We have heard about retinol; it is not a new ingredient. But what are the many forms of retinoids? How are they converted in the skin? How do we select the appropriate form and navigate an onboarding to skin care routines? We answer all these questions and more with Amanda.
Amanda is a licensed esthetician and spa owner with 15 years’ experience in the treatment room. Though she has spent most of her spa career in medical spas, she is also an esthetician instructor for continuing education and cosmetic chemistry. She is an avid cannabis educator and activist, jewelry designer, evolving herbalist, and passionate advocate for plant medicine. She owns Skintelligence Texas and is the founder of Higher Education Texas.
00:00 Ella Cressman: You are listening to ASCP Esty Talk, where we share insider tips, industry resources and education for aestheticians at every stage of the journey. Let's talk, because ASCP knows, it's all about you.
00:15 EC: Hello and welcome to ASCP Esty Talk, the ingredient decked-out series. Here we explore the fascinating world of ingredients and how they work within the skin. I'm Ella Cressman, licensed aesthetician and owner of the HHP Collective. I'm also a certified organic skin care formulator and self-proclaimed ingredient junkie. Today, we are going to discuss the golden child of advanced skincare, and that is retinoids, and we're lucky enough to have Amanda Grace Hughes. Woo-hoo-hoo! Amanda is a licensed aesthetician and a spa owner, with 15 years experience in the treatment room. Though she has spent most of her career in medical spas, she's also an aesthetician instructor for continuing education and cosmetic chemistry. Other interests... She is also an avid cannabis educator and activist, jewelry designer and evolving herbalist and passionate advocate for plant medicine. She owns Skintelligence in Texas and is the founder of Higher Education Texas, so we're lucky enough to have her to talk about retinoids, and looking forward to future episodes. Welcome, Amanda.
01:21 Amanda Grace Hughes: Hi, Ella. Thank you, so happy to be here.
01:23 EC: I am super excited to have you on because I love when I have like-minded professionals and we come together and we're able to geek out on skin care. So I guess what... We hear a lot about retinol, we know it's one of the golden children, especially when you're looking at making changes in the skin, but let's dive a little deeper. Let's talk about, what is vitamin A.
01:44 AH: So, vitamin A, not exclusive to skin care, Vitamin A is needed within your body for all cell differentiation. It's found everywhere, there's different receptors in your body, vitamin A or retinol receptors that are found in your epithelial cells, digestive tract, respiratory, skin, bones, immune, it's everywhere, it's required for... Even good for fertility and reproduction and vision, and vitamin A is so essential that a lot of infectious diseases are always found to be lacking in vitamin A or they're made worse by deficiency. It's... I could go on and on about the health aspects and attributes of it. It helps in the production of hemoglobin and iron, so lots of people that are anemic and they're dosing iron and it's not working. What they really need is probably some beta-Carotene or some Vitamin A supplementation as well.
02:46 EC: You bring up a good point because often we talk about topical application, you know, 'cause that's what we're licensed in, that's our scope of practice, but it's important to understand these supplements, these vitamins are these integral part of just living, that there's a connection, there's a face-body connection. [chuckle]
03:03 AH: Yeah, I mean, I have always found it next to impossible to help any client that has any skin issue just by treating them topically, if only just to have a conversation about what's going on internally. And sometimes it's as simple as hearing that all they do is eat fast food and drink coffee, or sometimes it's as complex as, are you taking the right supplements? Are you eating the right foods? And retinoids are found... When I used the term retinoid, I just kinda mean an umbrella term for all the vitamin-A derivatives that, they're found in animal sources and plant sources. There are different types of vitamin A, vitamin A from animals is retinoids, and from plants is that good all Beta-carotene that we always think of with our colorful fruits and vegetables. It's pretty outstanding how it works in the body and very similar to how it works in the skin, as far as how the retinoids or the vitamin A that you're consuming orally through foods or supplement and how it's converted into retinoic acid in your body, it's similar to how it is in your skin. Retinoids, when they're in your skin, can affect and regulate up to a thousand different genes through these Vitamin A or retinoid receptors. So what those receptors are designed to do is to sort of create this homeostasis in your skin, that when you start off with the Vitamin A or Beta-carotene, it is converted.
04:33 AH: And what we most often use, the blanketed term most of us use, I think, is retinol, but what we should be saying is retinoids, because retinol is such a specific type of conversion. But once we have the basic, the very first stage of a retinol or retinoid or vitamin A would be your retinol esters. So those retinol esters, through enzymes in your skin or in your body, depending if you're talking about orally or topically, those retinol esters are converted into retinol, and then retinol, through enzymes in your skin, are converted to retinaldehyde. From retinaldehyde, we can convert with those enzymes into retinoic acid. So, we've got retinol esters to retinol, retinol to retinaldehyde, retinaldehyde to retinoic acid, and with each conversion, the potency is lost the closer you get to retinoic acid. In other words, retinoic acid, by weight, would be stronger than retinaldehyde, stronger than retinol and stronger than an ester, by weight, meaning if you have the exact same quantity. So, each time it's converted, there's a little bit of strength, if you will, or potency, lost, if that makes sense. So there's advantage and disadvantages of that logically. We know, most of us, if you've worked with topical vitamin A products, you know that your retinoic acid is strong, it's very strong, and you often have fantastic results and you most definitely have some unwanted side effects, if at first.
06:12 EC: What you're saying is that the retinoic acid is stronger than retinaldehyde, and retinaldehyde is stronger than retinol?
06:20 AH: Yes, and retinol is stronger than retinyl esters.
06:23 EC: And retinyl esters are stronger than vitamin A. Or they're all derivatives?
06:29 AH: I think in skin care, they certainly do all have a place and a purpose. And we could list, we could have a mile-long list of the things we know retinoids to do, and remember retinoid is just... That's a vitamin-A derivative. It's like the umbrella term for all the vitamin A metabolites. We could make this mile-long a list of everything that retinoids do and hyperpigmentation, acne, collagen building, wrinkle reduction, firming, on and on. There's so many of them, and most of them are attributed to what issues you had to begin with, what skin conditions you are treating, and also what form if assuming all the forms that you're choosing are stable, and what form of retinoid do you use? So different forms have sort of a slightly different effect on those receptors 'cause there's so many jobs those receptors can do.
07:26 EC: Do you think on that line, it also depends on who it's hanging out with? [chuckle]
07:30 AH: Exactly.
07:32 EC: So you have this retinoid, this tough kid who can beat anybody up or this... And I say that meaning, and see a lot of those changes that's going to instigate collagen synthesis by getting in at that form and that molecular structure or initiating that result. Or it's gonna go and soothe pigments or encourage this cell differentiation that you're talking about, and that is the intention of vitamin A, but it also depends on who it's with. I think of my friend who has a tough-love approach, and I often... So she'll tell our friends, "Oh no, that's ridiculous. You shouldn't do that." And I come in and like, "Well, what she's trying to say is," and soften the blow, if you will. So that's similar in skin care formulation, right?
08:18 AH: Absolutely, yeah, so certainly the carrier or the other products, the other ingredients that are active in the product matters, stability matters.
08:27 EC: You've mentioned that stability. I think that's important to talk about too.
08:29 AH: Yeah, yeah. All of that certainly matters. I really like, and I'm hoping we'll get to this later, I think we will, is... Just when you start off with your retinoid treatment, like if you're new to retinoids or you're ready to get serious about a routine with retinoids, I really like to leave a lot of actives out at first. The skin is designed to... Your skin is actually designed to keep things out, not to let things in, right? There's a reason why we can frankly pour bleach on our hands and live through it. Your skin protects you. It's designed to keep things out, so to find a retinoid that actually is going to get in where it needs to get in, that's the key. And it's not always there. You know that. You know there's a lot of products, especially your lower-end lines or drug store or some of the drugstore lines that just because it says it has vitamin A in it, it doesn't necessarily mean much. It could just be some carrot oil from beta-carotene.
09:30 EC: Hey guys, stop. Let's take a quick break.
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10:23 EC: Let's get back to the conversation. So I had a client when I was early, starting early in my career, and I guess it was like middle of the beginning of my career, and I had a client come in for an eyebrow wax. And I lifted her skin, and it turns out that she was on a drugstore product, RoC retinol. And I didn't think about it because I had always had this association that those weren't effective. They didn't have enough in there to do anything, so it's completely my workspace but, and I took a time...
10:54 AH: I don't know any esthetician who hasn't lifted an eyebrow because of vitamin A.
10:58 EC: Right. I've had a lot of learning moments, fortunately. [chuckle] Yeah, it makes me feel better that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team 'cause when I tell those kind of stories like, "Nope, those are learning opportunities, and it just made me strive to be a better brow artist. But they had that, so I do know that some of these over-the-counter products have it. So it's good that we know that especially when we're doing our consultation and such. But there are different forms, like you mentioned, and they may have a different effect. Another client of mine had an inferior product, and I was talking to her about retinol or retinoids in her routine, specifically for what she wanted. And she went out and got something different. She came in, and her face was deep red. It was obviously the wrong kind of formulation. So let's talk about... We kind of touched on retinoids, retinyl esters, retinaldehyde and retinoic acid, but let's talk about how they're different from each other.
11:52 AH: Okay, let's start at the bottom as far as skin care ingredients. I am not going to count Beta-carotene and I'm not gonna count some of the vitamin A alternatives as retinoids yet. I'd like to cover that, but with your true retinoids, is first strength. Remember, we talked about the conversion, esters to retinol, retinol to retinaldehyde, retinaldehyde to retinoic acid. So your retinoid esters are an alcohol and a fatty acid. Those together form an ester. They are more light stable than some of the other conversions that come after that, so that's a total benefit. If they're more light stable, they also can be a little safer for photosensitivity. So the closer you get to retinoic acid, the greater you're increasing your photosensitivity in your skin and your vulnerability to further sun damage.
12:52 EC: Now, are you talking about light sensitivity like sun, or are you talking about changing the potency by packaging? Or both?
12:58 AH: So I'm talking about, if it's... All of your retinoids should be in opaque packaging. They should just all be in opaque packaging, or if they are in a glass bottle, then they need to be in a UVA filtered, the blacker... The black or the dark blue ones are a little better than clear and amber, but I prefer opaque packaging because it keeps that vulnerability down to the light source decreasing the potency. So that, yes, that's relative, but I am also talking about in your skin, your photosensitivity to sun damage is a little less with your retinoid esters. So both, it's a light stable product in the packaging, and they also have less photosensitivity in your skin.
13:46 EC: I think that's an important point, because often we get super excited about sustainable packaging, which is good, it's important, sustainable packaging, or, "Oh, this is so pretty," but we also just another podcast have to talk about functional product packaging too, because there's so much involved, and I know that you know that, but with developing product packaging is this whole other animal.
14:09 AH: Well, it's huge because for you to spend as a consumer, for you to spend, I don't care if it's $15 or if it's $215 for a product, you want it to be as effective as they intended it to be when it was created by the time it gets to you and you've opened it and used it a few times, so packaging is crucial. I see lots and lots of products, not just retinoid products, but... Lots of skincare products and herbal formulations and HPP and everything, where the packaging, the very first thing as a professional... The very first thing you and I see before we're able to even try a product, touch it, read the ingredient deck, the very first thing we see is the packaging, and there's a good percentage of that time that we can look right at the packaging and say, "Well, I don't care what's in it, it's already lost all the valuable potency just by the [15:04] ____.
15:05 EC: You and I can, and I think that's an important point. It's an important point, as it's beyond the pretty, it's on the function. And same goes here for retinoids, or retinols.
15:13 AH: For sure.
15:14 EC: So thank you for bringing that up, because I think that it's something we have to definitely touch on, especially new estheticians, or you, also, as a seasoned esthetician, you lose track of that sometimes, and you flip over and you look at the ingredient deck but you also, you have to consider packaging.
15:29 AH: Or you're just enamored with some really pretty packaging.
15:34 EC: Almost happened to me once. It almost happened to me in the last year, I almost... I was like, oh, this is so pretty, and luckily I turned over, immediately looked at the ingredient deck, and then the next... The scent experience, and I was like, oh, no, this is not for me. But I was... Fool me once, I was there. I was... I get it, I understand, but we need to be aware of that. But not to get off subject of retinoids, but retinoid...
16:00 AH: That's okay, that's okay.
16:00 EC: It depends on... The packaging is important.
16:03 AH: For all of them. So back to your esters, with your retinoid esters, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, those are two real common ones that you'll see, retinyl acetate is very lipophilic, so it's commonly used in those creamier formulas. It will convert into retinol in your skin, which then, I'm gonna say this so many times so everybody gets it, so from your ester it turns into retinol, and from retinol to retinaldehyde, and then to retinoic acid. I like the esters for people that have sensitive, reactive skin, people that are new to retinoids, people that maybe have been retinoid... Emotionally or physically burned by retinoid and they're scared. So it's a good reason to get their confidence back up in retinoids and not be so afraid of it. One thing that I think is interesting, and I've not seen a ton of studies on it, but I think that in your skin, all retinoids are stored as retinyl palmitate. That's how they're stored. So no matter how you put it in your skin, if it's successfully converted, it's stored as retinyl palmitate. So I think there's substantial reason to believe that as far as an ester goes, the retinyl palmitate is probably your better bet, because that would indicate less conversion, so less loss of potency, if you will.
17:28 EC: So this is like a margarita versus a tequila shot.
17:31 AH: Exactly, exactly. So this is not quite a virgin margarita, this is like a margarita with four drops of tequila in it. But four drops of tequila for some people...
17:43 EC: Still tequila.
17:43 AH: That's a lot of tequila.
17:45 EC: Right.
17:45 AH: For me it is. [chuckle] Let's go to, what would be after esters is retinol. So retinol, and it's the O-L, R-E-T-I-N-O-L, I say that because often we see retinol with I-L for some of our forms, but this is retinol, which is the most common form, especially over-the-counter. It's stronger in weight than esters, so when I say stronger in weight, I mean you would have to use about 10 times more ester to get the same results as one-tenth of that of retinol. So it's stronger by weight, it's typically found in 0.01 to one percent, which doesn't sound like a huge jump, but that's 100 times stronger, one percent's 100 times stronger. Kind of nice that you have so many options of strength, kind of confusing to think, well, I used to use a 0.01, I'm gonna go ahead and jump up to the one percent. That's a hundred times stronger, so you just need to pay attention to, but it's all math, math... So it's math. I like... There's a substantial amount of research behind retinol, for anti-aging effects, there's more research behind retinol than there is any other form of retinoids, even Retin-A, there's more research behind retinols, because so many...
19:15 AH: It's in so many over-the-counter or any non-prescription strength product systems. It's in so many that all these companies have done lots and lots and lots, lots of research. So when you're looking for retinol, I just want you to pay attention for sure to that strength, especially if you're changing products, you wanna know what you came from and what you're going into.
19:37 EC: Okay, so we have retinyl esters and retinol, and next, we have retinaldehyde.
19:44 AH: Yeah, so retinaldehyde is the direct precursor to retinoic acid, which is sort of our end result here. So before it's retinoic acid, its retinaldehyde, after it's retinol, it's retinaldehyde. It is faster and stronger than your retinol, by weight, typically, not always, but typically, retinaldehyde is found in either acne-targeted retinoid products, or retinoid products that are better for people who have normal to oily skin. It's not so much for your dryer skin. Retinaldehyde has an ability to affect the retinoid receptors that target your anti-bacterial effects. So retinaldehyde, not that it doesn't do all the things that retinoids do, as far as outside of acne, but I've noticed that typically it's in the products that are more targeted and geared for antibacterial or oily, or oil control, or acne, even if it's just adult acne and sometimes acne. I find that that's typical of those. And not that your esters aren't, but retinaldehyde, compared to your retinol or your esters, it's typically used for more of an anti-bacterial purpose. And it's hard to really say which retinoid is good for what, because the way that...
21:11 AH: Fun fact, the way that retinol, or the effects of retinoid on anti-aging and hyper-pigmentation were discovered, is Retin-A was first... When it first came on the market pharmaceutically it was for acne, and there was some derms that were showing their acne patients how to use it, how to apply it, what it looks like, how it feels, and of course, my derm even does this and I do this in my clinic, you take a little bit, you say, "This is how much you're gonna use," and you put that little pea size on your right hand, your right finger and you rub it on the back of your left. And you say, "Here you go," and you show them, right? Well, these derms were noticing the elasticity and hyper-pigmentation and the texture of their left hand, which had no acne, was beautiful and it was improving. So like every other off-label use of every pharmaceutical that we find, that's very difficult, although it still helped with acne, it was helping with all these other things. So it's sort of difficult to break apart retinoids and say which one's good for what purpose.
22:19 EC: Yeah, I think I have that exact same thing. My left hand is gorgeous. My left hand is like 28 years old, 'cause this is where I show people, but this is also my palette that I would use to warm product on. And so now this hand is definitely 40. Well, it's kind of 35, I'm 42. So it's definitely a huge difference. In fact, it's a joke with my sister-in-law, and she's like... When I used to be in product sales she was like, "Just show them your hands, just show them your hands. They'll see it works."
22:49 AH: Absolutely.
22:50 EC: You brought up Retin-A, so that is... Leads me to the next one.
22:55 AH: Yeah, so the ultimate conversion, the end of our conversion steps is your retinoic acid. You see, retinoic acids... Well, I'm gonna actually touch on retinoic acid esters also because I think that kind of falls... It's a newer sort of ingredient technology, and it falls between retinaldehyde and retinoic acid, or it falls between retinol and retinoic acid. So not to be confused with our retinoid esters. So it's a retinoic acid ester. There's a few of them on the market, the most common one you've probably heard of is the Granactive one, or the HPR, that's one, but retinol retinoid it's more active than retinol but it has less irritation. So retinol retinoid is... It breaks up, it's one molecule, but it breaks up in the skin into retinoic acid and retinol. What! So you have retinol...
24:00 EC: Yeah, you have two shots in the margarita.
24:02 AH: What! So now it's like, "I would like a margarita and I would like a reposado in there, and I would also like a bottom shot." Like you've got two different kinds of tequila in one margarita, your liver doesn't see the difference.
24:15 EC: They have that at restaurants, where they call it a side car, where they have a margarita and then an additional shot that they put in, it hangs out. That's what this is.
24:21 AH: Yes, so I really... The reason I wanted to not skip that is because I think that I am a person who loves retinols and uses retinols, and I really try really hard to get my clients on them. I'm in Texas, it's sunny all the time, it's kind of a timing issue with us, but this has been really a nice addition, I think, to our industry, to have these retinoic acid esters. So it's just that one molecule, so it's just... It's active in just one step, put it on and it's active, because retinoic acid is active instantly in your skin. But the retinol is slowly converted, so you've kind got... I'm not gonna call it a time release but that's kind of what's happening, because it's not an intentional time release and because everyone's skin sort of breaks down things slower than... Different speeds for different people. The retinol retinoid, which is your retinoic acid ester, there's studies that say that it supports collagen synthesis eight times more than retinol, which is a lot.
25:27 AH: So if you were coming off of the retinol, that's a lot more effective, but you'll have less irritation because you're using the two of them together. You have less irritation than you would with retinoic acid alone. So there's not a ton of these products on the line, but there are some. The one, I think I hear about the most is The Ordinary. That was one of the first ones I started hearing about, and they have several different ones with different carriers, and some of them have different actives. It's interesting because this molecule, the Granactive molecule, it binds directly to these retinoid receptors. So it acts like a pure retinoic acid, but it has way less irritation than your retinoic acid prescription. So they say that it's less irritating than even 0.5% retinol, which is a pretty safe level for most experienced retinol users. It's interesting, I think it's interesting because of all these reasons. Also it's more stable than other retinols. Because every time you make an ester, you've got a little bit more stability.
26:33 EC: Yes. So shelf life, also [26:35] ____.
26:36 AH: There's not a ton of research on it, all the research is done by... That I've seen, has been done by the people making the products, and that's not that that's always a bad thing, but really, the proof in all your skin care products is always just, time will tell.
26:55 EC: So I think I could probably talk to you all day. However, we do have to be conscientious. I would love to have you back on another podcast and talk about all ingredients because I love when I can geek out with someone. So for now we're going to go from esters to retinol, to retinaldehyde and into retinoic acid, and then to goodbye. But we wanna definitely thank you, Amanda Grace, for your time, and hopefully you'll come back for another episode.
27:28 AH: I'd love it, thank you. Great.
27:30 EC: Thank you so much. And I will have ways to get in touch with Ms. Amanda Grace in the show notes, and we wanna thank you so much for coming and listening to ASCP Esty Talk, the ingredient decked out series. Have a great day.
27:44 EC: Thanks for joining us today. If you liked what you hear and you want more, subscribe. If you wanna belong to the only all-inclusive association for estheticians, that includes professional liability insurance, education, industry insights and an opportunity to spotlight your sick skills, join at ascpskincare.com. Only 259 per year for all this goodness. ASCP knows it's all about you.