A tad confused about this whole vitamin A malarkey? Um, and what about retinol? Here's one bit of confusion cleared up: they're the same thing. Beta carotene is vitamin A in veggie form; retinol is what it's called when it comes from animal sources.
Another good thing to know: skin scientists and dermatologists tip the nod to vitamin A as one of the very few beauty ingredients that can actually turn back time on the ageing process. Even better is the fact that there are a load of products on the market - some at really reasonable prices - which use the retinol form of the ingredient too.
Excellent news, eh? Except, of course, it's not quite as simple as that. Not all retinol was made equal, but here are three forms of it you'll be very likely to come across in your cosmetic wanderings.
The weakest of the trio, you'll find Retinyl Palmitate in products like Boots' Protect and Perfect range. Which, as we all know, has been proven by an exhaustive study to really do the job, but a lesser known fact about the products is they use a weaker version of this powerful ingredient, meaning that it'll take longer to see a difference in your skin. It is, however, more suited to a sensitive skintype, as it's less aggressive.
The strongest form of the ingredient that's available over the counter, you'll find this form in products from pharmacy brand RoC, like Retin-Ox and Multi Correxion, and it's also present in one of Vichy's newest launches, LiftActiv Retinol HA Total Wrinkle Care. More expensive lines like Murad, Medik8, DDF and Matis also sell products containg the ingredient, and their offerings may contain higher doses. The upshot is, there's lots of choice at this level.
Only available on prescription from a doctor or dermatologist, this is the real, super-charged deal and is classified as a drug because it works so well. Retin-a will also give you the quickest results. Initially used for the treatment of acne (another derivative is Roaccutane, the spot-clearing drug) and for clearing problematic blackheads, a handy side effect discovered during treatment was that it also improved wrinkles thanks to its abilities to stimulate cell turnover and boost collagen production.
What to look out for
We're still not out of the woods! Now you know the ingredients you should be looking for, but here are a few other things to check:
- Quantity: a product can say it contains retinol or retinyl palmitate even if it only contains a teeny, weeny amount of it. Look at its placing in the ingredients list on the box or on the product, as the the largest amount of any component will always be listed first. But equally, keep in mind that no over-the-counter face cream will contain 100% retinol - in fact, the highest you'll typically find is probably about 0.05% - 2%.
- Packaging: Retinol is unstable and breaks down very easily if exposed to air - so avoid anything in a pot. Instead, look for dark or opaque glass bottles and sealed tubes with pumps, as these will keep the ingredient active for the longest possible time.
- Complimentary ingredients: look for ingredients like acsorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol, (vitamin E) and hyaluronic acid. The first two are powerful antioxidants, the latter is brilliant at helping the skin retain moisture. If your product contains any of these, it's going to work extra hard.
- Sensitivity: retinol can irritate skins and many people with skin sensitivities can't use it at all. But don't necessarily give up at the first hurdle: your skin may flare up to begin with, and then calm down after a few days, with no other ill-effects.
- Price: because this ingredient family is considered to be the gold standard, it's often included in products that are incredibly expensive. One reason for this is that the concentration and quality used may be higher than that in other products, but it could also just be clever marketing. As always, keep the above information in mind before you buy.