A question from my first Twitter chum, Musicalhouses.

Dear Colin, How can we guess how much retinol there is in a skincare product? It’s quite hard to get a percentage ge since companies don’t disclose this. In particular, I’m looking at the Hada Labo Retinol Lifting and Firming Lotion (Ingredients: water, butylene glycol, glycerine, PEG-20 sorbitan isostearate, caprylic/capric triglyceride, methylparaben, PPG-10 methyl glucose, ether, sodium Hyaluronate, triethanolamine, Carbomer, hydroxyethylcellulose, tocopherol, BHT, disodium EDTA, hydrolyzed collagen, hydrolyzed soy protein, limnanthes alba (meadowfoam) seed oil, retinyl palmitate, helianthus annus (sunflower) seed oil, sodium Everglades Hyaluronate, zea mays (corn oil) thioctic acid, beta carotene), since retinol appears all the way down there in the ingredients list and it doesn’t have the characteristic smell or colour (white to off-white yellow) of most retinol-containing products I’ve used in the past. Also, I’d be interested in knowing any rules of thumb you have for guessing the % of a skincare ingredient given how far up or down the ingredients list it is. Thanks!

Retinol is one of the few so called active ingredients used in cosmetics that actually does something.  But as a savy consumer and beauty blogger (see Musicalhouses knows  you have to have enough to have an effect.  

There is a reasonable amount of scientific back up showing that retinol does indeed improve the condition of aged skin.  The strongest plank is an independent study published in 2007 that showed retinol at a concentration of 0.4% applied three times a week for six months could significantly reverse cellular damage in mature skin.  The effects were certainly real, but maybe not as spectacular as you might suppose from marketing claims made for retinol.  That is also a heck of a lot of retinol applied for a seriously long period of time.

Sadly, there is nothing that obliges companies that sell retinol products to put the content on their packs.  You can get some idea from the colour.  Retinol does have a distinct yellow colour.  Unfortunately so do other ingredients.  For instance, beta carotene.  And this is exactly what we see on the list on Musicalhouse’s pack.

To be scrupulously fair, beta carotene is a member of the vitamin A family and may have some retinol like effects itself.  But it won’t work as well as the real thing.  In fact, there isn’t any actual retinol in this formulation since it is included in the form of retinyl palmitate.  This is an ester of retinol which breaks down to release retinol on the skin.  This probably works as well as retinol if applied regularly.  But the trial was done on a high level of actual retinol, so that is the only ingredient we have proof for.  There is a certain amount of faith involved in using a substitute.

So on the whole, this ingredient list and the description don’t inspire a huge amount of confidence.  I e-mailed the company asking about their retinol content.  Sadly, they didn’t answer.

As regards rules of thumb for reading ingredient lists, there isn’t a huge amount you can tell.  There rules say that anything below 1% can appear in any order – so it isn’t always the case that ingredients are in strict quantity order.  The rules are not enforced particularly strongly in most countries and some smaller companies either ignore them or make genuine errors.  And even big companies can get things wrong from time to time.  I have seen the same ingredient appear twice on the list of a really big household name’s product to give just one example.  I am afraid that the only way to be really sure whether a product does what you want it to do is to try it and see.


Improvement of Naturally Aged Skin With Vitamin A (Retinol)  Reza Kafi, MD; Heh Shin R. Kwak, MD; Wendy E. Schumacher, BS; Soyun Cho, MD, PhD;Valerie N. Hanft, MD; Ted A. Hamilton, MS; Anya L. King, MS; Jacqueline D. Neal, BSE; James Varani, PhD; Gary J. Fisher, PhD; John J. Voorhees, MD, FRCP; Sewon Kang, MD Arch Dermatol. 2007;143:606-612

You may also like...