Retinoids, Pt. 1: The Basics


There has been a lot written about retinoids, by professionals, by bloggers, by quacks, even by me.  So, how are there still questions?  I believe that the answer to this question lies in the skin itself—everyone’s skin is different, so what works for your skin, might not work for my own.  I bring this up because I will be doing a series of posts about retinoids this month, and I really want to preface it by saying the information contained in this series is based on my own personal experience and researchI am not a physician.  I am not a licensed esthetician.  I have worked in the skincare and beauty industries for over 10 years, but I am NOT LOOKING AT YOUR SKIN.  So read, glean what you can, hopefully even enjoy, and then ask a professional who can give you a proper skincare diagnosis.

Now that all of that nasty stuff is out of the way, let’s get down to the science!  This introductory post is just to give a little background on what retinoids actually are.  Chemically, retinoids are related to vitamin A.  I find there is a good deal of confusion regarding the difference between the terms retinol, retinoid, Retin-A, and vitamin A, and so I will define them briefly below.  Basically, these terms relate to different forms of vitamin A derivatives–there are several types, most of which function similarly when use on the skin.

Sidebar: I know most of you won’t find anything of interest in this post, but stay with me here.  If you absolutely have to check out, see the bottom of the post for a roadmap of where this series will be heading.  I promise those of you just looking for a quick guide will get it.  Eventually.  Keep in mind, I am not above writing posts for my own edification and amusement.  Until then, you can’t say I didn’t warn you what I’m about (see below).


Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a group of unsaturated nutritional organic compounds that includes retinol, retinal, retinoid acid, carotenoids, and several others.  Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that serves several important functions in the body.  Vitamin A can be synthetically manufactured or naturally derived.  Vitamin A can be naturally derived from two sources—animals or plants.  Plant-derived vitamin A falls into the group called carotenoids.  Vitamin A derived from animals falls into the group retinoids.

Vitamin A

As to the chemical structure of vitamin A, for anyone who actually cares, all forms of vitamin A have a beta-ionone ring attached to a isoprenoid.  A beta-ionone ring, seen below, is part of a group called ionones which are aroma compounds found in many essential oils.  Ionones are actually derived from the degradation of carotenoids–found in, you guessed it, carrots (among other things).


An isoprenoid (which the little structure you see above is attached to), is a class of organic compounds composed of two or more units of hydrocarbons.  Each unit consists of 5 carbon atoms arranged in a specific pattern.  Isoprenoids are mostly classified according to the number of isoprene units they contain, and as there are several forms, I won’t both posting a visual of the chemical structures.


The term retinoid refers to the group of vitamin A derivatives into which retinol, along with several other forms, falls.  As previously mentioned, retinoids are either animal-derived or synthetically made.  Retinoids aren’t only just good for your skin, but also play a role in vision, regulation of cell differentiation and proliferation, growth of bone tissue, immune function, and activation of tumor suppressor genes!  Clearly these things pack a real punch.

There are three generations of retinoids, with some researchers designating a fourth generation.  We will discuss the different generations and types further in our next post.

The retinoid molecule is hydrophobic, meaning it does not mix well with water–this will come into play when we discuss formulation and delivery systems.  The basic structure of the molecule contains a cyclic end group, a polyene side chain, and a polar end group.


Retinol is just one type of retinoid.  It is a form of Vitamin A that occurs naturally in the skin and is commonly found in over-the-counter products.


In the body, retinol is converted to retinoid acid or retinal.  Retinoid acid is the form that is beneficial to the skin.


Retin-A is an isomer of the vitamin A molecule, and was developed in the 1970s.  The original use was as an acne treatment, but today it has many applications.


We will revisit these distinctions in upcoming posts.

Speaking of upcoming posts, I just wanted to take a minute to outline what I will be posting over the coming weeks (as part of this series), so you know what you’re in for!

  • Retinoids pt. 2a: The Mechanism
  • Retinoids, pt. 2: The Types (Including a Handy Chart)
  • Retinoids, pt. 3: The Benefits
  • Retinoids, pt. 4: How To Choose One
  • Retinoids, pt. 5: The Retinol Face, and How to Conquer It
  • Retinoids, pt. 6: Retinoids and Everything Else you Use
  • Retinoids, pt. 7: Contraindications
  • Retinoids, pt. 8: Everything You Need to Know (Infographic)

Also, as this will be a series of retinoid posts, if you have any questions you’d like answered, feel free to leave them in the comments!



Product Review: Alpha Skincare Refreshing Face Wash


Today I’m discussing my experience and thoughts on Alpha Skincare’s Refreshing Face Wash.  I have previously reviewed the brand’s Renewal Body Lotion, which was my first product from Alpha Skincare.  The Alpha Skincare line is described, by the company, as such:

At Alpha Skin Care, our passion is creating products featuring naturally powerful ingredients for beauty that you can see and feel.  You’ll find one or more active ingredients, such as AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids), retinol, hydroquinone, peptides, antioxidants, and vitamins, in every one of our products.  At the same time, we avoid artificial fragrances, colors, parabens, and preservatives wherever possible.  In short, Alpha Skin Care gives you everything you need for healthy, radiant skin–and nothing you don’t.

NOTE: This cleanser was sent to me, free of charge, by the brand to review.

Company’s claims…

The company bills this as a gentle, pH balanced cleanser.  Below is the crib sheet on the product from the Alpha Skincare website.

Alpha Refreshing Face Wash Info


First impressions…

Feels and smells a bit like Cerave.  Feels gentle, doesn’t foam, cleans fairly well.  As the product does not foam, I find that I have a tendency to use more than I would with a traditional foaming cleanser.  Did find that if I was wearing a good bit of makeup I needed a pre-cleanse with a balm or oil, but this is pretty standard with cleansers like this.

The product is best applied on damp skin, and massaged into the face to remove dirt, bacteria, makeup, etc.  The cleanser comes in a pretty standard and unremarkable plastic bottle–it looks frosted as it is neither completely transparent nor opaque.

The Refreshing Face Wash retails for $7.99 at Ulta, and is a 6 oz size.  This means the product costs is approximately $1.33 per oz.

Test Period…

I have been using this product semi-regularly (maybe once a week?) for about 3 months.  I generally use this cleanser when my skin is sensitized or otherwise angry with me.  I also like this cleanser in the morning as, like I said, it doesn’t remove makeup very well–definitely part two of a double cleanse if makeup and SPF are present.

I didn’t really notice a huge difference when using this cleanser–its actually the cheapest cleanser I own, I’m a bit of a cleanser snob.  That being said, it did not feel drying or stripping and I will keep it around for those days when my skin is irritated.


Alpha Refreshing Face Wash Ingredients

Pretty short ingredient list, which can be a good thing!  So let’s take them one by one.

  1. Water: Yup.
  2. Decyl Glucoside: This is a surfactant–kind of a dirty word in my book.  I don’t love the idea of surfactants as they can be drying/stripping.
  3. Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Cocamidopropyl betaine is part of a class of chemicals called amidopropyl betaines, compounds which consist of favors fatty acids bound to amidopropyl betaine.  The fatty acids in this form are derived from coconut oil.  Cocamidopropyl betaine, and other amidopropyl betaines, are used as antistatic agents, skin-conditioning agents, surfactants, foam-boosters, and viscosity-increasing agents.
  4. PEG-200 Hydrogenated Glyceryl Palmate: Here is another surfactant and solvent.  This ingredient is commonly used in cleansers, and has been proven safe for cosmetic use.
  5. Glycerin: Glycerin is a sugar alcohol that can be synthetic or naturally derived.  After water, glycerin is the most frequently used cosmetic ingredient.  Glycerin acts as a humectant and prevents the premature loss of moisture from cosmetics to ensure they don’t dry out.  Glycerin has also been used as a skin-conditioning agent, a skin protectant, and a viscosity decreasing agent.  Studies have shown that the body handles synthetic glycerin the same way it handles naturally-derived glycerin.
  6. Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate: Sodium cocoyl isethionate is derived from coconut oil and used in cosmetics to clean the skin by helping water to mix with oil and dirt so they can be rinsed away–similar to sulfates.
  7. PEG-3 Distearate: There are several varieties of PEG distearates, all of which are used in cosmetics to help water mix with oil and dirt so that they can be rinsed away–like sulfates.  PEG distearates also help form emulsions by reducing the surface tension of substances to be emulsified and help other ingredients to dissolve in a solvent in which they would not normally dissolve.
  8. Sodium Laureth Sulfate: Sodium laureth sulfate is part of a group of ethoxylated alcohol salts that includes several of the sulfates commonly found in cosmetics.  Ethoxylated alcohol salts, such as sodium laureth sulfate, act as surfactants, cleaning the skin and hair by helping water to mix with oil and dirt to rinse them away.
  9. PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate: PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate is a synthetic polymer made up of polyethylene glycol (PEG) and fatty acids derived from coconut oil.  The ingredient is typically used as a surfactant (not surprising as this is a cleanser) or an emollient.  This ingredient has been determined safe for use in cosmetics.
  10. Citric Acid: Citric acid is an organic acid that is commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products.  Citric acid helps preserve cosmetics and personal care products by chelating (complexing) metals.  Citric acid is also added to cosmetics to help adjust the acid/base balance.  Citric acid is a weak acid, and is typically found in citrus fruits.
  11. Propylene Glycol: Propylene Glycol is a synthetic organic alcohol that attracts and absorbs water.  Propylene glycol functions as a humectant, and is one of the most widely used ingredients in cosmetics and personal care.  It can also be used as a viscosity decreasing agent, a solvent, and a fragrance ingredient.
  12. Diazolidinyl Urea: Diazolidinyl urea is found in many cosmetics preparations as it prevents bacteria growth and protects preparations from spoiling.  Diazolidinyl urea acts as a preservative and helps to protect the product from contamination during use.  This ingredient acts by slowly releasing a small amount of formaldehyde into the formulation.
  13. Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate: Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate is used as a preservative with broad fungicidal activity.
  14. Sodium Chloride: Table salt.  Sodium chloride can be used to increase the thickness of the aqueous phase of a cosmetic.

Final verdict…

Skin Types: All.  I think even the most sensitive skin types would be safe with this cleanser.

Uses: A cleanser.

Step in Routine: First step–unless you are wearing makeup/SPF in which case I would recommend using as the second step in your double cleanse.

Pros: A good quality, low cost, gentle cleanser.  Unscented.  Not tested on animals (NONE OF THE LINE’S PRODUCTS ARE!)

Cons: Nothing stands out.

Repurchase: Probably not.  It’s a good basic cleanser, but I like something with a little more oomph.  Also, I’m a bit of a cleanser snob.


Milady Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary

Product Review: Alpha Skincare Renewal Body Lotion



Hi lovelies!  Today I’m talking about a body product–a bit of a departure, I know, but it’s a good one!  Alpha Skincare’s Renewal Body Lotion has recently been renamed (you may still find it labeled as Revitalizing Body Lotion), as has the company that makes it which was formerly known as Alpha Hydrox.  Marketed by Neoteric Cosmetics, Alpha Skincare is a reasonably priced line that utilizes proven anti-aging ingredients like AHAs, hydroquinone, vitamin C, and retinol.

NOTE: This product was my first from the brand, and I purchased it myself on the recommendation of a friend.  Since that time, Alpha Skincare has taken notice of my Insta and sent me a number of their products.  One bottle of this lotion was included in that package.

Company’s claims…

Below is the description from the company’s website.

Alpha Renewing Lotion Directions

First impressions…

This product has no added scent and smells pretty innocuous. It has the look and feel of your typical body lotion–white and creamy, not too thick.  I do find this product requires a few minutes to penetrate and until then leaves that lovely white, streaky look on the skin (or maybe I’m just slathering on entirely too much–sorry, not sorry).

As for the packaging, it comes in a pretty standard bottle.  They recently redid the packaging and the lotion now comes in an opaque bottle, which I love.  The packaging is still not airtight, but at this price point I am still impressed.

The product retails for $16.99 on the company’s website, and is also available at Ulta in the US.  The net weight is 12 oz (340g) which makes it about $1.42 per ounce.  For comparison, the Paula’s Choice AHA body lotion is about $4.00 per ounce.  I have yet to try the PC, but it’s next on my list!

Test period…

I have been using this lotion for about 5 months now–at least twice a week.  The biggest difference I noticed with regular use was increased smoothness and hydration level of my skin–hard to believe this was my first AHA body product!  I haven’t noticed any adverse side effects, but those with super sensitive skin might want to do a test patch first and use only once/twice a week.


Below is the full list of ingredients.

Alpha Skincare Renewal Lotion Ingredients

And now for the breakdown.

  1. Water: You got this.
  2. Petrolatum: Also known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum is a semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum.  Petrolatum is used as a hair and skin conditioning agent, a skin protectant, an emollient, and a UV absorber.  Petrolatum is occlusive, but as this is a body product that doesn’t worry me too much.  There are some contamination concerns, and the opinions on this ingredient are wide ranging.  Contamination concerns center around the possible presence of cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil and its by-products.  Jury is still out on the safety of this ingredient.
  3. Glycolic Acid: Glycolic avid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (like lactic and citric).  Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring substance that rejuvenates and moisturizes the skin.  Glycolic acid is derived from plants (sugar cane, pineapple, sugar beets) and is the gold standard for exfoliation.  Products containing glycol acid are used to treat scarring, discoloration, fine lines, and wrinkles.  Glycolic acid is also able to transfer water molecules from the air into the skin, thereby replenishing lost moisture.  Some studies have also shown that glycol acid promotes collagen production.  Glycolic acid reacts to the top layer of the skin and breaks down the sebum and substances binding the cells together.  Glycolic acid is made up of small molecules that are able to penetrate the skin deeply.
  4. Glycerin: Glycerin is a pretty common humectant used in moisturizers.  Like other humectants, glycerin attracts water from the environment and absorbs it.  Glycerin also improves the spreadability of a product.
  5. Ammonium Hydroxide: This is used to neutralize acidity in a preparation–not surprising to find this given it’s an AHA lotion.
  6. Stearic Acid: Stearic Acid is an emulsifier and thickening agent which is used in making lubricants or lotions.  This ingredient is naturally occurring.  There is a slight chance the ingredient might cause allergic reactions in sensitive skin.
  7. Dimethicone: Dimethicone is a type of silicone that gives products slip and serves to de-foam and help reduce greasiness in a formulation.  In large quantities, this ingredient has been shown to protect skin against moisture loss (the molecules are large so they can create a barrier on the skin).  Dimethicone is actually one of the most widely used silicones in cosmetics and haircare.
  8. Mineral Oil: Mineral oil is typically used in cleanser as it demulsifies dirt trapped in pores.  As a leave-on, there are some concerns with comedogenecity, but that should not be much of an issue here as it is a body product.  In fact, it is this occlusive property that allows mineral oil to act as such a good moisturizer.
  9. Cetyl Alcohol: Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is an alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol is completely safe for the skin (like other fatty alcohols).  In fact, cetyl alcohol has multiple uses in cosmetic preparations including: emollient, emulsifier, thickener, binder, emulsion stabilizer, etc.  This alcohol is derived from coconut or palm oil and can also be synthetically manufactured.
  10. Glyceryl Stearate: Glyceryl stearate is used as an emulsifier, a solvent, a humectant, a skin lubricant, and a consistency regulator.  Glyceryl stearate is made from glycerin and stearic fatty acids.  This ingredient can be derived from palm kernel or soy oil, but is also found in the human body.  This is an exceptionally mild ingredient.
  11. PEG-100 Stearate: PEG-100 Stearate is a stabilizer and emulsifier that is commonly used in lotions.
  12. Lanolin Alcohol: Lanolin alcohol is widely used as an emulsifier and emollient and can absorb a large amount of water and then slowly release it for moisture purposes.  There is the potential for lanolin alcohol to cause sensitivity and allergic reactions.
  13. PEG-40 Stearate: PEG-40 Stearate is used in skincare, hair care, toiletries, and perfumes.  It functions as a hydrophilic emulsifier, a stabilizer, an anti-gallant, and a lubricant.
  14. Sorbitan Stearate: Sorbitan Stearate is another emulsifier used in lotions.  It is synthetically produced from naturally derived materials.
  15. Propylene Glycol: Propylene glycol is the second most common moisture-carrying vehicles in cosmetic formulations (second to water).  Propylene glycol penetrates the skin better than glycerin.  At levels of under 5%, this ingredient has been proven non-irritating.
  16. Diazolidinyl Urea: Diazolidinyl urea is used as a preservative against bacteria and fungi, as an antiseptic, and as a deodorizer.  This is a sensitizer for those allergic to formaldehyde.
  17. Iodopropynl Butylcarbmate: Iodopropynl butylcarbmate is a preservative used in skincare formulations.

Final verdict…

Skin Types: All–sensitive skin types tread lightly.

Uses: Body lotion, obvs.  Also enjoying using on my heels as a light acid exfoliator between pedicures!

Step in Routine: I’m pretty light on the body care front, so this is basically the only step after I shower.  I generally use the product at night so i wake up with super soft skin!

Pros: A great quality, low-cost AHA body lotion.

Cons: If you are allergic to formaldehyde, the inclusion of diazolidinyl urea might be sensitizing.

Repurchase: Definitely!  I already have two backups.



Milady Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, 4th ed.

The Top 5 Myths About Mineral Oil, Pt. 1

Alcohol in Skincare: The Facts

Terms: Humectant

Humectant’s are used to increase skin’s moisture content.  These ingredients attract water to the skin because they have an affinity for it.  Common humectants include: glycerin, sorbitol, and hyaluronic acid.

Terms: Antioxidant

Antioxidant refers to the ability of an ingredient to slow down, prevent, or block oxidation caused by the damaging effects of free radical activity.  The skin has its own antioxidant defense systems, but when the concentration of free radicals is greater than the capacity of the skin’s natural defense system, cellular damage occurs.  Antioxidants are added to cosmetics to increase the skin’s ability to protect against oxidation.

Terms: Collagen

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up about 25-35% of the entire body’s protein content.  At this time, researchers have identified 28 types of collagen.  Types I and V are those found in skin.  Collagen is a structural protein found in the extracellular space.  In the skin, collagen imparts strength and elasticity.  As we age, our body’s collagen production begins to slow, causing wrinkles, sagging skin, etc.

Terms: Desquamation

Desquamation, as it applies to skin health, is the shedding of the outermost layer of the skin’s surface.  This is a natural and healthy process of the skin.  When functioning normally, shells are shed individually and unnoticeably.  Disturbances of this process can cause peeling and flakiness.

Terms: Corneocyte

Corneocytes are differentiated keratinocytes which compose most of the stratum corneum, the outer part of the epidermis.  Below you see a rendering of the stratum corneum.

Stratum Corneum

Corneocytes are replaced through the process of desquamation and renewed from the lower epidermal layers.  Corneocytes are essential to the skin’s barrier function.