The Under-$40 Drugstore Retinol We're Obsessed With
With the sheer number of new skin-care products dropping each month, it's all too easy to forget the amount of manpower and resources that go into those little bottles on the bathroom counter. But ahead of the mass-market release of L'Oréal Paris's Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol this October, the cosmetic chemists behind the product invited Allure (virtually) into the lab to learn about the steps it took to land the serum on shelves.
Retinol, to refresh your memory, is a holy grail ingredient that works especially well to counter signs of aging. "It can fight fine lines, wrinkles, uneven texture, and visible pore size, because it enhances the production of collagen," says Annie Gonzalez, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami, who is unaffiliated with the company. "It also evens pigmentation and slow the breakdown of collagen that naturally occurs with aging." Chances are, at least one product in your skin-care routine contains retinol, and the scientists at L'Oréal took me into the lab to explain how it got there.
Rocio Rivera, the vice president of scientific communications at L'Oréal Paris, explains the lab's goal was to create a retinol serum "with a very simplistic formulation approach." Similar to single-active skin-care brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List, L'Oréal's Derm Intensives line aims to deliver one ingredient the most effective way possible.
The task was to create a pure retinol formula at a percentage point that L'Oréal Paris's dermatologist panel (made up of practicing, board-certified doctors) would know was efficacious. Thus far, the Derm Intensives line includes skin care with 10 percent vitamin C, 10 percent glycolic acid, and 1.5 percent pure hyaluronic acid. For the newest serum, the magic number ended up at 0.3 percent pure retinol — but more on that later.
"Retinol is highly unstable," says Rivera. "You have to be very careful how you formulate. You can put as much of it as you want in the product, but if it's not formulated correctly, it just doesn't do what it's supposed to be doing." On the bright side, she says, "retinol is the most-researched molecule in topical skin care, and we know more about it than any other molecule."
Rivera explained that her team tested the serum over 16 hours using leftover human skin from tummy tucks (!) to see how deeply the retinol penetrated skin. "The formula needs to get [all the way] into the dermis," she says. Now, back to that 0.3 percentage: The retinol is engineered to penetrate below surface level into the dermis, the second layer of the skin. In lab tests, which were gathered into a very cool chart that I wasn't allowed to screenshot, the team realized that a higher percentage of retinol actually penetrated less into the skin below. Any more oil in the formula, and lipophilic (aka oil-loving) retinol would be too cozy in its formula to leave and enter your skin.
"It's about fine-tuning to find that perfect ratio [between the oil vehicle for the retinol and the retinol itself]," says Madison Godesky. (Godesky holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and her job as L'Oréal's "scientific liaison" means she's the link between researchers in the lab and the non-scientists at the company, like lawyers and regulators.)
As an added bonus to the formula, the serum contains a "retinol guard," a patented compound that makes the serum shelf-stable for six months. Translation: The serum is formulated to stay as effective in month six as the day you opened the packaging. (If you tend to open up a bottle and then completely forget to incorporate it into your routine until the next time you clean the bathroom, this is the serum for you.)
Once the lab locked the formula largely into place, it was sent over to L'Oréal's "sensorial expert" (yes, that's a real job) product testers in France. "We have experts who can perceive texture to such a finely resolved degree," says Godesky. Those testers are looking at aspects like the wateriness or slip of the product, the finish it leaves on skin, how much the liquid spreads when you drop it on skin, and much, much more.
To verify L'Oréal's product claims, we sent the ingredient list over to David Petrillo, a cosmetic chemist with his own skin-care line, who read the ingredients like tea leaves. "This would be an effective age-defying retinol serum that would be beneficial for deep wrinkles and fine lines," he says. "Right off, we see a higher percentage of glycerin, which tells me it's going to have a nice hydrating and smoothing feel to it."
Without knowing which product it was, Petrillo even saw the hints of L'Oréal's proprietary retinol guard in the ingredients. "I also see a few other skin conditioning agents, emollients, stabilizers, solvents, surfactants, and emulsifying agents," he says. "This tells me that it will be a thicker, smooth feeling product, and the surfactants help to reduce the surface tension between water and oil emulsions, so it all dissolves properly and holds together nicely It also tells me they are doing something potentially extra to really help keep this retinol stable for a long period of time."
With all that science behind us, I'll leave you with one humble beauty writer's take: the serum is thick and milky, with a slight yellow tinge that comes from the pure retinol in the formula. There's no fragrance, which is great if you have sensitive skin. It feels slightly silky on the skin but absorbs quickly. When you apply it every evening, feel free to picture it penetrating all the way into the dermis and rocking your skin from there. I know I do.
The L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum with 0.3% Pure Retinol is currently available at amazon.com for $30 or other online retailers for $37 and will be on shelves in-store this October.
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