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Beta-carotene, vitamin A, retinoids and retinol: what are they and which one is best for skin care?

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If you’ve been at this anti-aging thing for a while, you’ll surely have heard the terms ‘retinol’ and ‘retinoids.’ You may also know they are vitamin A derivatives, and that beta-carotene is related to Vitamin A. The question is: when it comes to skin care, are they all the same? Which one is best? And, what about all their other derivatives, such as retinyl ascorbate, retinyl palmitate, retinyl retinoate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, retinyl acetate, retinoic acid and all the rest? Are they good for skin too?

In this article, we’ll attempt to demystify the world of Vitamin A derivatives in skin care. We’ll do that by providing definitions, and by explaining uses for the retinoids you may see in your product ingredients lists. But first, let’s establish why this subject is important!

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Why are retinoids and Vitamin A derivatives good for skin?

The term “retinol” or “retinoids” originate from the fact that vitamin A helps produce the colour in your eyes – the retina. Vitamin A also gives you ‘night vision’! However, this coenzyme, like all other vitamins, performs many functions in the body, and in many organs. The skin is one of those organs where vitamin A is important, and that’s our focus in this article.

When it comes to skin care, the most basic takeaway to keep in mind is that vitamin A and its derivatives help with skin cell turnover. Your body needs to get rid of its old skin cells in order to make room for new skin cells.

Exfoliation and dead skin cells layers of epidermis illustration diagram

Let’s back up a bit…

Skin cells are a combination of many types of cells that make your three main layers of skin (the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis). These three main layers are further divided into sub layers, and layers that hold them together. But, we won’t get into all of that here. We’ll stick to the concept that there are three main layers.

In the epidermis (the top layer of skin), you have cells in the form of keratinocytes, melanocytes, Langerhans cells and Merkel cells. This is where skin colour and texture is formed.

In the dermis (the middle layer of skin), skin cells are formed of proteins called collagen and elastin, among others. These are called “connective tissues.” They give your skin ‘bounce’ and flexibility.

In the hypodermis (the bottom layer of skin), you have mainly fat cells. This is mainly for insulation.

Young skin vs old skin diagram showing skin biology and wrinkle factors

Overall, epidermal skin cells can live for about two or three weeks. As the cells age, they move upwards through your skin’s sub layers until they are disposed of by your body through shedding (mostly). In the dermis, dead skin cells can be removed through your bloodstream, internally. Then, new cells replace them, and the cycle continues. When you are young, this process happens more rapidly than when you are older.

Since the process of skin renewal slows as you age, your skin becomes thinner (fewer cells are produced). Eventually, your epidermis becomes so dysfunctional that it affects your dermis, too. To make matters worse, UV exposure from the sun causes much of the external damage to your skin (it’s not all ‘natural’!). This further speeds up skin degradation. As a result, you get wrinkles, sagging skin, brown spots (freckles), yellowing, redness, and other visible signs of aging.

To offset the speed at which your skin starts to degrade (especially from the sun), vitamin A derivatives are used topically and orally (remember, they ‘turn on’ your skin cell factories).

Among other things, this vitamin helps to regulate hyperpigmentation in the epidermis, and can even kick-start collagen production in the dermis. For some patients, vitamin A is prescribed by doctors in potent solutions for various conditions. These can include melasma, psoriasis or other skin diseases.

Another common benefit of vitamin A derivatives (specifically retinoids) is that they help with acne. Many acne patients are advised to use this vitamin in drug form, either orally or topically. This is because it helps to regulate oil (sebum) production, and reduces inflammation. You can learn more about acne, with its causes and treatments, here.

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Vitamin A is transformative and adaptable for the body’s needs – that’s why it comes in so many varieties

Woman with skin care on face with green background and green tree plant

Now we come to the crux of the question in the title of this article: what is the difference between all the names for vitamin A in skin care?

Vitamin A can be thought of as a ‘family’ of molecular structures that all aim to pass through a specific transformation. Their end goal (at least in your skin) is to oxidize until they become retinoic acid (i.e. tretinoin). Retinoic acid is what your skin can use to renew itself.

Side note: If you want to ‘geek out’ on this subject, and learn more about its science, check out the links below:

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Carotenoids vs retinoids

Now, on one side of this ‘family,’ you have carotenoids, like beta-carotene (β-carotene), which is called a “provitamin.” A provitamin can eventually become a vitamin, if the body converts it as such. The terms, “previtamin” or “proformed vitamin” mean the same thing. So, beta-carotene is synonymous with “provitamin A.” This means that the body can turn it into vitamin A (specifically retinol).

Another side note: you know when people say that eating too many carrots can turn your skin orange? That’s true! It’s because of beta-carotene, which is the form of vitamin A found in fruits and vegetables. Vitamin A is naturally orange, red or yellow in colour.

On the other side of the vitamin A ‘family,’ you’ll find a group of “preformed vitamins.” This group is closer to the penultimate goal of becoming retinoic acid. They are, collectively, called “retinoids.”

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What are the types of retinoids?

Retinoid compounds come in further sub forms, which are divided by “generations” of discovery and formulation.

In the first generation they are: retinol, retinal, tretinoin (e.g. brand name Retin-A), isotretinoin (e.g. brand name Accutane), and alitretinoin.

In the second generation they are etretinate and acitretin (e.g. brand name Soriatane).

In the third generation they are adapalene (e.g. brand name Differin), bexarotene (e.g. brand name Targretin), and tazarotene (e.g. brand name Avage).

In the fourth generation there is Trifarotene (e.g. brand name Aklief).

The first generation of retinoids perform particularly well in the body, and in the skin, to become retinoic acid. This is why you often hear these terms spoken of by cosmetic aficionados. Or, perhaps you’ve been prescribed medications by these names. The same can be true for all generations, however. They can be prescribed for different skin needs.

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What is retinol and what are retinyl esters?

Now let’s hone in on retinol, which we most often hear about in the beauty and anti-aging world.

Under the retinol ‘umbrella,’ we have retinyl esters.

Retinyl esters are considered “storage” forms of retinol. They sit in your body’s fats until they are needed. At that point, the body turns them into retinol, with varying numbers of steps. Eventually, they morph into retinaldehyde before becoming retinoic acid.

Common retinyl esters include:

  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinyl acetate
  • Retinyl stearate
  • Retinyl linoleate
  • Retinyl oleate

And more.

All of the above esters can be found in skin care products. The thing to know is that, the more steps there are, the more the ingredient loses its potency along the way (which isn’t always a bad thing – see below). So, they are selected for particular strengths by cosmetic chemists.

This brings us to our next inevitable question…

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Why use retinol when I can just use retinoic acid if it’s stronger?

This is a pertinent question. The thing is, retinoic acid is very strong stuff. In fact, even over-the-counter retinol is quite strong.

Most people who use this vitamin for skin care can experience dryness, peeling and redness (even if they start with oily, acneic skin). It is very uncomfortable to use at first. Though, eventually the skin gets used to it (for most people).

Retinoids, in their stronger forms, and in higher concentrations, are only allowed to be sold with prescriptions (in countries that regulate them, like Canada). That’s how seriously potent they can be! Pregnant women should not use them – not even topically. Oral Accutane (isotretinoin) can cause long-term side-effects throughout the body.

But of course, there are many benefits to using gentler, over-the-counter versions of retinoids for the average, everyday person. This is possible mainly with retinol. However, as noted above, retinol still comes with ‘caution’ notes regarding irritation and dryness. People with sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate them at all.

So, cosmetic researchers have come up with all kinds of ways to reduce irritation caused by retinol in skin care. These attempts have included:

  • Purposefully using retinyl esters with longer ‘journeys’ to become retinoic acid.
  • Lowering the concentration of retinoids in their products.
  • Mixing retinoids with several moisturizers and skin calmers.
  • Combining retinoids with other antioxidants (namely vitamins) to deliver intended results in other ways (which is sometimes better, anyway).
  • Encapsulating retinol to slow its release and availability to the skin.

And more.

The goal is to create vitamin A skin care products that are both effective and gentle.

For example, one synthetic form of retinol which also undergoes steps to become retinoic acid, is retinyl retinoate. It is purposely designed to oxidize slower, so that it can be less irritating to the skin.

In another example, retinoic acid can be mixed with a vitamin C ester to become retinyl ascorbate.

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What is encapsulated retinol?

Our favourite adaptation would be encapsulated retinol. Specifically, at our clinic, we sell Retinol Complex 1, 0.5 or 0.25 by SkinMedica®. It uses an encapsulating mix called PhytoShield™ Complex (a blend of antioxidants).

What is encapsulated retinol? It is basically a ‘coated’ type of retinol (at its molecular level). The coating allows for two main actions:

  1. For the time-released delivery of retinol into the skin, to avoid side-effects noted above, but without dilution.
  2. To travel more deeply into the skin where it can be received more effectively, thanks to its ‘disguise’ (i.e. that outer coating).

Of course, if the coating contains other ‘skin goodies,’ then that helps to further benefit dermal function and restoration. These coatings can include moisturizers or antioxidants, like in the case with SkinMedica® retinol.

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What is the best retinoid product and do I even need one?

Male applying skin care product in mirror on face

When it comes to retinol (and not other forms of retinoids), almost anyone can benefit from this ingredient. That is, as long as they can tolerate its strength, and are diligent to wear high SPF sunscreen every day. This also applies to retinyl esters.

Retinol can help to smooth skin texture, even skin tone, maintain ‘glow,’ exfoliate clogged skin and reduce oiliness, among other things. People with milia, acne, wrinkles, brown spots and generally ‘dull’ skin can benefit from this ingredient, and should see results from its continual, nightly use.

Since most first-time users of a retinoid product will experience excess dryness from it, it’s usually recommended that everyone start by using only a pea-sized amount of a low concentration just twice a week. Gradually work your way up to three times per week, then every day, as you monitor your skin’s reaction. On your next product hunt, test a higher concentration, and again, gradually increase application until your skin is used to it.

Our advice is to look for a retinol product that combines the benefits of other ingredients to reduce irritation while remaining effective, such as the encapsulated retinol by SkinMedica® mentioned above. The product should also be free of irritants such as fragrances, drying alcohols or ingredients that attempt to further exfoliate the skin, such as alpha-hydroxy acids.

Now, when it comes to other retinoids, including prescription-strength retinol, the way to find out the best one for you, is to speak with your doctor. These are all available by prescription in North America (with the exception of a low-strength adapalene which is available over the counter in the U.S., under the brand name Differin). Even if you think you need a mild strength of a prescription retinoid, a doctor will need to clear it first.

Most people who are prescribed such strong versions of retinoids may have extreme skin conditions that require them. They may have more potential side-effects. But, whether the benefits outweigh their cons will be something for you and your doctor to determine.

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Can you take in too much vitamin A through your skin? Is it dangerous?

While it’s true that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, and it can be stored up in the body, this is not the case when it’s used topically. In creams and lotions, vitamin A derivatives stay in the skin and don’t enter the bloodstream. So, they are not like ingesting vitamin A supplements, which you can have too much of.

Now, it is important to be warned that vitamin A derivatives, like retinol and its esters, can make you sensitive to UV light. UV light exposure leads to free radical damage, which can – eventually – lead to skin cancers. For that reason, vitamin A skin products should only be used at night. They should also be followed by the use of an SPF 30 or higher during the day.

On the flip side, when used appropriately, vitamin A can help to remove precancerous, sun-damaged cells from your body. That’s a plus!

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Vitamin A and retinoids can be fantastic for skin health, but they’re not the only anti-aging ingredients to look for!

As a concluding word, we will say that while vitamin A derivatives in skin care, specifically retinoids, are awesome, they’re not the only beneficial ingredients out there. Human skin is complex; it needs many antioxidants, growth factors, proteins, fats and hydrators (among other things) to supplement its ability to function and look good.

When someone has a specific skin problem, there are even more ‘boosters’ out there that can help. No doubt, the skin care industry offers plenty of options for wrinkles and anti-aging needs. Acne is another big category where the skin care industry thrives.

We can all be thankful for the dedicated scientists, doctors and cosmetic chemists who put these formulations together for us in stable, effective and easy-to-use products.

Over the years, the list of beneficial skin ingredients has gotten so huge, it’s almost impossible to list them in one place. Not to mention, keep them up-to-date.

So, if you’re looking to use retinol or other ingredients to balance your skin in some way, start by researching your condition. Look up the solutions that are applicable to you, and work backwards from there.

Better yet, speak to a skin care practitioner! Experienced cosmetic doctors and estheticians work on peoples’ skin extensively. They can help you pick good products and ingredients among the plethora of overwhelming selections out there. They’ll know more about what works with what, and what combination of ingredients will suit your case.

If you live in the Vancouver area, we’d love to be your next stop for advanced skin care! Book a consultation at our Surrey clinic, and our experts will do a thorough analysis of your skin after hearing your concerns. They’ll then come up with solutions they believe will work best on you.

While we are a laser clinic, we also work with high quality skin care products on a daily basis. Don’t be fooled: ‘fancy’ procedures are not the only thing we can help you with! We often send people home with nothing but practical skin care to solve their problems (such as retinol!).

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