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Vitamin A - Recommend it with Confidence!

Vitamin A (aka retinol and its various forms) is a favorite ingredient in the skincare industry — and for good reason. (The following article is from this month's focus on retinoids - fact vs. fiction from Skin Care Literature membership.)

Yet we still hear from so many estheticians who express uncertainty about recommending retinoids due to:

a) a lack of confidence in their knowledge or ability to communicate about the different types, how they work, etc. and/or b) the unwanted side effects that can sometimes accompany retinoids (like flaking, peeling, sensitization and even breakouts).

We understand this is a particularly complex ingredient category, and the potential side effects or “retinization period” can be discouraging to both you and your clients. However, we truly believe that gaining a solid knowledge of retinoids and learning how to handle the side effects (including both minimizing them and educating your clients properly on what to expect) could be what is standing in the way of you and success.

Vitamin A is the most scientifically backed skin care ingredient, proven to treat myriad conditions. And when you can create real results for your clients, long-term trust and loyalty follows.

Do you still get tongue-tied when recommending retinoids? Do you have trouble explaining the different precursors and how they actually work? Confused about which ingredients to use with retinoids, and the right type and concentration for your clients? Need help guiding clients through potential purging and sensitivity — and minimizing these effects?

Retinoids are the most scientifically backed skin care ingredient there is. But it’s a complex ingredient category, and with so much misinformation out there, they can be hard to grasp — even for us skin pros.

Here are 2 prevalent myths often heard from estheticians and their clients:

Myth: Retinol Increases UV Sensitivity

While this myth isn’t completely false, it is also not completely true — at least not in the way it is often communicated. The truth is nuanced, and we’ll get into the details below — but in short: retinoids do not cause UV sensitivity more than other active ingredients (especially exfoliating acids), and when used properly, they don’t cause sun sensitivity in the long-term. In fact, retinoids are incredibly effective at correcting UV damage and even have UV-protective properties when used in conjunction with SPF.


First, retinoid molecules themselves are sensitive to UV. This means that many retinoid formulas will become unstable and rendered less effective when exposed to UV light. This is why you shouldn’t find retinoid formulas in clear packaging and why it is not recommended to use your retinoids in the AM. This is less to do with danger and more to do with efficacy!

It’s also true that when beginning a retinoid routine, it’s normal to experience some sensitization and barrier imbalance while the skin acclimates. Just like with any form of sensitization, when our barriers are out of whack, our skin is less protected and more vulnerable to outside stressors — and that includes sunlight. This is why it is absolutely imperative that your clients using retinoids are also diligent about sun protection. (As should everyone!)

It’s also a good idea to advise clients that will be spending a lot of time in the sun (like on a tropical vacation) or who are already sunburned to give their skin a break from their retinoid — along with other active ingredients, exfoliants, and lasers — until their barrier is repaired.

So, while retinoids may increase the sensitivity of the skin while it is acclimating to a new or stronger retinoid, newer studies have found that this increased sensitivity dissipates with the retinization period. In other words, retinoids are not “phototoxic” the way some substances are. (For example, certain citrus and essential oils can react with the sun to cause chemical burns.)

Further, it is well-proven that retinoids are effective at repairing UV damage. This includes minimizing fine lines and deep wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and telangiectasias, as well as increasing firmness and elasticity. What’s more? Studies show that topical retinoids have the potential to be “chemopreventative,” which means they can actually inhibit tumor formation and skin cancer development.

And finally, ingesting beta carotene (another precursor of vitamin A) in the form of dietary supplements has been shown to have potential photoprotective properties and reduce oxidative damage from the sun — although to a considerably lesser degree than traditional SPF.

Myth: Retinol Thins Your Skin

As skin pros, we’d like to think this myth has died. But the truth is, we still hear it from time to time from clients, estheticians, and even brands (particularly those that don’t offer retinol products). This is disappointing, because it's a myth that keeps many people in fear of using retinoids, and therefore, keeps them from achieving their best skin.

The myth that retinoids thin the skin likely originates from one of the common side effects associated with topical retinoids: peeling. Peeling is especially pronounced when going from 0-100 with a new retinol routine — and was particularly bad with the harsh prescription-strength formulations of the past.

While there are definitely ways to minimize peeling (like starting low and slow, using buffering techniques, and paying attention to formulation), when you first introduce a powerful active like retinol to the skin, irritation, sensitization, and barrier imbalance can occur. The short-term result is that skin may appear dry, red, flaky, or even breakout — the opposite of the youthful, hydrated and plump complexion your clients are going for.

And while skin that is peeling may seem like it's “thinning,” when it comes to retinoids, the opposite is actually true. The reason is. . .

Topical retinoids are proven to stimulate cell proliferation. In other words, retinoids optimize cell renewal to increase production of new, younger cells in the basal layer of the epidermis and more efficiently slough off corneocytes from the stratum corneum. While this has been shown to decrease the thickness and “compactness” of the epidermis, this is actually a positive result. In fact, more efficient desquamation (or removal of dehydrated, keratinized corneocytes from the surface of the skin) is the goal of many skin care treatments: to unveil the younger, healthier cells underneath.

But retinoids actually thicken skin where it matters: in the dermis.

Topical retinoids are proven to stimulate collagen synthesis. Essentially, retinoic acid stimulates our fibroblasts to produce more of the protein that gives our skin structure — resulting in increased dermal density. This is what gives our skin “plumpness” and decreases fine lines and wrinkles. Interestingly, collagen also helps our skin to hold onto water, which is why retinoids decrease transepidermal water loss (TEWL) over time — despite the potential barrier imbalances and dehydration your clients may experience temporarily in the early stages of acclimation.

While there are many benefits to retinoids, increased collagen production and dermal density is a hugely desirable one for many of your clients — and exactly the opposite of the false myth that retinoids thin the skin!

Do you still encounter clients who fear that retinoids thin the skin? Do you feel comfortable explaining to them how and why this is not true?

Hint: Even if you think your clients can’t possibly still believe this myth, it might be worth mentioning to clients who express hesitation about starting retinoids. After all, your clients usually don’t have the access you do on up-to-date skin science, and misinformation persists when we don’t step in to educate.

Mara Jenkins, founder, SCL

(The Euro Institute and Swiss Skin Care are not affiliated with Skin Care Lit and do not receive compensation from them in any form. This is one of the many resources we provide to our students and wholesale esthetic clients.)


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