Question for the Derm: How Does Your Retinol Differ from Other Over-the-Counter Retinols?

February 10, 2021
Question for the Doctor: How Does Your Retinol Differ from Other Over-the-Counter Retinols?

Dr. Zenovia Skincare seeks to address every hormone-related skincare concern, from acne to skin aging with science backed by research and clinical trials. In our new series, “Question for the Derm”, Dr. Zenovia will be answering your top questions about hormones & skin. Below, Dr. Zenovia shares how retinol works and why our Advanced Night Repair Treatment differs from other over-the-counter retinols on the market. She also explains the science behind our All-Trans-Retinol Technology.

Retinoids 101

Dermatologists love Vitamin A derivative molecules for the skin. Vitamin A derivatives include retinols, retinaldehyde, retinoids, and adapalene. There are a lot of different drugs that are Vitamin A derivatives. The reason dermatologists love these molecules is because retinoids are drugs that can be applied to the tissue to help regulate desquamation (skin shedding). Retinoids also stimulate collagen production and have a powerful impact on decreasing collagen breakdown. Retinoids are therefore the mainstay for acne control, preventing comedones and follicular plugging, while also serving as a powerful anti-aging product. However, Retinoids are one of the most misunderstood molecules. When consumers look at retinol and retinoids- the words are confusing! When you think about what's sold over the counter versus what's prescribed by a dermatologist, the main difference is the concentration and the chemical structure inside the bottle.

Retinoic Acid

It used to be very popular to use the term RetinA which is actually a trade name for a popular drugstore brand’s retinol! The real name of this ingredient is retinoic acid. Retinoic acid also has a generic drug name called tretinoin. Retinoic acid and tretinoin are therefore the same! One is a generic drug name, and one is the molecular structure.

If we go back to chemistry class, the tail of the huge retinoic acid molecule is COOH. This molecule can get converted in the cell or in the body to the alcohol form of retinoic acid called retinol.

The reason why some products list retinol and others list retinoic acid is because the acid form (retinoic acid), is very irritating to the tissue. For this reason, many people experience redness, inflammation, and flaking from prescription-strength retinoic acid (or tretinoin which is the same thing).


As the alcohol form of the molecule retinoic acid, retinol is a bit more tolerant to the skin’s tissue. It is absorbed slower and doesn’t have a lot of the chemistry that you see with retinoic acid. Retinol is the best anti-acne and anti-aging cream on the market and one of the best skincare agents in the last five decades of cosmetic dermatology. Retinol works by inhibiting enzymes that are breaking down your collagen endogenously. Studies have even shown that using a powerful retinol on your skin for two years can decrease the rate of skin cancer in your skin!

However, what has happened in the skincare industry is that this amazing molecule of retinoic acid will be reduced in strength so much- to so many molecular structures that it becomes a new chemical that isn’t as effective!

Our Advanced Retinol Technology

When formulating my Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment I wanted it to be tolerable so you wouldn’t get red and flaky, but still be effective. We have therefore kept our retinol in its original molecular state.

Retinol is a very unstable molecule. The goal with retinol is for it to go into our tissue, then into our cells, and finally into our DNA to turn on some of our genes. It is a very complicated pathway for the molecule to stay in stable form throughout. As you can see, there is a lot of chemistry and stabilizing concepts that go into making retinol effective.

Stability is so important in chemistry and a lot of people don’t know that. You can try to compare the ingredient lists of various over-the-counter retinols, but there's so much more to a product- cosmeceutical making, chemistry, ingredient mixing, etc. Formulating my own retinol really opened my eyes to the fact that just because a label says something, doesn’t mean it's doing what it says. I learned a great deal about the stability of chemical compounds in an oxygenated environment as well as the absorption and stability of chemical compounds past the epidermis. In creating the Dr. Zenovia Skincare line, I learned that what you see advertised isn't always what you're getting. My team and I worked hard to tinker in the lab with particular chemistry fundamentals to ensure the molecules and chemistry we use behind ingredients will work downstream.

Our amazing team of chemists created a powerful retinol technology that is encased in a micro polymer delivery system. This system encases the retinol inside like a sponge, keeping the molecule stable as it travels past the barrier, into the tissue, and finally into the cell. The micro polymer system also allows the molecule to come out of the system slowly, giving it a time-release effect. Bathing the skin in this active molecule over time makes it less irritating. Our Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment is super effective, stable, absorbable, and lives up to its claims. By helping to prevent follicular plugging, it is a miracle drug for acne and preventing the breakdown of collagen.

With retinol, it's always a very delicate dance. You want to use your retinol to the point where you are starting to shed and are a little flakey. This is the point where you know it's working because the desquamation process is taking place. If you are using a retinol and are still oily, that’s a sign you're not using enough, or that your retinol isn’t working for you. You want the skin to be balanced (in terms of oiliness) and slightly flakey. When you get to this point, you are stimulating your collagen, desquamating your pores, and working toward getting clear, even skin.

Over-the-Counter vs. Prescription Grade Retinol

The deciding factor that determines whether a retinol can be sold over the counter or is prescription grade is the percentage of retinoic acid inside the bottle. Prescription-strength retinoic acid is .05% and above. However, when it comes to the alcohol form of retinoic acid, retinol since it is such an unstable molecule that mutates inside the cell and transmutes to different forms, the percentages aren’t really stable. You therefore cannot officially give a percentage to retinol because it's such an unstable molecule! It may stay in alcohol form on your skin for only a millisecond.

Over-the-counter skincare products with retinol destabilize so fast within the cell which is why they aren’t prescription grade. However, if the retinol is manufactured properly, as we have done with our retinol, it ends up having the same effect as a prescription-strength retinol. When we compared our retinol encased in the micro polymer system to a true prescription retinol, there was comparable clinical efficacy. With our Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment, you can essentially get the prescription effect in a non-prescription product due to the way it's been formulated using a micro polymer system stabilizer.

Retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin) remains the holy grail and the best of the best. It is pure Retina! However, you cannot purchase it over the counter and for many, it could be irritating. Every skincare brand is therefore on a chase to make a retinoid that is not irritating, over the counter, and has a similar effect to retinoic acid.

The clinical effect of our Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment is between 0.25% to 0.05% retinoid. No percentage is shown on the packaging because it’s the alcohol form sold as an over-the-counter treatment. The percentage is a range because it depends upon the body it's applied to and the chemical way a person's body breaks the molecule down. We are all physiologically different. The deeper you dig into biochemistry, human physiology, kidney excretion, and liver metabolism you begin to realize how different we are and how different things impact different people to varying degrees. There isn't one hero agent in our product line- we have created powerful systems. It’s the redundancy of the systems that are so important. The cocktail and synergy of the molecules have a sum that is greater than its parts. That is the beauty of Dr. Zenovia Skincare. There is no hero agent. There are so many different people out there with different oxidative pathways in their cells and each person's pathway can get cleared with the help of different antioxidants and ingredients. Our products are like an army swiss knife with a bottle opener, a knife, screwdriver, etc.- the line includes everything you need to attack the inflammation and pollutants your skin’s health is fighting against.   


Shop Dr. Zenovia’s Advanced Retinol Night Repair Treatment