Encapsulated Retinol: Everything You Need to Know

November 15, 2022
Samantha Sasso
By: Samantha Sasso | skincare.com by L'Oréal
A person holding the CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum bottle close to their face.
While retinol is hailed as a powerful anti-aging ingredient that fights fine lines and discoloration, people with sensitive skin may experience irritation, dryness or flaking after use. Here’s the bright side, though: There’s a newer version of retinol called encapsulated retinol that works on a time-released basis to give you all the same benefits with fewer side effects. To find out more about how this vitamin A-derivative works, we spoke with board-certified dermatologists Dr. Meghan Feely, Dr. Azadeh Shirazi and Dr. Lauren Penzi

What Is Encapsulated Retinol?

According to Dr. Feely, encapsulated retinol is a version of retinol that envelops the ingredient in a protective barrier. “The objective is to increase the stability of retinol, enabling it to penetrate more deeply into the skin, while mitigating potential side effects,” she says. When applied onto the skin, encapsulated retinol travels through the skin’s layers in a delicate fashion, thanks to its moisturizing outer-coating, and time releases deposits of retinol.  

What Is the Difference Between Encapsulated Retinol and Pure Retinol?

“Traditional, or pure retinols, are derivatives of vitamin A that are free floating molecules without anything surrounding them,” Dr. Shirazi says, adding that pure active ingredients like this tend to be fragile; it’s an unstable compound that can be broken down by UV rays, oxygen and heat. Encapsulating the retinol helps to prevent this. 

“Similar to how you would wrap glass in bubble wrap to ensure it wouldn’t break when you are transporting it, encapsulated retinols are wrapped for protection during delivery to the skin,” says Dr. Shirazi. The protective layer is made up of lipids or fatty acid molecules that dissolve slowly over time. This slow-release technology helps the skin absorb retinol easily and, in turn, the retinol is able to penetrate deeper into the skin. “This increases the stability of the compound, and also increases tolerance,” Dr. Penzi says. “Traditional retinols can be irritating and cause redness and dryness. The encapsulation mitigates these side effects.” The protective layer also helps to protect the retinol from oxygen and light factors that can break down and compromise its full effect.

What Are the Benefits of Encapsulated Retinol?

Retinol is popularly known as the go-to ingredient for anti-aging benefits, like reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It can also help even out uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation, including dark spots and acne marks. You can expect similar benefits from encapsulated retinol — without as many irritating side effects.

Who Should Use Encapsulated Retinol?

Encapsulated retinol is best used for individuals who may experience a wide array of skin concerns. “These concerns include, but are not limited to, milia, acne, fine lines or an uneven skin tone,” says Dr. Feely. Even so, all skin types can use encapsulated retinol, but if you want to tailor your routine, make sure to consult with your dermatologist.

Since there is less risk of redness and irritation, Dr. Shirazi and Dr. Penzi agree that encapsulated retinol can also be helpful for beginners who are new to using retinol and people with sensitive or dry skin. But, again, most skin types can benefit from using encapsulated retinol. To find out if retinol is right for you, reach out to your dermatologist. 

Can You Use Encapsulated Retinol With Other Retinol Products?

Dr. Feely urges against using more than one retinol product at the same time. “Using two products containing retinol on the same body site will increase the risk of side effects like redness, photosensitivity and skin irritation,” she warns. 

Encapsulated retinol targets those deeper layers of skin, but what about addressing the surface? There are some formulas that use both encapsulated retinol and traditional retinol, which allow for the product to achieve both levels of treatment. However, like Dr. Feely said, this can increase the risk of irritation. 

However, products that use encapsulated retinol in addition to gentler retinol alternatives, like bakuchiol, could be an effective option. Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum uses both ingredients with another retinol alternative, arophira, to help soften fine lines and even out discoloration. When using any retinol product, the best rule of thumb is to always ease in; use it sparingly and periodically until your skin can better tolerate such a potent formula.

What Ingredients Work Best With Retinol?

If there were a lunch table of ingredients, retinol would most likely be the loner who prefers to read quietly instead of gossip with classmates. In other words, there are few ingredients that are compatible with this finicky ingredient. “Retinols are the superstars of a skincare regimen, meaning they don’t like to share the stage with many other actives,” says Dr. Shirazi. They are best paired with ingredients that can support the retinol’s tasks, though. She recommends products with growth factors, stem cells or copper peptides — all of which you can usually find in a moisturizer or serum. 

Other complementary ingredients include hyaluronic acid, which tends to work well with almost every ingredient, and ceramides. Both strive to protect the skin barrier and prevent dehydration, so using them alongside a retinol product is advised, especially if you have sensitive or dry skin.

What Acids Should You Not Use With Retinol?

Highly-concentrated exfoliants, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), should not be used at the same time or on the same night as retinol. These acids both exfoliate the skin surface and can be very irritating when used alongside retinol. Popular AHAs and BHAs include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. Dr. Penzi and Dr. Shirazi agree that benzoyl peroxide should also be avoided because it can potentially deactivate and degrade the retinol. It can also cause irritation.

Can You Use Retinol With Vitamin C?

Vitamin C and retinol do not get along; avoid using them at the same time if you can. When used in conjunction, the two can potentially cause irritation. If you want to use vitamin C or other antioxidant products, be sure to do it in the morning.

Dr. Penzi adds that it’s best to avoid using other drying agents, such as toners, astringents and medicated cleansers while using retinol — for all the same reasons. The irritation just isn’t worth the trouble.

How to Incorporate Encapsulated Retinol Into Your Routine

It’s best to use encapsulated retinol in your nighttime skincare routine. “I generally advise using a pea-sized amount a few nights each week, building it up to every evening as your skin learns to tolerate it,” says Dr. Feely. If it becomes too drying, Dr. Penzi suggests dropping usage down to every third night. If you don’t experience any dryness or irritation, then she recommends increasing the usage to every night, as tolerated.

Don’t forget to top off your retinol with a moisturizer. Dr. Penzi prefers a bland formula (i.e. fragrance-free with minimal ingredients) that can address the dryness and help build tolerance to it over time. We love the La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5 Cream, which was practically made for this. Although many people use it for their chapped skin or eczema outbreaks, this soothing cream can help protect and relieve skin from any potential side effects due to retinol.

One of our go-to encapsulated retinol products is the CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum. It provides the traditional retinol benefits, like reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, but its hydrating formula doesn’t leave the skin feeling dry or irritated. Even if you don’t have dry skin, it’s still always best to follow up with a moisturizer after retinol.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

It’s also extremely important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher every day because retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. We love the CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Face Lotion. This mineral formula uses titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to physically block UV rays from penetrating your skin.  

If you want to double up on sun protection you can use a moisturizer, like the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral SPF Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid, in addition to a sunscreen. This moisturizer uses broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection with antioxidants alongside hyaluronic acid to prevent sun damage and dryness. “Also note that retinoids are not safe to use while pregnant and if you are having a laser or light-based procedure, be sure to take a break from using it during those times,” says Dr. Feely.

How Long Does It Take Encapsulated Retinol to Work?

If you’re using retinol, be prepared for delayed gratification. Unlike some ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid or caffeine, it can take some time to see results from your retinol products. In the first few weeks of use, you can expect skin to undergo a sensitive or scaling period until skin becomes accustomed to the retinol.

This adjustment period while using retinol may be where you want to quit, but keep going! While you can reduce how often you use retinol, try to keep it in your nighttime routine, even if it’s once a week. Those first few weeks are crucial to reaping the benefits of retinol, so maintain a level of consistency when your skin allows. Your dermatologist can also help you determine how frequently to add retinol into your routine.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral SPF Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid
Photographer: Chaunte Vaughn

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