Retinol belongs to a pantheon of skin care ingredients that are highly regarded by dermatologists and estheticians alike (other ingredients that share this special status include the likes of hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin C). But the ingredient, although extremely effective, is also notoriously unstable. If it’s not formulated well and packaged correctly, retinol will swiftly degrade. Once degraded, it’s ineffective at best and overly irritating at worst. That’s where encapsulated retinol comes in.
First things first: What is it about retinol that’s so special, and why do skin experts recommend it to their patients and clients so often? That’s easy — the benefits of retinol are major. According to Dr. Corey L. Hartman, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, retinol can provide many different skin benefits. “Retinols regulate cell turnover, promote effective exfoliation, prevent acne, even discoloration, control oil, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, unclog pores, hamper the breakdown of collagen, thicken the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles get their start and stimulate the production of collagen and elastin.”
Essentially, a retinol product can be a powerful addition to your skin care lineup, and encapsulated retinol formulas are the newest frontier of ingredient formulation. Countless skin care brands are formulating serums, oils, and creams with this specialized ingredient, claiming it’s more stable than traditional retinol — but does it actually do anything beneficial for your skin?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about encapsulated retinol from dermatologists and cosmetic chemists.
What’s The Deal With Retinol Stability?
While retinol is widely considered a do-it-all skin care ingredient, it must be stabilized to provide any real benefit. “Retinol is extremely unstable and has a tendency to destabilize in presence of oxygen, light, and even at certain pH formulas,” says Krupa Koestline, clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. “Losing stability can reduce efficacy and also cause more irritation.”
Its unstable nature is why Dr. Hartman emphasizes the importance of proper packaging. “It becomes unstable when exposed to UV light, air, and heat, which is why you see many skin care products that include retinol in opaque packaging that blocks light. I also recommend using a retinol product at night to ensure it is most potent and doesn’t lose its effectiveness when exposed to light while on the skin.” He adds that it can be tough to tell if retinol has become unstable, so using your senses (sight and smell most especially) can help alert you if something is “off” with the product.
Dr. Geeta Yadav, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Science Dermatology, agrees, adds that, “Like other ingredients that are unstable (such as vitamin C), retinol should be kept in a cool, dark place and packaged in opaque, airless packaging. Heat, light, and oxygen can cause the ingredient to degrade, weakening its efficacy. The formula may still offer benefits, but it won’t be as powerful.”
How Is Encapsulated Retinol Different From Traditional Retinol?
To increase the stability of their products, many companies have turned to encapsulated retinol.
“When retinol is encapsulated, it means that the active ingredient has been enclosed in a protective ‘shell,’ which allows it to better absorb into the skin, penetrating the deeper layers of skin before going to work,” Yadav explains. “Because of this, many refer to it as ‘time-release’ technology; the retinol takes more time to start working rather than immediately releasing its benefits on the surface of the skin upon application.”
The ‘shell’ that encapsulates the retinol can vary based on the formulation. “There are several versions of encapsulation available including silicone, esters, liposomes, and agar microspheres,” Koestline says. Not only will these encapsulations increase stability because they keep the retinol protected from exposure to light, air, and heat, but they can also facilitate better penetration and minimize the risk of irritation due to their time-release properties.
Most encapsulated retinol products will advertise that formulation choice on the bottle, but it can sometimes be labeled as “time-release” or “micro-encapsulated.” If you’re a fan of checking ingredient lists in addition to the brand’s marketing copy (remember: the FDA offers very little oversight for US cosmetics) Yadav says, “you'll see retinol on the ingredient list in addition to the ingredients used to create the capsule.”
Encapsulated retinol products won’t necessarily be packaged any differently either. “All retinol formulas should be packaged in dark or opaque and airless packaging to protect the ingredient and prevent it from breaking down,” she adds.
Is Encapsulated Retinol Better Than Traditional Retinol?
Encapsulated retinol isn’t necessarily any more potent than retinol that’s not encapsulated; however, since it has higher stability and penetration potential, both Koestline and Dr. Hartman say it’s the best option. “I believe encapsulated retinol is more effective when looking at over-the-counter products, absolutely,” Dr. Hartman says. “The most effective product is going to be a prescription retinoid that you get from your dermatologist, but not everyone needs a prescription. If you’re going to spend the money on a retinol product, look for one with encapsulated retinol to get the most bang for your buck.”
Yadav, on the other hand, isn’t sold on exclusively using encapsulated retinol formulas. That’s because it works in the deeper layers of the skin, and she believes you need to treat the surface layers as well. “Your skin needs to be treated both at the surface layer and within the deeper layers to receive comprehensive treatment, whether you’re using retinol to improve the signs of acne, aging, or just your general skin health,” she says. “There are formulas on the market that combine both encapsulated and traditional retinol which allow for both surface-level and deeper treatment. However, for those who are first-time retinol users or are prone to irritation, it’s not a bad idea to ease into retinol use with an encapsulated formula.”
How To Use Encapsulated Retinol Products
The key to introducing retinol into your routine, no matter if it’s encapsulated or not, is to start slow. “Use a retinol one to two times per week, at night only,” Hartman instructs. “Apply your retinol product, let it absorb into the skin for 10-15 minutes, and then apply a moisturizer to the skin. Use a moisturizer on nights when you don’t use the retinol product as well.” Once your skin has acclimated to using retinol one to two times per week, you can bump it up to three to five times per week.
You can also try the “retinol sandwich” method, a technique that Yadav recommends for minimizing irritation. Even though it will weaken the efficacy of the retinol, it’s a great way to ease it into an existing skin care routine. All you have to do is apply moisturizer before applying your retinol product. Then, apply another layer of moisturizer on top. “This will help seal in the retinol while causing minimal dryness and irritation.”
Ready to try out an encapsulated retinol product? Below, a few expert-vetted options.
Shop Encapsulated Retinol Products
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