is retinyl palmitate an effective alternative to retinol?

Is retinyl palmitate a gentle and safe alternative to retinol for sensitive skin?

Are you a woman who wants to use retinol but the littlest sprinkle turns your skin into a red, itchy, painful mess? Retinol is one of those antiaging divas sensitive skin can’t stand. Dare to put them in touch and it’ll repay you with irritation.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the anti aging power of retinoids (the family retinol belongs to). Retinol may be too strong for you, but it’s little cousin retinyl palmitate is way gentler and will get along with your skin much better. But does it work just as well? Or is this a case when gentleness compromises effectiveness?

Like this weren’t enough, didn’t the Environmental Working Group warn us that retinyl palmitate causes cancer? Yep, but the EWG can’t read a scientific study properly even if their life depended on it. I don’t want to diss anyone, but this is one (of the many) studies they got wrong.

If you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate retinol, should you make the switch to retinyl palmitate instead? Here’s what the science says, both about its effectiveness and safety.

What Is Retinyl Palmitate?

Before I tell you what retinyl palmitate is, let me introduce you to the retinoids family. Retinoids are all forms of Vitamin A, the only thing proven to reduce wrinkles (not just their appearance).

The most powerful member of the family is Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin). It’s the most effective at treating wrinkles and acne, but also the most irritating. For this reason, it’s available by prescription only.

Retinol is a gentler form of Vitamin A and the most commonly available OTC. It provides the same benefits as Retinoic Acid, but it’s much gentler on the skin. Having said that, it can still cause dryness and irritation when you first starting using it. While most skin types can tolerate it fine, it often upsets sensitive skin.

Enter Retinyl Palmitate. Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest form of Vitamin A. It’s made with retinol and palmitic acid. Here’s the family tree:

Retinyl palmitate ⇒ Retinol ⇒ Retinaldehyde  Retinoic acid

As you can see, retinyl palmitate is the farthest away from retinoid acid (the active form of vitamin A). All forms of retinoid must be converted into Retinoic Acid in the skin to work their magic on wrinkles.

Retinaldehyde is the most effective because the conversion takes one step. Retinyl palmitate, on the other hand, must first be converted into retinol and then into retinoid acid.

This long conversion process makes retinyl palmitate more gentle than all other forms of retinoids. The trade off? It’s the weakest and the one that takes the longest to work.

Related: Which Form Of Vitamin A Is Best For You?

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Retinyl Palmitate Benefits: What Does It Do For Your Skin?

Retinyl palmitate is a retinoid and, like all retinoids, it helps fight premature aging in three different ways:

  • It fights free radicals: Free radicals are the nasty little molecules that destroy collagen , elastin, cellular DNA, and everything else they find on their path. Without them, your skin starts to sag and wrinkle. By neutralising free radicals before they can wreak their damage on your skin, Retinyl Palmitate prevents the formation of premature wrinkles.
  • It boosts collagen: Collagen is the protein that keeps skin firm. As soon as you turn 21, your skin starts to lose 1% of collagen a year – and the % dramatically increases after you hit menopause. The more collagen your skin loses, the faster you age. By adding it back into your skin, Retinyl Palmitate ensures your skin stays firmer and smoother.
  • It speeds up cellular turnover: This is the skin’s natural exfoliating process. As those old, dead, damaged skin cells leave their way to the healthier and newer cells underneath, they reveal brighter and smoother skin.

But, it does this very slowly. It takes a very long time to see some results. I’m talking MONTHS, not days.

Related: Is Retinaldehyde A Gentler Alternative To Retinol?

Can Retinyl Palmitate Treat Acne?

Retinoids don’t only fight wrinkles. They treat acne too. They work by speeding up cellular turnover, the skin’s natural exfoliating process. It works like this: when old, dead cells, get stuck into your pores, they mix with excess sebum and other gunk, leading to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne.

Retinoids exfoliate skin, so those old dead cells fall off your face instead of into your pores. Clean pores = no acne. Having said that, Retinyl Palmitate is so gentle, don’t expect it to treat acne well. Especially for severe forms of acne, it’s pretty useless.

Retinyl Palmitate Side Effects: Is It Safe?

Again, retinyl palmitate is a retinoid, so it has all the benefits AND side effects of retinoids. Its gentle power means side effects are rare, but they can still happen – especially if your skin is sensitive. Side effects include itching, peeling, burning, redness, and irritation.

Even though it’s the gentlest form, you still need to start slowly. Once or twice a week at first and then build up frequency from there. Use too much too soon and you could still end up with an irritation.

Make sure whatever product you use comes in opaque, air-tight tubes and bottles. Like its relatives, retinyl palmitate loses a bit of its effectiveness when exposed to light and air (it’s not the most powerful retinoid to begin with so you don’t want to make it even weaker).

Related: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Retinoids Products Packaged In Jars

Is Retinyl Palmitate Safe For Sensitive Skin?

Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest form of retinoids and is mostly safe for sensitive skin. Having said that, sensitive skin is different for everyone, so there’s a small chance you’ll be among the small % of people who experience redness and irritation when using it. Proceed with caution.

peter thomas roth un-wrinkle peel pads 01

Retinyl Palmitate In Pregnancy: Is It Safe?

All forms of Vitamin A are NOT recommended during pregnancy. Research shows that Vitamin A can cause severe birth defects in mice. Is there any proof they do the same in humans? Nope. But that’s only because you can’t perform this kind of studies on humans (obviously!!). Just to be on the safe side, experts recommend you avoid retinyl palmitate in pregnancy, during breastfeeding, and when you’re trying to conceive.

Is Retinyl Palmitate In Sunscreen Dangerous?

Let’s address the elephant in the room now. A few years ago, the Environmental Working Group came out with the idea that retinyl palmitate in sunscreens causes cancer.

Their evidence? A study in the National Toxicology Program. Scientists treated mice with small doses of retinyl palmitate and exposed them to UV light. They found these mice  developed skin tumours faster than those treated with a control cream. Scary, isn’t it? Isn’t sunscreen supposed to protect us from cancer?

Before you throw away all your sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, you’ll be happy to know that the results of that study don’t apply to humans. According to a group of dermatologists who reviewed the study, Retinyl Palmitate is safe and there’s NO proof that it causes cancer in humans.

On what did they base this conclusion? A few things:

  1. Humans aren’t rats. A lot of substances that cause rats in mice are totally harmless for us humans.
  2. The mice used in the study belong to a species that is highly susceptible to skin cancer when exposed to UV light EVEN when they’re NOT treated with retinyl palmitate.
  3. Retinyl palmitate was tested on its own.

Let’s take a closer look at that last point. As Dr Wang points out “retinyl palmitate operates within the skin as only one component of a complex antioxidant network. For example, when a sunscreen with retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin, a number of antioxidants work together to alleviate the risk of free radical formation seen in these in vitro experiments.

If studied on its own – outside of this environment – its antioxidant properties can rapidly be exhausted, allowing the production of oxygen radicals.

Those oxygen radicals can cause cancer (and wrinkles). But we all have lots of weapons to neutralise them (antioxidants anyone?) and stay safe.

Studies show that when Retinyl Palmitate is used in suscreens that also include stabilizing ingredients, it’s safe.

Related: How Do Antioxidants Work And Why Do You Need Them?

Retinyl Palmitate VS Retinol: Which One Should You Use?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably put the answer together, but I’ll give it to you anyway. Retinol is the most common form of Vitamin A available off the counter – for a reason.

Retinol provides the same range of skincare benefits as Retinyl Palmitate, including boosting collagen production, fighting free radicals and brightening skin. On top of that, it’s also commonly used to treat acne.

Retinol is also more easily processed by the body – the conversion into Retinoic Acid takes one fewer step. That makes it MORE effective but also more irritating than Retinyl Palmitate. If your skin can tolerate retinol, go for it. It’s way better at fighting both wrinkles and acne.

Who Should Use Retinyl Palmitate?

Retinyl Palmitate is just NOT that effective. For this reason, I recommend it as the last retinoid resort. When your skin is so sensitive that ALL the other gentler forms of retinoids, like retinaldehyde and granactive retinoid, irritate your skin too, then it makes sense to switch to Retinyl Palmitate. If even Retinyl Palmitate bothers your skin, retinoids are just NOT meant for you.

How To Use It

Retinoids make your skin more susceptible to sun damage (blame it on their exfoliating powers). For this reason, they’re best used at night. Start with a couple of nights a week to get your skin used to it and, if you don’t experience any redness or irritation, you can increase frequency. Retinoids can be drying, so follow up with a good moisturiser to give skin plenty of moisture afterwards. Of course, don’t forget to use sunscreen during the day!

How Often Can You Use It?

When it comes to every form of Vitamin A, my recommendation is to start with a small % a couple of nights a week and slowly build up both dose and frequency from there.

Most skincare products don’t disclose the % of Retinyl Palmitate because they use very little anyway. Still, I recommend you use it every other day to start with. Eventually, if your skin tolerates it well, you can move to daily use.

What Can You Use Retinyl Palmitate With?

Retinyl Palmitate has antioxidant properties. That means it works better when used with other antioxidants, like Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and resveratrol. On top of it, like all retinoids, it can make your skin more prone to sun damage. To counteract that, always use it with sunscreen during the day (but then, you should be wearing sunscreen every day anyway).

What Should You NOT Use It With?

If your skin is sensitive (and if you’re considering Retinyl Palmitate, it probably is), don’t use it with:

  • Other retinoids: Retinyl Palmitate is the last resort when other forms doesn’t work. Using too many retinoids only irritates skin.
  • Exfoliants: That means both chemical exfoliants like Glycolic Acid and manual exfoliants like scrub. Retinyl Palmitate has mild exfoliating properties and you don’t want to exfoliate your skin. If you need the extra exfoliation, use lactic acid a couple of nights a week – nights you don’t use Retinyl Palmitate.

What Are The Best Skincare Products With Retinyl Palmitate?

I don’t recommend you buy a product because it has retinyl palmitate (unless your skin is super, super sensitive). But if it comes in a top notch skincare product, there’s no harm (for your wallet) to try it:

  • Murad Essential C-Day Moisture Broad Spectrum SPF 30 PA+++ ($68.00): A lightweight sunscreen enriched with antioxidants (including a drop of Vitamin C) that enhances sun protection. Plus, the formula is fairly hydrated and keeps your skin soft and smooth. Available at Murad, Sephora and Ulta.
  • Paula’s Choice Extra Care Non-Greasy Sunscreen SPF 50 ($17.00): A water-resistant, lightweight formula enriched with antioxidants that offers broad-spectrum sun protection. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice
  • Pestle & Mortar Superstar Retinoid Night Oil ($104.00): A moisturising oil enriched with two gentle forms of retinoids, including Retinyl Palmitate, to fight wrinkles and dryness. It’s most suitable for dry skin. Available at Brown Thomas and Sephora.

The Bottom Line

Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest BUT least effective form of retinoids. And nope, it doesn’t cause cancer. If you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other forms of retinoids, give it a go. Everyone else, let’s stick to retinol!