As beauty editors, we get bombarded with a ton of new products every day (we know—tough life). Reviewed is a series where we report on some of the best products we’ve tried. Whether it’s a drugstore lipstick that lasted all day or a hand cream that saved us this winter, you’ll find all of our favorites in this column. Enjoy!
Retinol. The anti-aging skincare ingredient with a tale as old as time. Well, not exactly as old as time, but it's been around for a while. In fact, the first study using retinoic acid to treat acne was published in 1943, and then in 1983, researchers began using retinoic acid to manage skin’s aging. Since then, dermatologists have been recommending it for patients in search of both its breakout-clearing and wrinkle-reducing benefits.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that works to stimulate the metabolism of skin cells and encourage collagen production. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, it can be absorbed within the skin and, when combined with certain enzymes, is converted into tretinoin (the acid form of vitamin A, also known as retinoic acid). So here's the gist: Using a well-formulated and stable product with retinol will visibly reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, and large pores.
That being said, I wasn't ever really into the ingredient. While so many dermatologists prescribe it as part of a thorough skincare regimen, there is another side of the coin. Many other skincare experts, mainly those who subscribe to Korean beauty routines or French skincare line Biologique Recherche, don't think retinol is particularly helpful in the long-term. "I don't like to use retinol because I have very sensitive skin and there is always an adjustment period to retinols," says Alicia Yoon, skincare guru and founder of Korean skincare brand Peach & Lily. "During this period, skin can become more fragile—thinner, basically—and results in increased sensitivity, and at times, peeling and flaking." In my own personal experimentation with retinol products, I had the same issues. I just found better, more instant results with acids and other active ingredients and decided to leave retinol alone.
I just found better, more instant results with acids and other active ingredients and decided to leave retinol alone.
On the other hand, though, after that adjustment period and with consistent use, there are studies that show that retinol can actually help thicken the epidermis. This means stronger, firmer, more resilient skin. So what to do? I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to making a decision. That's around the time Shani Darden launched her newest product, Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum.
"Texture Reform is a gentler retinol serum, formulated with retinyl palmitate," Darden says of her product. "It does not cause the peeling, dryness, and irritation that other retinol serums may cause. It also has sodium PCA to help skin hold on to moisture, lactic acid to gently exfoliate, and aloe to soothe." Joshua Zeichner, MD, adds, "The retinyl palmitate actually provides more of an antioxidant benefit than a true retinoid benefit. In fact, it's commonly used as an antioxidant in many sunscreen formulas. This is an ideal product for people with ultra-sensitive skin and for younger people first starting to experience signs of aging and pigmentation. I would use this product in the evening along with sunscreen in the morning."
My other go-to derm, Rachel Nazarian, MD, is on board as well. "The reason this product is so good is because they have safety mechanisms in place to combat the irritation that typically accommodates retinol. Even more sensitive skin types have a better chance at tolerating this formulation." With that, I began to try it out.
This is an ideal product for people with ultra-sensitive skin and for younger people first starting to experience signs of aging and pigmentation.
I went through my usual nighttime routine, omitting my beloved Biologique P50 1970 Lotion as to not cause any unnecessary irritation (acid on acid is not recommended, generally). When I woke up, I liked the results, but I definitely missed the medicinal, tingly feeling I got from the toner. I wondered if I could still use it and layer the serum on top for an even more positive outcome. Even though dermatologists warned against it, I tried it anyway. I hate to say I loved the way I looked come morning. My skin was fresh, glowy, and the lines that cropped up on my face over the last year were barely visible. So I kept doing it. Just to make sure, I checked in with a few dermatologists to make sure I wasn't doing anything damaging.
"It is certainly safe," Nazarian says, but you have to be careful if you have sensitive skin. Combining the two increases your chance of irritation by decreasing the surface of dead skin cells. If you chemically exfoliate too much (which is what each of these products does), it will have a compounding effect and inflame skin. It’s not that you couldn’t, but if you’re using [Texture Reform], you don’t really need to use an acid, as it already contains lactic acid." Darden agrees: "I would recommend alternating nights. I think that’s the best way to get the benefits of both products without the risk of irritation or chemical burns," she says.
In the end, I think I'll probably cool it with the double-acid regimen. Perhaps I'll only do it when I really want to look especially glowy. I don't know what compounding the acids will do to my skin in the long term, even if it does look good right now. Nazarian puts it plainly, "I think every skin is different. You’re certainly doing a regimen that’s high risk for irritation, but if your skin is happy, who can argue with that? Listen to what your skin is trying to tell you: If it’s itchy and red, decrease how often you’re using it. If not, do your thing."
Straumfjord JV, Vitamin A: its effect on acne. Northwest Med. 1943;42:219-225.
Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392–397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443
Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why topical retinoids are mainstay of therapy for acne. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(3):293–304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2
Buchanan PJ, Gilman RH. Retinoids: literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2016;9(3):139-144. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.191653