Smooth Operator: The Wrinkle-Reducing Power Of Retinol

Yasu & Junko/Trunk Archive

Yasu & Junko/Trunk Archive

Chloe Malle test-drives a new generation of kinder formulas rebooting the superstar skin care ingredient.

Soon after I had my second child and the tight, brioche-​bun sheen of pregnancy skin had faded to a postpartum gefilte-fish gray, I saw a meme on the Instagram Stories of a younger friend’s younger sister: “If The O.C. was your favorite show in 2004, it’s time to add retinol to your skin care routine,” it read in sans serif letters over a cast photo of the beloved early-​aughts high school dramedy. Already in college when it aired, I was a little too old to be gripped by Mischa Barton’s teenage shenanigans, but the reference immediately aged me.
A month later, a male friend caught me similarly off guard. “Do you use retinol? Should I use retinol?” he asked earnestly. There is apparently a special French formula that isn’t even allowed in the United States, he relayed, wide-eyed. Retinol had become that person you meet at a party, and then run into repeatedly thereafter.

That’s likely due to the fact that at 37, I am starting to seriously think about wrinkles—and how to get rid of them. But there also seems to be a retinol renaissance afoot thanks to new technology, green and clean formulas, and, of course, the medical school of TikTok, where interest in the multi­tasking molecule that promises to ward off the earliest signs of aging has generated over 3.2 billion views. 

It’s kind of like how Viagra’s intended use was to treat hypertension, Elisabeth Bouhadana confirms of retinol’s origin story via Zoom from her lab in Clichy, France: Thirty years ago, the rampant dispatch of Retin-A—also known as retinoic acid, or tretinoin in its prescription-​grade form—as an oil-­reducing acne solution inadvertently led to retinol’s discovery as a panacea for optimizing both skin tone and texture. Wearing a crisp lab coat and a fresh blowout, the biochemist and L’Oréal Paris international scientific director is giving me a SparkNotes overview of the ingredient, which is often incorrectly used as a blanket term for a larger group of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids. “It accelerates the rate at which the new cells migrate onto the surface and stimulate messengers, which then tell the cells to produce more collagen,” she explains in a jovial French accent, adding that it can take one to two months to see results. 

“It’s the gold standard,” adds Marie-Veronique Nadeau, a chemist and the creator of her namesake natural skin care line. “There is nothing like it for not only slowing the advance of skin aging, but also to actually reverse certain types of photo damage.” Nadeau and her business partner, holistic skin care expert Kristina Holey, have signed on to a call with me from their homes in the Bay Area to talk about their recently launched Multi-​Retinol Night Emulsion, which is billed as a clean, microbiome-​friendly replacement for prescription retinoids. As someone who has been hesitant to try retinol for fear of a bad reaction (redness, flaky-dry skin), I find the product particularly appealing because of a general approach that Holey describes as respectful of the skin’s delicate moisture barrier, which, when compromised by harsh ingredients or abrasive exfoliants, loses its ability to keep hydration in and external aggressors out. 

Holey and Nadeau have deployed a new class of “alt-retinols”—gentle, plant-based alternatives that often complement the hard stuff. “They can enhance retinol to make it work more efficiently,” Holey explains of ingredients such as bakuchiol, which is derived from the leaves and seeds of the anti-inflammatory babchi plant, an herb common in Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines. Their emulsion also includes retinyl sunflowerseedate, another bio-retinol that works to support the skin’s barrier function. “It’s an easier way to acclimate to a very active ingredient,” explains Nadeau.

But do these bio-retinols actually do anything? And does using a nonprescription, over-the-counter retinoid defeat the purpose of using one at all?

“I’d rather you use something less aggressive more consistently so you get some benefit,” suggests New York–​based dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD. I meet Idriss at her sleek Bryant Park office, her forehead as smooth as the skating rink below. “It’s case by case, but retinol probably does delay how long you can go without Botox,” the social-­media-favorite doctor confirms. (Her heavily trafficked Instagram account features a cheat sheet of “Retinoids 101” and uses emojis to relay the ingredient’s varying strength, starting with retinol ester—eyes closed smiley face—and progressing to retinoic acid—wide eyes, red cheeks.) Embracing Barbie-​core in a fuchsia Veronica Beard corduroy blazer, Idriss leans over to examine my T-zone. “You talk with your forehead,” she tells me sternly, motioning to the lines above
my brow ridge.

I repeat my concerns of a possible reaction, or the dreaded “skin purging”—when breakouts, redness, or irritation get worse before they get better at the beginning of a retinol regimen—to Idriss, but she assures me that new timed-release formulations for slower, gentler absorption will likely prevent that from happening. She recommends trying low concentrations in over-the-counter formulas such as SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex 0.25%, once a week then gradually increasing the frequency to every night—which is good advice for any of the myriad retinol options now available to satisfy increased demand. A simple search revealed retinol hand creams (Soft Services Theraplush Overnight Repair Treatment uses 0.05% pure retinol in a satiny cream that smells like cake batter and left my hands gleaming through the morning); retinol eye creams (Ilia has added sea fennel extract, a plant-based retinol alternative to peptides and caffeine, which managed to plump my under­eye area—and maybe even lighten my dark circles); and—gasp!—a retinol-like SPF product, which was once considered unthinkable because of retinol’s inherent photosensitivity. (Supergoop has boosted its mineral SPF with bakuchiol to provide bio-retinol benefits to your daily dose of UV protection with a light tint and a silky texture.) “Being able to have these ingredients in very sensorial formulas, which are also perfectly tolerated by most skin types, is really the revolution,” Bouhadana says, shouting out L’Oréal’s Revitalift Derm Intensives 0.3% Pure Retinol Serum, which also incorporates hydrating hyaluronic acid. 

Less than two months after beginning my own retinol experience, with no irritation to speak of, I can’t help but agree. The skin above my brows appears less crinkled, too; my aunt, who is prone to hyperbole, recently confirmed as much. “Look at your baby skin!” she said as I held my daughter, now 10 months. “You two look the same!” An exaggeration, yes; but validating enough to help me brush off another triggering meme I saw a few weeks later, one that time-stamped various TV doctors’ popularity and assigned skin treatments to their respective, aging audiences: If you loved Meredith Grey, retinoids; ER-era George Clooney, Botox; Doogie Howser, fillers; Hawkeye from MASH, skin-tightening devices. I’ve always been team Meredith Grey, I thought to myself, as I casually scrolled on. 

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