs of photoaging in skin.
Additional Research on Retinol:
Skin-improving benefits: Photoaged skin and topical tretinoin, sunscreens and retinoids, prolonged topical tretinoin
Retinoids for atypia: Topical tretinoin, actinic keratosis