Benefits of Retinyl Palmitate for Skin

In the world of anti-aging skincare, a lot can sound pretty aggressive. First, there are ingredients such as retinol that your skin has to adapt to over time, but not without a transitional period with a lot of peeling. Then, there are a slew of injectables and laser treatments that require a lot of cash and a fair amount of downtime. And let’s not forget the surgical options that exist to pull back skin and knock 20 years off your face. Phew! While we embrace all approaches to anti-aging, it’s also nice to know that gentler ingredients alternatives exist to kick-start the process, such as retinyl palmitate.

If it sounds eerily familiar to the aforementioned retinol, you’re not off track. Retinol is actually one of four types of retinoids commonly used in skincare; there’s also retinoic acid, retinaldehyde, and, the current topic of conversation, retinyl palmitate. While similar in theory, each of these forms of vitamin A derivatives are actually quite different. And, if you have sensitive and/or reactive skin, the latter is likely going to be the easiest to tolerate.

To better understand what retinyl palmitate is, how it compares to other forms of vitamin A, its potential downsides, and more, we spoke with two board-certified dermatologists to get the 411. Below, learn how this anti-aging ingredient works and how you can incorporate it into your regular skincare routine.


  • Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Raleigh-Durham, NC.
  • Ted Lain, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the hair, skin, and nails.

What Is Retinyl Palmitate?

Before we get to the specifics, it’s important to talk about the larger category of retinoids in general. There are four commonly used in skincare, all of which are derivatives of vitamin A and have similar effects, aka speeding up cell turnover on the surface of the skin for a smoother, more even texture, while also working on the deeper layers to stimulate collagen production and fight wrinkles.

On one side of the spectrum is retinoic acid. Also known as tretinoin, it’s available only with a prescription and is undeniably the most potent of the bunch. “Retinoic acid is the most active and effective retinoid, but also has the highest potential for irritation,” explains Solomon. On the opposing end is over-the-counter retinyl palmitate, which dermatologists agree is notably less effective (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing). “Retinyl palmitate can be a better option for some because it’s less irritating,” points out Solomon. It’s less effective, but will be more comfortable to use consistently and continually, she adds. Also of note: Retinol and retinaldehyde, are available OTC and fall somewhere in the middle in terms of efficacy and irritation.

Benefits of Retinyl Palmitate for Skin

Just because it’s less effective than its counterparts doesn’t mean it’s not doing anything for your skin—we are, at the end of the day, still dealing with a retinoid. Like its fellow retinoids, retinyl palmitate acts both on the surface and within deeper layers of the skin.

  • Speeds up cell turnover: “It causes the cells on the epidermis—the outermost layer of the skin—to rapidly turn over and die. This sounds sinister, but it makes way for new cell growth underneath,” says Solomon.
  • Brightens skin: The exfoliating aspects of the ingredient may result in smoother, more radiant skin with less discoloration and an overall more even tone.
  • Reduces the appearance of wrinkles: Retinoids hinder the breakdown of collagen. It also thickens the epidermis and dermis, which is where wrinkles begin to form, says Solomon.
  • Antioxidant properties: Retinyl palmitate can help with antioxidant protection of the skin.
  • Stimulates collagen production: And besides inhibiting collagen breakdown, it also stimulates new collagen: Once retinyl palmitate is converted to retinoic acid in the skin, it binds to specific receptors in the cells that lead to increased collagen production, according to Lain.
  • Keeps pores clear: In speeding up cell turnover and acting as an exfoliant, as previously mentioned, it may also help unclog pores and keep them clear, which is why it’s often found in acne treatments.
  • Available over-the-counter: Unlike some super skincare ingredients, products containing retinyl palmitate are available in most beauty and drugstores.
  • Fast-absorbing: As it is a retinol, retinyl palmitate is easily absorbed by the skin.

Retinyl Palmitate vs. Other Retinoids

It’s easy to look at retinoids on a scale of intensity: If prescription-strength retinoic acid packs a hardcore punch, then retinyl palmitate delivers more of a gentle tap. Retinoic acid is the only form that your skin can utilize, so if you’re using it straight up, your skin gets it immediately. Retinyl palmitate, on the other hand, needs to undergo a conversion process. “Once it’s absorbed into the skin, enzymes convert it to retinoic acid, the biologically active version that has the beneficial effects,” says Lain.

This process reduces its efficacy, which is why it’s the least effective of the bunch (retinol and retinaldehyde also get converted to retinoic acid, but it’s a more direct process, which makes them more intense). Still, the reduced potency is what makes it so much easier for your complexion to tolerate retinyl palmitate. If you have highly tolerant skin and/or want to see results ASAP, you may want to go for the strong stuff. But, if you’re new to retinoids or have sensitive skin, retinyl palmitate is your best bet.

Side Effects of Retinyl Palmitate

Comparatively speaking, retinyl palmitate is pretty gentle, so side effects are rare, though they can still happen. Expect the same ones you’d have with any retinoid, namely: itching, burning, peeling, and increased skin sensitivity, all of which are more likely the more sensitive your skin is.

How to Use It

Retinoids are often deactivated by sunlight and can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, cautions Lain. So first and foremost, make sure to always reserve retinyl palmitate for nighttime use (this is made easier by the fact that it’s often found in night creams and serums). To that point, be extra diligent about using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF 30 during the day as well.

Slow and steady is the name of the application game. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without proper training, give your skin time to get used to the intensity of this ingredient. Lain recommends applying a small amount to a quarter-sized area on your lower cheek every other night for a week, followed by a moisturizer. “If there’s no redness or irritation on this test spot, then you can start applying it to your entire face, but still just three times per week,” he says. After two weeks, you can step it up to nightly application.

Anytime you use a product with retinyl palmitate—or any retinoid, for that matter—pair it with a plain moisturizer (basic is best, avoid any formulas with intense active ingredients). Apply the retinoid product on clean skin, then top it with the moisturizer. This may help minimize the likelihood of any of those pesky side effects, particularly among the sensitive skin crowd.

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