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WHAT IS RETINOL? IS IT NATURAL? TOXIC?

Remember when you were a kid and your parents kept telling you to eat your carrots because they're good for your eyesight? There's a retinol connection there! As for "natural" and "toxic" – read on.
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IS RETINOL TOXIC?

What is retinol? Is it natural? Is it toxic?

What is retinol, exactly? Is retinol natural? Is retinol toxic? Is retinol an exfoliant? What's the difference between retinol and retinoids? Is retinal a spelling error? And WTH carrots?? We'll cover all this in a way that hopefully makes clear how retinol fits into skincare as well as our world in general.

WHAT IS RETINOL?

First off, because it's a persistent misconception (I believed it myself at one point), retinol is much more than an exfoliant – in fact, retinol is not an exfoliant at all, doesn't work like an exfoliant despite its reputation for ruthlessly peeling faces off when not handled with respect. More on that in a how-it-works post soon, but for now, let's go right back to the geeky beginning of retinol's roots and family – and its connection to eating your carrots. We'll start with Vitamin A and connect some geeky dots.

FINE, WHAT'S VITAMIN A?

Remember when you were a kid and your parents kept telling you to eat your carrots because they'll help you see in the dark? In part that was probably as a result of World War II British propaganda, and in part because it does actually hold some truth: carrots contain beta-carotene, a lipid- or fat-soluble antioxidant that the body transforms into a micronutrient essential for healthy eyes and good night vision.

Neostrata Correct Retinol 0.3% Overnight Peel, ROC Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules, Drunk Elephant A-Gloei Maretinol Oil

Neostrata Correct Retinol 0.3% Overnight Peel, ROC Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules, Drunk Elephant A-Gloei Maretinol Oil

That essential micronutrient is Vitamin A. Beta-carotene is one of several antioxidants called provitamin A carotenoids because once they're ingested, the human body eventually turns them into Vitamin A. Until they're metabolized, they're just pigments in vibrantly coloured fruit and vegetables, such as spinach, kale, chard – and carrots.

Vitamin A is an antioxidant vital to the healthy development of the human fetus, in the formation, growth and maintenance of healthy bones, skeleton, teeth, soft tissue, mucus membranes, eyes and skin, and in reproductive and immune system function, too.

As for seeing in the dark, Vitamin A is crucial to photo-receptive cells in the retina that facilitate low-light vision as well as motion detection and colour perception. Makes sense, then, that symptoms of a Vitamin A deficiency include poor night vision and night blindness. (Stunted growth, chronically compromised immune system and sluggish wound healing also signal deficiency.)

However, the human body can't supply itself with Vitamin A without two groups of molecules to convert – aka precursors – from food we eat. Provitamin A carotenoids is the group we get from vivid fruit and veg.

ROC Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules, Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max, Shani Darden Retinol Reform

ROC Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules, Olay Regenerist Retinol 24 Max, Shani Darden Retinol Reform

The other antioxidant group, called preformed Vitamin A, comes from animal-source sustenance such as milk/ dairy, eggs and liver. Also known as retinoids – or retinol –they're a step up from provitamin A carotenoids, which the body has to convert to retinol before it can make Vitamin A.

And yes, because humans are animals, human breast milk contains preformed Vitamin A, aka retinol. More to that story soon, but I include that fact here, along with this geeky Vitamin A info because overall we have so little understanding of how "chemicals" and "ingredients" relate to our entire world that we're all too susceptible to misinformation and fearmarketing. So if you hear someone freaking out about retinol or retinoids in breast milk, know that a certain level of them is supposed to be there, and they originate from food many of us consume regularly. (No, not Pringles. I checked.)

But we'd better address toxicity before we get to the "what is retinol" bit.

What does eating your carrots so you can see in the dark have to do with retinol? Retinol via food sourced from animals, and beta-carotene via vibrant fruit and veg, are antioxidants the body uses to make Vitamin A, a micronutrient essential to, among other things, vision that functions well in varying light conditions. #NowYouKnow

What does eating your carrots so you can see in the dark have to do with retinol? Retinol via food sourced from animals, and beta-carotene via vibrant fruit and veg, are antioxidants the body uses to make Vitamin A, a micronutrient essential to, among other things, vision that functions well in varying light conditions. #NowYouKnow

WAIT, TOXICITY? IS RETINOL ACTUALLY #$@!% TOXIC?

Don't freak out – another thing you probably heard as a kid from your parents is that too much of any good thing can be bad. It's true of chocolate and it's definitely true here: ingesting too much Vitamin A (which itself is often referred to as "retinol") can lead to toxicity, and in expectant mothers can cause birth defects.

"Retinol (Vitamin A) and its metabolites run in our bloodstream, and they tend to stay in the body for a while," explains Mohammed Kanadil, a Milan-based pharmacist, toxicologist and safety assessor of personal care products. (He's @moskinlab on Instagram and Mo on YouTube.) "Fat-soluble vitamins like A, K, D and E have a recommended daily allowance because we need them to stay at a certain level – toxicity is in the dosage," he says.

Daily recommended Vitamin A maximum: 2330 IU for women, 3000 IU for men. This Kirkland multivitamin for women contains 1000 IU, but in North America, most of us get enough from dairy, fish and vibrant fruit and vegetables.

Daily recommended Vitamin A maximum: 2330 IU for women, 3000 IU for men. This Kirkland multivitamin for women contains 1000 IU, but in North America, most of us get enough from dairy, fish and vibrant fruit and vegetables.

Toxic levels of Vitamin A through your regular diet is quite difficult, though, unless you chow down on polar bear liver, which contains several million units of Vitamin A. That's waaaaay more than the 2330-unit daily recommendation for women, equivalent to 700 micrograms, or 0.7mg, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Further context: a Kirkland daily multivitamin for women includes 1000 units of Vitamin A.)

Prescribed medication or supplements therapeutically high in Vitamin A would come with a doctor's supervision to avoid issues. Thankfully, recovery from Vitamin A toxicity seems to be a matter of weeks once the person stops taking it. Except in the case of that poor polar bear's liver – several million units of Vitamin A stretched over even a few sittings (if you get past the first 💀) would be too much to come back from. 

As for the use of topical retinol or retinoids during pregnancy, doctors exercise the proverbial abundance of caution in advising against it, because why take the chance? More on this in an upcoming how-retinol-works post.

To be clear, Vitamin A and its precursors retinoids and retinol are not toxic. But as with almost everything else on the planet, including water and oxygen, there are specific levels at which toxicity enters the chat.

SO, WHAT IS RETINOL? OR A RETINOID?

As mentioned in the Vitamin A section, retinol is a member of the retinoid group of animal-source antioxidants the body requires to create the antioxidant and essential micronutrient Vitamin A. Fun fact: the word "retinoid" came from "retina" – again, the link to eyesight 🥕.

Thanks to science and chemistry, enterprising brains figured out how to use those retinoid molecules, essential for the healthy growth and development of brand new humans, on existing, more aged or mature models to create a fresher, youth-renewed outer layer. In topical skincare, retinoids can minimize, even somewhat reverse the aging effects of time, unprotected sun exposure and environmental aggressors, such as wind, cold and pollution.

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, Skinceuticals Custom Dose 0.3% retinol serum, Reversa Retin A List Eye Contour 0.05% Pure Retinol

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, Skinceuticals Custom Dose 0.3% retinol serum, Reversa Retin A List Eye Contour 0.05% Pure Retinol

If you're vegan, don't panic. Naturally sourced retinoids aren't stable enough to use in skincare. "Most retinoids are synthetically made," says Dr. Monica Li, a Vancouver-based dermatologist. "Examples include pure retinol, retinyl esters, retinaldehyde and prescription-grade agents such as tretinoin."

These types Dr. Li mentions are referred to as "natural" retinoids, despite being lab-created versions, because they mimic the naturally occurring kind. 

"There are more than 4,000 synthetic retinoids that don't necessarily exist in nature," notes Dr. Frauke Neuser, PhD, previously principal scientist on Olay skincare, now Senior Director of Scientific Communications at Procter & Gamble (she has a pHD in Chemistry). "They've been developed and synthesized by medical and pharmacological companies over the years because they were trying to create molecules that deliver all the benefits without the trade-offs," she explains.

"Some have been more successful than others, such as Differin [aka adapalene] and granactive** – those are synthetic or 'artificial' retinoids. They can be very efficient, but they tend to be not as broad in their benefits as 'natural' retinoids," she adds. (More on this in the upcoming how-it-works post.)

WHAT IS RETINOL: THE TAKEAWAY

Before we get into retinol and its retinoid family dynamics in the next post, let's recap:

IS RETINOL TOXIC? ARE RETINOIDS TOXIC?

Alcohol, as in booze, a class 1 carcinogen, is more toxic than your retinol face cream.

  1. Along with beta-carotene, retinol is a fat-soluble antioxidant the body needs to create Vitamin A, which is necessary to the development, growth and maintenance of key elements of the human form, including healthy bones, soft tissue, eyes and skin.
  2. Within the eye's retina, Vitamin A components factor significantly in photoreceptor-cell function that facilitates vision and perception of colour in varying light conditions.
  3. Retinol and its fellow retinoids are not toxic. However, as precursors or derivatives of Vitamin A, and given Vitamin A's intrinsic and powerful role in human physiological development, they do have toxicity potential if improperly used. And thus the prohibition on retinoid use during pregnancy, so as not to overload a healthy reproductive system that already receives the Vitamin A it needs via food we consume.
  4. As skincare ingredients, retinol and its fellow retinoids can diminish, even somewhat reverse the aging effects of time, unprotected sun exposure and environmental aggressors, such as wind, cold and pollution.
  5. Retinoids used in skincare are lab-crafted – and there are more than 4000 synthetic retinoids to date – but retinol and its relatives retinyl esters, retinaldehyde (aka retinal) and retinoic acid (aka tretinoin) are considered "natural" because they mimic retinoids that occur in nature.

Up next: retinol and the retinoid family dynamics; how retinoids work is after that.

OVER TO YOU

Were you told as a kid that eating your carrots would give you better eyesight at night? Had you already connected that with retinol in skincare?

Did you already know Vitamin A plays such a key role in human physiology?

Have you heard that retinol is toxic?

Did you know that eating a polar bear's liver could prove fatal to humans? (To the polar bear too 🥺)

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