I've gotten slightly obsessed with reading about skincare over the past few years. In no way am I an expert, but I have learned that there are very few anti-ageing cosmetic ingredients that have been proven to actually work, and retinol is one of them.
Retinol is more commonly known as vitamin A, and there is a whole class of related chemicals known generally as retinoids. These mildly resurface skin by removing old stratum corneum (Latin for "horny layer", ahaha), the dead layer of skin cells at the surface. This has the bonus effect of sloughing away pigmentation and blocked pores -- great for acneic skins. At the same time, retinol also thickens and plumps the skin by stimulating the formation of collagen and blood vessels, reducing the appearance of wrinkles.
To get all those anti-ageing perks, though, retinoids must first be converted into its active form, retinoic acid. The process goes something like this:
retinyl palmitate (and others) --> retinol --> retinoic acid
Why not just start with retinoic acid, then? Well, you could -- you can get retinoic acid based products prescribed by your doctor. They are highly potent, though, and can be very irritating and drying, not to mention expensive unless covered by insurance.
Retinyl palmitate is the predominant form of retinoid found natively in the skin, acting as a form of stable storage for retinol. Due to the conversion process necessary to effect change in the skin, they are far less irritating than retinoic acid-based products. They are available over-the-counter, and are generally cheaper as well. Be careful, though, to pick something that is well-formulated and well-packaged, because retinoids are easily inactivated by exposure to sunlight and air.
I've had pretty good experiences with retinoid-based products, three of which are pictured above. Of these, I highly recommend the Environ AVST range (top left). This is a step-up system of moisturisers, going from AVST 1 through to 5, whereby each step has a higher dosage of retinyl palmitate as well as vitamin E, vitamin C, and other antioxidants. (I believe AVST 4 and 5 also include signal-enhancing peptides, which improve communication between cells.) All Environ products are packaged suitably to protect the ingredients, and of the ones I've tried, well-formulated. AVST 1 smells faintly of coffee, which I also found in a supermarket retinoid product! It was a great night time moisturiser, and works as as a spot treatment as well.
If you have extremely oily skin with acne, the Environ B-active range could be good. I was recommended the Sebugel-A (top middle) when it got to summer and I wanted something lighter, but this didn't agree with me as much. It seemed to dry out my skin a lot, and often pilled up if I put another product over the top. It contained tea tree oil, which I don't always get along with. I've been using it while my skin is still moist from toner, and will be going back to the AVST range after it's used up.
Another retinoid product I used was the Super Night Recharge with Red Algae, (top right) from the Super by Dr Perricone range (now discontinued, but I found this on Strawberrynet when searching for a cheaper alternative to Environ). This has a light lemongrass scent and was lightweight enough for me to use last Spring, but I didn't like that it came in see-through packaging.
Note: if you're in Auckland and looking for Environ stockists, I can highly recommend the About Face chain of salons. They really know their stuff!