Debunking Retinol as the Gold Standard

10 min read

July 07, 2022
SKIN CARE, FROM THE ONESKIN LAB

Debunking Retinol as the Gold Standard

10 min read

July 07, 2022
SKIN CARE, FROM THE ONESKIN LAB
Touted by dermatologists as the gold standard for anti-aging topical skin care, retinol is beloved for its ability to reduce fine lines, improve skin texture, and create brighter-looking skin. But for all its advantages, retinol also comes with some potentially serious downsidies: redness, skin irritation, sensitivity, and peeling. Also called skin retinization, these side effects could be enough to deter even the most committed users from sticking with a retinol routine. So is there any alternative out there? Let’s dig into the science behind retinol to understand more.
Touted by dermatologists as the gold standard for anti-aging topical skin care, retinol is beloved for its ability to reduce fine lines, improve skin texture, and create brighter-looking skin. But for all its advantages, retinol also comes with some potentially serious downsidies: redness, skin irritation, sensitivity, and peeling. Also called skin retinization, these side effects could be enough to deter even the most committed users from sticking with a retinol routine. So is there any alternative out there? Let’s dig into the science behind retinol to understand more.
01

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that falls under a class of topical ingredients called retinoids. So what do retinoids do? Retinoids come in a variety of different forms including retinol, retinal, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl acetate.Naturally occurring retinoids are critical to many of our body’s essential processes including the healthy development of the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and proper vision. Most of us get plenty of retinol in our diets through meat and eggs or by eating veggies rich in yellow, orange, and dark green plant pigments called carotenoids, which the body then converts into retinol in the liver.As the body’s largest organ, skin also benefits from a diet with enough vitamin A. Studies have shown that retinoic acid helps manage sebum production and indirectly regulates the skin microbiome. [1] This effect on oil production is one of the primary reasons why topical retinol was first introduced as a treatment for acne.
01

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that falls under a class of topical ingredients called retinoids. So what do retinoids do? Retinoids come in a variety of different forms including retinol, retinal, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl acetate.Naturally occurring retinoids are critical to many of our body’s essential processes including the healthy development of the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and proper vision. Most of us get plenty of retinol in our diets through meat and eggs or by eating veggies rich in yellow, orange, and dark green plant pigments called carotenoids, which the body then converts into retinol in the liver.As the body’s largest organ, skin also benefits from a diet with enough vitamin A. Studies have shown that retinoic acid helps manage sebum production and indirectly regulates the skin microbiome. [1] This effect on oil production is one of the primary reasons why topical retinol was first introduced as a treatment for acne.
02

What do topical retinoids do?

First studied in the 1960s and 70s as an acne treatment, topical retinoids are still prescribed today as comedolytics – ingredients that unclog pores and prevent the buildup of oil and dead skin cells. [2] While studying retinoids for acne-prone skin, scientists noticed that participants experienced not only a reduction in blemishes but also smoother skin texture and an overall decrease in wrinkles.So how do they work? When applied topically, retinoids cause skin cells to renew faster and produce more collagen, which can result in an increase in epidermal thickness. [3] This collagen-boosting effect is thanks to the selective presence of retinoic acid receptors and retinoid X receptors in the epidermal layer of skin. [4] When retinoids bind to these receptors, they kickstart a transduction pathway that increases collagen precursors.Additionally, retinoids promote cells in deeper skin layers to divide more frequently, allowing new cells to replace older cells at the surface. This accelerated skin cell turnover can reduce the appearance of wrinkles, smooth out uneven skin texture, and give skin tone a noticeably brighter appearance.
02

What do topical retinoids do?

First studied in the 1960s and 70s as an acne treatment, topical retinoids are still prescribed today as comedolytics – ingredients that unclog pores and prevent the buildup of oil and dead skin cells. [2] While studying retinoids for acne-prone skin, scientists noticed that participants experienced not only a reduction in blemishes but also smoother skin texture and an overall decrease in wrinkles.So how do they work? When applied topically, retinoids cause skin cells to renew faster and produce more collagen, which can result in an increase in epidermal thickness. [3] This collagen-boosting effect is thanks to the selective presence of retinoic acid receptors and retinoid X receptors in the epidermal layer of skin. [4] When retinoids bind to these receptors, they kickstart a transduction pathway that increases collagen precursors.Additionally, retinoids promote cells in deeper skin layers to divide more frequently, allowing new cells to replace older cells at the surface. This accelerated skin cell turnover can reduce the appearance of wrinkles, smooth out uneven skin texture, and give skin tone a noticeably brighter appearance.
03

Retinization and the harsh side effects of retinol

While topical retinoids have plenty of perks, they are not without their pitfalls. After starting a retinol routine, many people experience redness, sensitivity, peeling, and flaking–an adjustment called skin retinization. Some people with acne-prone skin also notice that their breakouts actually get worse rather than better in the first few weeks. While you can mitigate retinization by using retinol less frequently and slowly introducing it to your skin care routine, many people still experience these common retinol side effects. In fact, they’re so common that they have been coined the “retinol uglies”.
03

Retinization and the harsh side effects of retinol

While topical retinoids have plenty of perks, they are not without their pitfalls. After starting a retinol routine, many people experience redness, sensitivity, peeling, and flaking–an adjustment called skin retinization. Some people with acne-prone skin also notice that their breakouts actually get worse rather than better in the first few weeks. While you can mitigate retinization by using retinol less frequently and slowly introducing it to your skin care routine, many people still experience these common retinol side effects. In fact, they’re so common that they have been coined the “retinol uglies”.
04

Retinol’s impact on barrier function

Part of the reason why retinol is so popular among the aesthetic medical community is that it improves epidermal thickness – an effect that’s well-documented in scientific literature. [5] However, while thickening the epidermis overall, retinol can thin a vital skin structure: the stratum corneum, the outermost layer that performs a majority of the skin’s protective functions and gives skin its dewy, glowing appearance.By weakening the stratum corneum, retinol may temporarily compromise the skin’s barrier function, exposing the body to increased threats from external exposures. Part of this unwanted effect may actually be a result of retinoic acid’s impact on cellular turnover; rapidly-produced skin cells may generate quicker at the expense of adhesion and lipid properties essential to a healthy skin barrier. [6]Ultimately, with a potentially compromised protective surface layer, the skin can lose moisture and become ultra-sensitive, putting your skin at risk to be reactive, dry, and flaky for even longer than just the initial adjustment period that dermatologists say is normal. So how do you know if retinol is doing more harm than good? Prolonged sensitivity, redness, and dryness could serve as a key indicator for when to stop using retinol on your skin.
04

Retinol’s impact on barrier function

Part of the reason why retinol is so popular among the aesthetic medical community is that it improves epidermal thickness – an effect that’s well-documented in scientific literature. [5] However, while thickening the epidermis overall, retinol can thin a vital skin structure: the stratum corneum, the outermost layer that performs a majority of the skin’s protective functions and gives skin its dewy, glowing appearance.By weakening the stratum corneum, retinol may temporarily compromise the skin’s barrier function, exposing the body to increased threats from external exposures. Part of this unwanted effect may actually be a result of retinoic acid’s impact on cellular turnover; rapidly-produced skin cells may generate quicker at the expense of adhesion and lipid properties essential to a healthy skin barrier. [6]Ultimately, with a potentially compromised protective surface layer, the skin can lose moisture and become ultra-sensitive, putting your skin at risk to be reactive, dry, and flaky for even longer than just the initial adjustment period that dermatologists say is normal. So how do you know if retinol is doing more harm than good? Prolonged sensitivity, redness, and dryness could serve as a key indicator for when to stop using retinol on your skin.
05

Retinol causes heightened sun sensitivity

While ubiquitous in night creams, retinol rarely shows up in day creams or other daytime products. The reason is simple: retinol degrades when exposed to UV rays and has been shown to make your skin more susceptible to sunburn. This means that if you apply retinol during the day, you’re not only getting fewer benefits from your treatment but also risking damage to DNA and structural skin fibers [7], impairing the skin’s structural integrity and increasing your risk of skin cancer and other diseases. This is also true if you're not washing off the retinol from the night before.
05

Retinol causes heightened sun sensitivity

While ubiquitous in night creams, retinol rarely shows up in day creams or other daytime products. The reason is simple: retinol degrades when exposed to UV rays and has been shown to make your skin more susceptible to sunburn. This means that if you apply retinol during the day, you’re not only getting fewer benefits from your treatment but also risking damage to DNA and structural skin fibers [7], impairing the skin’s structural integrity and increasing your risk of skin cancer and other diseases. This is also true if you're not washing off the retinol from the night before.
06

The “retinol uglies” in numbers: retinol vs OS-01 FACE

Retinol’s long list of side effects leaves many of us wondering whether its pros are really worth its cons. To get to the bottom of that question, we took it to the lab. Our scientists here at OneSkin conducted an expression analysis on ex vivo human skin samples that were exposed to retinol versus OS-01 FACE in order to observe how they each impact biomarkers associated with skin aging, cellular proliferation, and collagen production. The results were fascinating.
06

The “retinol uglies” in numbers: retinol vs OS-01 FACE

Retinol’s long list of side effects leaves many of us wondering whether its pros are really worth its cons. To get to the bottom of that question, we took it to the lab. Our scientists here at OneSkin conducted an expression analysis on ex vivo human skin samples that were exposed to retinol versus OS-01 FACE in order to observe how they each impact biomarkers associated with skin aging, cellular proliferation, and collagen production. The results were fascinating.
Figure 1. Expression of biomarkers associated with aging (CDKN2A), collagen production (COL1A1), and cell proliferation (MKi67) following treatment with nothing (No Treatment), OS-01 FACE, or 1% retinol on the dermis of ex vivo human skin samples (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information).
Although retinol significantly increased a key biomarker associated with collagen production, COL1A1, it also created a tenfold increase in a biomarker linked to aging, CDKN2A. Alternatively, treatment with OS-01 FACE was able to significantly increase the collagen production biomarker, COL1A1, at similar levels to retinol, without affecting the same biomarker associated with aging, CDKN2A, that retinol increased. OS-01 FACE also significantly increased a key biomarker associated with cell proliferation, MKi67, while retinol did not, indicating that OS-01 FACE could be more effective at promoting cell proliferation in the skin. [8]
Figure 1. Expression of biomarkers associated with aging (CDKN2A), collagen production (COL1A1), and cell proliferation (MKi67) following treatment with nothing (No Treatment), OS-01 FACE, or 1% retinol on the dermis of ex vivo human skin samples (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information).
Although retinol significantly increased a key biomarker associated with collagen production, COL1A1, it also created a tenfold increase in a biomarker linked to aging, CDKN2A. Alternatively, treatment with OS-01 FACE was able to significantly increase the collagen production biomarker, COL1A1, at similar levels to retinol, without affecting the same biomarker associated with aging, CDKN2A, that retinol increased. OS-01 FACE also significantly increased a key biomarker associated with cell proliferation, MKi67, while retinol did not, indicating that OS-01 FACE could be more effective at promoting cell proliferation in the skin. [8]

Impact on skin morphology & structure

To take a closer look at retinol’s impact on skin, our scientists put retinol under the microscope– literally. Using a microscopic visual analysis tool called histology, our R&D team examined ex vivo human skin samples that had been treated with OS-01 FACE versus retinol to observe the impact of both treatments on each layer of the skin.

Impact on skin morphology & structure

To take a closer look at retinol’s impact on skin, our scientists put retinol under the microscope– literally. Using a microscopic visual analysis tool called histology, our R&D team examined ex vivo human skin samples that had been treated with OS-01 FACE versus retinol to observe the impact of both treatments on each layer of the skin.
Figure 2. Histology images of ex vivo human skin samples from a 35 year old donor exposed to OS-01 FACE vs. 1% retinol (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information).
Figure 2. Histology images of ex vivo human skin samples from a 35 year old donor exposed to OS-01 FACE vs. 1% retinol (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information).

Our observations were consistent with those found in the expression analysis. Skin that was treated with retinol experienced a peeling effect in the stratum corneum (top layer), which has potential to lead to a thinner and weaker skin barrier. Additionally, the structural integrity of the skin that was exposed to retinol appeared to be compromised with less cellular structure and organization. Conversely, treatment with OS-01 FACE promoted a more cohesive stratum corneum, with a more defined general structure and enhanced cellular organization, indicating that the skin’s barrier was likely strengthened and cellular function was likely improved when treated with OS-01 FACE. [8]

Our observations were consistent with those found in the expression analysis. Skin that was treated with retinol experienced a peeling effect in the stratum corneum (top layer), which has potential to lead to a thinner and weaker skin barrier. Additionally, the structural integrity of the skin that was exposed to retinol appeared to be compromised with less cellular structure and organization. Conversely, treatment with OS-01 FACE promoted a more cohesive stratum corneum, with a more defined general structure and enhanced cellular organization, indicating that the skin’s barrier was likely strengthened and cellular function was likely improved when treated with OS-01 FACE. [8]

Impact of OS-01 FACE on epidermal thickness

Finally, to validate OS-01 FCAE as an effective retinol alternative, our scientists tested whether OS-01 FACE could match one of retinol’s primary benefits–increased epidermal thickness. To do this, our scientists measured the epidermal thickness of ex vivo human skin samples from a 35-year-old donor, a 55-year-old donor, and a 79-year-old donor before and after treatment with OS-01 FACE. The results were positive, as skin treated with OS-01 FACE displayed a significant increase in epidermal thickness of 23.15% on average. [8]

Impact of OS-01 FACE on epidermal thickness

Finally, to validate OS-01 FCAE as an effective retinol alternative, our scientists tested whether OS-01 FACE could match one of retinol’s primary benefits–increased epidermal thickness. To do this, our scientists measured the epidermal thickness of ex vivo human skin samples from a 35-year-old donor, a 55-year-old donor, and a 79-year-old donor before and after treatment with OS-01 FACE. The results were positive, as skin treated with OS-01 FACE displayed a significant increase in epidermal thickness of 23.15% on average. [8]
Figure 3. Epidermal thickness analysis of ex vivo human skin samples topically exposed to nothing (No Treatment) or OS-01 FACE. Treatment with OS-01 FACE induced a significant increase in epidermal thickness of 23.15%, taken from the average of three measurements from each skin sample (35, 55, and 79 yr). *p<0.05 (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information)
Figure 3. Epidermal thickness analysis of ex vivo human skin samples topically exposed to nothing (No Treatment) or OS-01 FACE. Treatment with OS-01 FACE induced a significant increase in epidermal thickness of 23.15%, taken from the average of three measurements from each skin sample (35, 55, and 79 yr). *p<0.05 (Zonari, et al., npj Aging, 2023; supplementary information)

This data confirms that OS-01 FACE can help promote epidermal thickness, one of the main drivers of retinol’s anti-aging benefits.Overall, our research shows that while retinol is commonly considered the gold standard anti-aging ingredient, it also produces significant downsides, like the potential to compromise barrier function and increase aging biomarkers, which may ultimately degrade long-term skin health. Alternatively, OS-01 FACE offers comparable benefits, including an increase in a key collagen production biomarker and epidermal thickness, without the observed drawbacks of retinol.

This data confirms that OS-01 FACE can help promote epidermal thickness, one of the main drivers of retinol’s anti-aging benefits.Overall, our research shows that while retinol is commonly considered the gold standard anti-aging ingredient, it also produces significant downsides, like the potential to compromise barrier function and increase aging biomarkers, which may ultimately degrade long-term skin health. Alternatively, OS-01 FACE offers comparable benefits, including an increase in a key collagen production biomarker and epidermal thickness, without the observed drawbacks of retinol.
07

How to use OS-01 FACE with Retinol

If you aren’t ready to give up on retinol just yet, you can safely use OS-01 FACE with a topical retinoid to counteract its harsh effects.You can incorporate OS-01 FACE with retinol in one of two ways:
  • Alternate OS-01 FACE and retinol: Alternating allows your skin to reap the benefits of both skin care products without either of them interfering with the absorption of the other. Since retinol should only be applied at night, you can alternate the two by using OS-01 FACE in the mornings and any night that you don't use retinol.
  • Combine OS-01 FACE and retinol: When combining retinol with OS-01 FACE in the same skin care routine, it’s up to you which skin care product to apply first. Just keep in mind that the OS-01 peptide will achieve maximum penetration if it’s applied as the first step after cleansing.
Sensitive to retinol? Skip it! OS-01 FACE is an excellent alternative and could better preserve your barrier function and long-term skin health and longevity.Last but not least, remember to apply a daily SPF every day, especially if you are using retinol in your routine.
07

How to use OS-01 FACE with Retinol

If you aren’t ready to give up on retinol just yet, you can safely use OS-01 FACE with a topical retinoid to counteract its harsh effects.You can incorporate OS-01 FACE with retinol in one of two ways:
  • Alternate OS-01 FACE and retinol: Alternating allows your skin to reap the benefits of both skin care products without either of them interfering with the absorption of the other. Since retinol should only be applied at night, you can alternate the two by using OS-01 FACE in the mornings and any night that you don't use retinol.
  • Combine OS-01 FACE and retinol: When combining retinol with OS-01 FACE in the same skin care routine, it’s up to you which skin care product to apply first. Just keep in mind that the OS-01 peptide will achieve maximum penetration if it’s applied as the first step after cleansing.
Sensitive to retinol? Skip it! OS-01 FACE is an excellent alternative and could better preserve your barrier function and long-term skin health and longevity.Last but not least, remember to apply a daily SPF every day, especially if you are using retinol in your routine.
Key Takeaways:
  • Retinol is considered the gold standard in anti-aging, but it can be difficult to tolerate, as it commonly causes sensitizing side effects, especially for those with sensitive skin
  • Studies show that retinol could potentially damage skin’s stratum coreum, which facilitates barrier function, if used excessively or in too high of concentration.
  • OS-01 FACE could help counterbalance the side effects of retinol, presenting many of the same benefits with none of the drawbacks.
  • If you use a retinoid, it's crucial to pair it with the daily use of sunscreen. Also, make sure to consult your dermatologist if you experience extreme redness, peeling, dry skin, and sensitivity.
Key Takeaways:
  • Retinol is considered the gold standard in anti-aging, but it can be difficult to tolerate, as it commonly causes sensitizing side effects, especially for those with sensitive skin
  • Studies show that retinol could potentially damage skin’s stratum coreum, which facilitates barrier function, if used excessively or in too high of concentration.
  • OS-01 FACE could help counterbalance the side effects of retinol, presenting many of the same benefits with none of the drawbacks.
  • If you use a retinoid, it's crucial to pair it with the daily use of sunscreen. Also, make sure to consult your dermatologist if you experience extreme redness, peeling, dry skin, and sensitivity.