Retinoic acid is probably the most common skin prescription in the world. It entered the cosmetic scene 30 years ago when it was determined that one of the ways fibroblasts make collagen and elastin is through a molecule in the skin called retinoic acid.

The formation of retinoic acid is the last step in a chain of events that leads to collagen stimulation. It starts with beta-carotene which is often converted to retinol. Retinol, in turn, can be converted back and forth into retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate, the most commonly strored forms of Vitamin A. These forms can all be converted to retinaldehyde. Retinaldehyde is then converted to retinoid acid, which activates fibroblasts to create collagen. The process is very careful and precise, because retinoic acid is actually toxic to the skin.

You may be wondering how the skin can manufacture something toxic to the skin? Well, just as lactic acid is beneficial to the skin in small amounts but damaging at higher dosages, trace amounts of retinoic acid can be very beneficial for the skin. When the skin has more than it can utilize, though, retinoic acid is damaging.

Applying retinoic acid to the skin topically becomes a challenge, because in high amounts the epidermis misinterprets its presence. Topical retinoic acid actually interferes with the normal maturation process (normal turnover process) of the skin.

We know that retinoic acid is exfoliating, so daily use of it compromises the epidermis by removing the stratum corneum as well as some of the lipid structure of the skin. This triggers inflammation and increases free radicals substantially. Add to that the fact that retinoic acid stops the normal progression of the epidermis, and we see severe increases in sun sensitivity.

BEWARE! — ANY PRODUCT THAT CREATES SUN SENSITIVITY IS AGING YOUR SKIN, because it means you will suffer more sun damage as a result of using the product, and sun damage = both aging and increased risk of developing SKIN CANCER.

The third problem with retinoic acid products is that they send a chemical message to the skin’s metallaproteinases (MMPs) to stop tearing down collagen. Normally, when new collagen is formed, damaged collagen is broken down and eliminated. But retinoic acid interferes with this normal process, leading to a collapse of dermal structures. So when retinoic acid is applied to the skin in confusing amounts, it actually obstructs the skin’s natural protection and repair process.

Often when experts discuss topical retinoic acid, they laud its ability to interrupt the normal dismantling of collagen as though it were an asset. They consider it an anti-aging effect because it “prevents collagen loss.”

I would a that it is in fact an AGING event because it allows damaged collagen to hang around within the skin.

As a final blow to the skin, retinoic acid damages our protective melanocytes. The cytotoxicity of its presence reduces melanin, thereby increasing free-radical damage once again.

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