The Regimen

Retinoids: Retinyl Propionate vs. Palmitate

Vivant vitamin A bottle serums in a studio shot

In the hierarchy of retinoids, there is a lot of confusion about where each molecule ranks. Two, in particular, often get interchanged: retinyl palmitate (common in non-prescription skincare formulas) and retinyl propionate (the patented vitamin A in Vivant formulas). They sound a lot alike. But it’s more than the difference of a few letters that separate them.


While both retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate are derivatives of retinoic acid—the retinoid king—they are very different in their activity and effectiveness. Let’s compare, contrast, and reveal the true heir to the retinoid throne.


To review: retinoic acid is the most bioactive form among retinoids. It’s the pure form of vitamin A and can be upregulated by the body without conversion. Its small molecular size allows it to penetrate the skin quickly. All those things make it inherently more powerful but also more irritating.


This potent cell regulator is used to peel acne impactions, plump fine lines, thicken the dermis, boost collagen production, and reduce pigmentation. It’s the most tested and proven skincare ingredient out there. It’s only available as a prescription, most commonly in concentrations of 0.01% to 0.4%.


The goal of vitamin A derivatives—retinol et al.—is to mimic the dramatic effects of retinoic acid while reducing irritation. This is where things get interesting.


Let’s start with retinol. Though the term is often applied to all derivatives, retinol has its own unique profile. (Retinoid is the correct umbrella term for retinoic acid and all its derivatives.) Retinol is a precursor to retinoic acid that gets converted to retinoic acid in a two-step process. It’s the closest relative to the retinoid king, but that doesn’t make it the best. Retinol is notably unstable and requires high percentages to be effective. Those high percentages can lead to irritation similar (though stepped down) to retinoic acid.


Then there are the vitamin A esters, which include retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate. Like retinol, these compounds are converted to retinoic acid (with one extra step). Beyond that, the two diverge. The main limiting factor for vitamin A derivatives is penetration. If it can’t reach the lower levels of the skin, it can’t activate changes in the skin.


Retinyl propionate (developed by Dr. Fulton) is closest in molecular size to pure retinoic acid with just three additional carbons. Vitamin A palmitate has an additional 16 carbons, making it too large to reach the dermis effectively. Retinyl propionate is small enough to reach its target but large enough to minimize irritation.


The unique metabolic profile of retinyl propionate (which translates to enhanced bioactivity) has proven to be more effective than either retinyl palmitate or retinol. Most recently, a 2020 study compared the skin penetration, metabolism, and retinoid activation levels among retinol, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate. Results found that retinoid activation and hyaluronic acid synthesis levels were higher in skin treated with retinyl propionate than in skin treated with retinol. More to the point, retinyl palmitate yielded a “null effect.” 


In addition to its overall efficacy and skin tolerability, retinyl propionate has a better stability profile than other retinyl esters. This enhanced stability improves both product performance and shelf life.


As the co-developer of Retin-A, Vivant formulator, Dr. James Fulton, was highly aware of the profound effects of retinoic acid and the need to harness its power with less irritation. He developed and patented retinyl propionate to achieve that goal and then formulated advanced acne-fighting and ageless formulas with his superstar ingredient as the foundation. 


How to choose the right vitamin A propionate product

Vivant’s vitamin A therapies are multi-tiered starting with Derm-A-Gel, which is equivalent to using a formula with .01 Retin-A. They advance to the strongest formula, Clear Body Therapy, equal to .1 Retin-A. If you’ve never used a vitamin A therapy, it’s best to start at the lowest percentage, Derm-A-Gel, to allow your skin to acclimate.

Expect to see some flaking when you start using the product as a result of accelerated cell turnover. As your skin acclimates, you can move up to through the levels to keep pushing your results. For help choosing your products, try our online consultation tool, or chat directly with a Vivant Skin Care expert through the live consultation feature on our website.


You can find retinyl propionate in Vivant’s line of vitamin A corrective serums, Wink Eye Rejuvenation Cream, and our Clear Body Therapy.


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