Retinol Guide for Darker Skin Tones

We want to keep the signs of ageing at bay for as long as we can. Retinoids are one of the non-surgical responses but how can we incorporate them into our routines without triggering hyperpigmentation?

Spoiler: Vitamin A derivatives (retinoids) can help improve some of the clinical signs of naturally aged skin. For melanin-rich tones, note that they can also help with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne. Is it the fountain of youth? – No.

When I first used a retinoid product, it was more for the hype and to see if it really did anything. I was not at the time overly conscious of my skin aging. FOREVER YOUNG! And so in my nonchalance, I used it wrong and I used it fast. The effect was swift. The most sensitive parts of my face responded with a soreness that I was very sorry for. I used it on the same day as an intense eyebrow threading session. The fact that some of the other products in my regimen at the time were also quite strong did not help.

Years later, research and multiple learnings later, I have figured out how to make retinoids work for me. I currently have a retinoid oil in my weekly night time routine and there has not been a repeat of the Ghost of Christmas Past incident.

According to Wharton Professor Mauro F. Guillén, ‘Grey is the New Black.’ While that may be the case, the cosmetic battle against the signs of ageing race on. There are few products on the market that have had the focus, the press and maybe even the abuse that retinoids have.

Scour the interwebullar and you will see articles ranging from ‘retinol saved my life’ to ‘top ten reasons why you should stop retinol now’. One side of the avengers swear by the renewing and collagen-boosting properties. The other side decry the irritation, the peeling and the sensitivity that can come with continued use. Some people also believe that long-term use actually thins the skin giving you the opposing effect of what you actually want when you pay $310.00 plus tax for that jar of wonderment.

It is important to differentiate between the skin type and the skin attributes. For the melanated skin types that are sensitive, this is an attribute that you can have with dry skin for example. Acne-prone is another one. Prone to hyperpigmentation is another. So here we go.

What does this mean for those of us with darker tones, prone to hyperpigmentation, and generally not willing to take the risk? Who shall we listen to? The video with the better graphics or the latest research article?

Well, whether you are brand new to retinoids or have been there since day 1, we think you’ll find this interesting. The use of retinoids in skincare goes back to the 1940s and the marmite response has stayed with it since. Feel free to do that research on your own time.

How can Retinol help my Skin?

Retinoids are simply a form of Vitamin A. Vitamin A is used in pretty much every organ you have.

Retinoids in their active form act in two main ways to wage war against ageing. First they turn up the volume on collagen, elastin production. For the ‘exfoliating effect, it speeds up the proliferation of cells in your skin structure – keratinocytes which help repair breaks in your skin surface. Secondly, it decreases the production of an enzyme that destroys collagen. Ding Ding. Round 2!

Specifically for melanin-rich tones, retinol is also sometimes used to help treat acne as well as related scarring and hyperpigmentation.  Unfortunately there aren’t enough studies focused on darker skin tones for a knockout punch. The few there are, are not united in their findings. One of the few, was a clinical research study from 2021 by Callender et al. The picture below is of one of their …patients. The results showed amongst others improvements in acne and hyperpigmentation for the patient who was treated with tazarotene 0.045% lotion daily for 12 weeks. Inflammatory lesions reduced by 60% in this one patient. There is hope.

What type of Retinol Should I Be Using?

When you browse through your virtual aisles and ‘top ten anti-aging creams this holiday season’ lists, you are likely to see many retinol-containing serums and moisturisers taking centre stage. But what is in them and do they really do the voodoo that you need them to?

  1. Retinoid: general term referring to the derivatives of Vitamin A (natural and synthetic)
  2. Retinol: you’ll see this one on a lot of serum bottles these days. It is also the main one swirling around in our bodies. Note: It may be confusing sometimes where the term ‘retinols’ is used as a group term for other non-prescription Vitamin A derivatives.
  3. Retinoic acid: is the active form of Vitamin A. This is the form of Vitamin A in the body that does the heavy lifting; it maintains your epithelial cells and responds to cell damage amongst other things. Retinol gets converted to Retinaldehyde which is then converted to this active and potent form of Vitamin A, Retinoic Acid.
  4. Retinyl esters: this is how your liver stores vitamin A. Like Retinyl Palmitate or Retinyl Propionate, they are first converted to Retinol in the skin.
  5. Tretinoin: this is a synthetic retinoid usually only available with a prescription. It is basically the synthetic version of retinoic acid. This was also the earliest retinoid test clinically reviewed for the treatment of hyperpigmentation in melanin-rich skin tones.
  6. Others like Accutane, Absorica, Claravis are brand names. Accutane and the others are brand names for Isotretinoin products. Isotretinoin is prescribed for truly severe acne that has responded to nothing else. It is generally considered an extreme response to extreme acne and should not be taken without a dermatologist’s approval. Side effects can be very far-reaching.
  7. Adapalene, tazarotene, and bexarotene: These are 3rd generation retinoids. Despite all being retinoids, these have different profiles, meaning different efficacy and different levels of irritation where this occurs. Usually in a cream, lotion or gel, Adapalene was designed to have a better side effect profile than its cousin tretinoin and some research has shown it to have additional advantages when compared to other retinoids, because it is a more stable molecule. There are also contraindications here particularly for those who are or might be pregnant.
  8. Bakuchiol: a bit newer to the game than old-faithfuls but definitely worth mentioning. It is extracted from the seeds of a plant that grows in India and is believed to have retinol-like impacts when formulated and applied topically. Retinoids have been studied for decades, making it difficult to hold up bakuchiol in comparison. Dermatological studies have been small, but have shown promising results. One to consider for those with very sensitive skin perhaps.

How Should I Incorporate Retinol for Darker Skin Tones?

With caution.

There are many myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings around darker tones; what we can and can’t use, and some of the horror stories rightly chase us away from certain ingredients and treatments.

Retinoids are collagen boosting, which would generally be good for our skin tones. If you have been sitting on the fence with Retinol though, we fully understand. In the wrong dose and with improper use, it could probably do more harm than good – peeling, irritation and dryness. On the other hand, buying any old $210 ‘retinol cream’ may simply leave you moisturised with little to no improvement on your fine lines.

Darker skin tones have a higher risk hyperpigmentation so it is key not to aggravate the skin. You have two options when looking to begin your retinoid journey:

Option 1: begin with a retinoid product made with one of the other derivatives known to cause less irritation. These products, like Retinyl Palmitate, have to first be converted to retinol, and then finally retinoic acid, reducing the irritation you might undergo.

Option 2: Try starting with a much lower % of the retinoid and use infrequently as an adjustment period. For those who have access to a dermatologist, get a suitable assessment before venturing beyond your basic OTC products.

While certain side effects, such as mild irritation, dryness, and sun sensitivity are normal as your skin adjusts to the active ingredient, intense flaking, redness, and burning are not – this is not Survivor! Those with especially sensitive skin, or who struggle with pre-existing conditions like rosacea or eczema, should steer clear of retinoids and seek medical advice before use.

Be careful of the products you use alongside them as these may exacerbate irritation.

It is also important to note the stability of the type of retinoids in your serum, pill, lotion. Retinol is quite unstable and oxidises easily while some other derivatives like Retinyl Palmitate are more stable like our Laini. Some retinol products are made with no water to help extend the shelf-life.

We obviously strongly advise against purchasing oral supplements from dodgy sites that require no prescriptions.

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Conclusion

For (eu)melanin-rich tones, the right form of topical retinoids at the right concentration can be a beneficial add-in to your skincare routine. There are still issues around dosing and irritation for some people. It does not replace good skincare habits.

Have you incorporated Vitamin A into your routine? How is it working out for you? Let us know below!

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