Retinol Oils Are Just As Wondrous As They Sound

The gospel of retinol has been preached ad nauseam by every skin expert with a pulse. With its dark-spot-destroying, wrinkle-eradicating, pimple-vanishing powers, it's the gold standard of a gorgeous complexion. But there’s a catch — you need to sacrifice your skin’s moisture barrier as you reap the rewards.
As any retinol user can tell you, a multi-product hydrating regimen is essential in mitigating those skin-sensitizing effects. Which is kind of a pain in the ass, both in time spent rubbing it all on and amount spent paying for it.

Sensing that frustration, a handful of companies are exploring combining ingredients and formulas to create the retinol Holy Grail — super strength without being super-drying. Which is where retinol oils come in.

This relatively new concept uses oil as a delivery system, simultaneously hydrating and intensively treating skin. Says Sunday Riley, one of the OG creators of this product category, “The biggest complaint from retinol users is usually flakiness, redness, and irritation." Riley's Luna Sleeping Night Oil uses a gentler trans-retinoic acid (a.k.a. vitamin A, the active ingredient in all retinol products) and incorporates it with cold-pressed oils like avocado, Concord grape seed, chia, and blue tansy — which gives the oil its unique hue. This combo, says Riley, cancels out the aforementioned side effects of retinols.
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But oil does more than just prevent flaking and dryness. Says 111Skin founder and renowned plastic surgeon Yannis Alexandrides, MD, "The problem with retinol and the problem that kept a lot of companies from using it until very recently is that it is very unstable. It becomes oxidized, and it has to be protected." When it's mixed with oil, says Dr. Alexandrides, the retinol is not only stabilized but easily transported into the skin thanks to the oil's antioxidant properties.
Like Luna, 111Skin's Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil contains a mix of cold-pressed oils including corn, rice bran, coconut, olive, linseed, and sweet almond. Cold-pressing the oils, claims Dr. Alexandrides, eliminates the need for chemical preservatives in the products.
So how do retinol oils match up to prescription-strength isotretinoin? Dr. Alexandrides says there is actually no fundamental difference between the two. "It is a misunderstanding [that Retin-A is more effective]. 1% retinol is equivalent to 1% Retin-A. Why the one is prescription and one is not is something that I cannot really explain because it's the decision of the FDA. But in my practice, I have stopped prescribing Retin-A because I have this product now."
As with any new skin-care product, Dr. Alexandrides notes that there will be a period of adjustment. While retinol oil is gentler, that doesn't mean it's on the same level as CeraVe. It's still a potent ingredient that needs to be gradually worked up to in order for the skin to build a tolerance. "It's a product that will ask the skin to work harder," he says. "It will ask the skin to multiply faster and because of that, the skin is under stress at the beginning. [The skin] needs a little time to respond to that."
He notes that you will need to use the oil for at least four weeks to see the biggest benefits. "Perhaps in the first two or three weeks, it might not be the best appearance on the skin because it's going through this transition where it goes from slow to fast," he warns.
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But once that transition period is over and the skin has caught up with this new fast-paced turnover, Dr. Alexandrides promises that your skin will not only look better, it will be fundamentally stronger. "It's healthier skin, it's thicker skin in terms of collagen content, it has less dead layers on the surface...which makes the skin look nicer. It will improve fine wrinkles, and it will improve skin problems such as acne, eczema, and pigmentation." We're down with that.
Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil, $105, available at Sephora; 111Skin Celestial Black Diamond Retinol Oil, $230, available at Barneys New York.
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