Main content

Skincare Science:
Pro-Retinol Explained

Retinol is among the most widely-used and effective anti-aging ingredients you can find in over-the-counter skincare products. But it’s also one of the most poorly understood—mainly because there are so many forms of retinol, including potent retinoids and ultra-gentle pro-retinol. Needless to say, it can be pretty confusing to determine which form of this popular vitamin A derivative is best for your skin type and specific skin concerns.

Here, we’ll give you a crash course on pro-retinol and answer frequently asked questions like “what is pro-retinol?” and “what do you use pro-retinol for?” You’ll also discover tips on using pro-retinol products in your anti-aging skincare routine. Keep reading for your all-in-one Kiehl’s guide to pro-retinol. 

What Is Pro-Retinol?

Pro-retinol—sometimes known as retinyl palmitate—is a fat-soluble compound derived from retinol. It has several of the same characteristics of retinol, and as such, it is typically used for the same purposes in skincare (specifically, to help address age-related concerns like fine lines and wrinkles). It also occurs naturally in nature and is the most abundant form of vitamin A found in the skin.

With that said, pro-retinol is not the same as retinol. For one, it is much milder and more stable than retinol, which degrades easily when exposed to sunlight. This comes with pros and cons. On the plus side, pro-retinol products are less likely to irritate as retinol and other strong vitamin A derivatives can. But, pro-retinol is also less potent, and therefore takes longer to produce dramatic improvements in age-related concerns, like skin tone and texture irregularities. 

What Are The Benefits Of Pro-Retinol?

The most notable benefit of pro-retinol is its ability to help address age-related skin concerns, like fine lines and wrinkles, without producing irritating side effects, like redness, peeling, or excessive dryness. Interestingly, pro-retinol also has mild sun-protective properties, which can help safeguard the skin against photoaging, though these effects are not strong enough to replace sunscreen—SPF is still a must. (On the flip side, retinol can make you more sensitive to the sun.) When used consistently, some evidence suggests that pro-retinol can help boost the skin’s elasticity and speed up cellular turnover as well.

You’ll find pro-retinol in Youth Dose Eye, a lightweight eye cream suitable for all skin types. This powerful anti-aging formula, which also contains vitamin C and emollient grapeseed oil, absorbs easily and instantly smooths the appearance of the under-eye area. When used regularly, it helps visibly reduce fine lines and under-eye wrinkles, minimize puffiness, and diminish dark circles for brighter, more youthful-looking eyes. You can apply this layerable formula morning and night (alone or beneath a hydrating eye cream, like Avocado Eye Cream) as a regular step in your anti-aging skincare routine. 

How To Use Pro-Retinol

Because pro-retinol is so gentle, there aren’t specific steps you need to take in your routine to limit irritation the same way you do with more potent retinol and retinoids. As such, the way you use a product containing pro-retinol will depend entirely on what the product is and what it’s designed to do (the product’s packaging should provide specific application instructions). One note to consider, though: You’ll want to avoid mixing other ingredients into your pro-retinol products (leave that to the experts).

While pro-retinol is more stable and less likely to cause sun sensitivity than other retinoid compounds, you’ll still want to wear sunscreen during the day to protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation. We recommend a broad-spectrum formula, like Super Fluid Daily UV Defense 50+. This lightweight sunscreen for all skin types absorbs quickly and defends the skin against UVA and UVB rays. The antioxidant-infused formula also helps protect the skin against other environmental stressors, including pollution. 

Apply a generous amount of this mild sunscreen to your face and neck at least 15 minutes before going outside. For additional protection, be sure to follow other sun safety precautions (like limiting your time in direct sunlight and wearing a hat whenever possible).

Alternatives For Sensitive Skin

While our pro-retinol is generally safe for most skin types, it is true that not everybody can tolerate retinol derivatives. If you have highly sensitive skin or prefer to avoid retinol for another reason, we have plenty of retinol alternatives that you can use in your routine. Keep reading for our top picks. 

For Your Face

If you have sensitive skin, try adding a gentle anti-aging moisturizer, like Super Multi-Corrective Anti-Aging Face and Neck Cream, to your daily routine. This potent formula with phytomimetic vitamin A and hyaluronic acid helps address the most visible signs of aging on the face and neck. It’s clinically-demonstrated to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and visibly smooth the skin texture within just one month, while continued use helps boost skin’s elasticity to promote a more lifted appearance.* The mild yet effective formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night for radiant, youthful-looking skin.

*Results based on a 12-week clinical study of 53 panelists in the US.

For men’s anti-aging needs, we recommend Age Defender Cream Moisturizer. This all-in-one moisturizer for men contains energizing caffeine and capryloyl salicylic acid, plus hydrating glycerin. It helps exfoliate men’s thicker skin while improving the skin’s texture and boosting elasticity for a smoother appearance. With consistent use, your skin will appear firmer, and you’ll notice a visible improvement in age-related skin concerns, including fine lines and wrinkles.

For Your Eye Area

The skin around your eyes is exceedingly delicate, and it needs to be treated with care. If retinol derivatives prove too strong for your eye area, we recommend seeking out a gentler anti-aging eye cream, like Super Multi-Corrective Eye-Opening Serum. This fast-absorbing eye serum smoothes and hydrates the skin to reduce the appearance of age-related concerns, including crow’s feet and under-eye wrinkles. In a clinical test, 95% of participants noted a significant improvement in the look of open eyes after using this powerful treatment for just one month.* Use your ring finger to tap the lightweight formula onto the skin beneath your eyes every morning and night. For added hydration, pair it with a moisturizing eye cream for dry skin (see our full lineup here).

*Based on consumer evaluations after four weeks of use.

If you’re looking for a men’s anti-aging eye cream, try Age Defender Eye Repair. The hydrating cream formula with linseed and rye extracts instantly brightens the delicate under-eye skin to diminish the appearance of dark circles. It also helps firm the skin and improves the look of other age-related eye concerns, including under-eye wrinkles and crow’s feet. Use it daily, alone, or layered atop a lightweight anti-aging eye serum to reveal smoother, firmer-looking skin.

Next: Dull Skin: What Causes It and How To Treat It

For the best experience, please turn your device