A-Superpacked X-Strength Retinol Serum
INSTYTUTUM A-Superpacked X-Strength Retinol SerumIngredients explained
Good old water, aka H2O. The most common skincare ingredient of all. You can usually find it right in the very first spot of the ingredient list, meaning it’s the biggest thing out of all the stuff that makes up the product.
It’s mainly a solvent for ingredients that do not like to dissolve in oils but rather in water.
Once inside the skin, it hydrates, but not from the outside - putting pure water on the skin (hello long baths!) is drying.
One more thing: the water used in cosmetics is purified and deionized (it means that almost all of the mineral ions inside it is removed). Like this, the products can stay more stable over time.
A clear, colorless, odorless oily liquid that makes the formula easily spreadable and also makes the skin nice and smooth (emollient). It's especially helpful in sunscreens as it can help to solubilize UV filters.
A little helper ingredient that can boost the performance and enhance the delivery of active ingredients in a formula. It can penetrate deep layers of the skin helping actives to do the same.
It's especially useful to help active ingredients for self-tanning (DHA), anti-acne or skin-whitening to penetrate deeper and work better.
A multi-functional, silky feeling helper ingredient that can do quite many things. It's used as an emulsion stabilizer, solvent and a broad spectrum antimicrobial. According to manufacturer info, it's also a moisturizer and helps to make the product feel great on the skin. It works synergistically with preservatives and helps to improve water-resistance of sunscreens.
A clear, colorless and odorless oily liquid that works as a fast-spreading emollient with a dry skin feel.
It seems to us that squalane is in fashion and there is a reason for it. Chemically speaking, it is a saturated (no double bonds) hydrocarbon (a molecule consisting only of carbon and hydrogen), meaning that it's a nice and stable oily liquid with a long shelf life.
It occurs naturally in certain fish and plant oils (e.g. olive), and in the sebum (the oily stuff our skin produces) of the human skin. As f.c. puts it in his awesome blog post, squalane's main things are "emolliency, surface occlusion, and TEWL prevention all with extreme cosmetic elegance". In other words, it's a superb moisturizer that makes your skin nice and smooth, without being heavy or greasy.
Another advantage of squalane is that it is pretty much compatible with all skin types and skin conditions. It is excellent for acne-prone skin and safe to use even if you have fungi-related skin issues, like seborrhea or fungal acne.
The unsaturated (with double bonds) and hence less stable version of Squalane is Squalene, you can read about it here >>
- A natural moisturizer that’s also in our skin
- A super common, safe, effective and cheap molecule used for more than 50 years
- Not only a simple moisturizer but knows much more: keeps the skin lipids between our skin cells in a healthy (liquid crystal) state, protects against irritation, helps to restore barrier
- Effective from as low as 3% with even more benefits at higher concentrations up to 20-40% (around 10% is a good usability-effectiveness sweet spot)
- High-glycerin moisturizers are awesome for treating severely dry skin
We don't have description for this ingredient yet.
We don't have description for this ingredient yet.
The emollient plant oil coming from the kernel (the seed of the seed) of the delicious apricot fruit. Like other plant oils, it contains antioxidant vitamin E and nourishing fatty acids (mostly oleic acid 54-74%, linoleic acid 12-35%).
It's a nice general purpose emollient, has nourishing and moisturizing properties (as a high oleic oil it's ideal for dry skin types) and is quite easily absorbed into the skin.
A high-performance emulsifier that helps water and oil to nicely mix together. It has exceptional stabilizing power and can be used in all kinds of formulas including hard to create sunscreens.
It’s the most commonly used version of pure vitamin E in cosmetics. You can read all about the pure form here. This one is the so-called esterified version.
According to famous dermatologist, Leslie Baumann while tocopheryl acetate is more stable and has a longer shelf life, it’s also more poorly absorbed by the skin and may not have the same awesome photoprotective effects as pure Vit E.
A goodie plant oil coming from the polyphenol-rich seeds of the grape. It's a light emollient oil that makes your skin feel smooth and nice and also contains a bunch of good-for-the-skin stuff. It's a great source of antioxidant polyphenols, barrier repair fatty acid linoleic acid (about 55-77%, while oleic acid is about 12-27%) and antioxidant, skin-protectant vitamin E.
Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR) is the newest member of the "royal family of skincare" (see who is who on this cool retinoids family tree), the retinoid family. The queen of the family is the FDA-approved anti-aging superstar, retinoic acid, aka tretinoin and HPR seems to be a gentle but influential sister princess to the queen.
Good to know: the trade name of HPR is Granactive Retinoid. The manufacturer produces it as 10% active and 90% solvent called dimethyl isosorbide. When a product claims 2% Granactive Retinoid, it means 0.2% Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (and 1.8% dimethyl isosorbide) on the ingredient list.
It's a so-called retinoic acid ester, meaning that it's directly related to retinoic acid. If you've already read our description about retinol or retinyl palmitate, you know that the active ingredient our skin cells can interpret is retinoic acid. Other forms of retinoids have to be converted by our metabolic machinery to do something. That's not the case with HPR. It binds directly to the retinoid receptors of the skin cells to work its skincare magic.
The big promise of HPR is that it's similarly active as retinoic acid (no conversion needed, remember) but without the irritation. According to the manufacturer's tests, 24 hours of an occlusive patch with 0.5% HPR resulted in significantly lower irritation than 0.5% retinol. Also, there was a "dramatic reduction of lines and wrinkles" after applying 0.2% HPR around the eyes twice a day for 14 days.
These results sound sooo promising that we don't blame you if you wanna run out right now and get an HPR formula to slather on your face. But, before you do, you have to know that the info we have about HPR at the moment is mainly from the manufacturer, whose tests may or may not be accurate or properly designed (such as controlled, double-blind and conducted on an appropriate number of people).
As HPR is pretty new there isn't that much independent research we could find yet. We found two Italian studies both examining the efficacy of HPR combined with other things (retinol in both cases, and papain in one of them) for the treatment of acne. Both studies found the formulas effective but they contained other things too, so it's hard to judge how well HPR did.
Regarding anti-aging, there is a pretty recent, Estee Lauder sponsored study that compared the in-vitro (not on real human beings but on skin models) collagen-boosting effectiveness of Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, tretinoin, good old retinol and retinyl palmitate (RP). The results are pretty encouraging showing that "HPR had greater levels of gene transcription than retinol and RP (RP) at the same concentrations ... however, HPR did not achieve gene transcription levels of ATRA (tretinoin)." But, a much higher dose might be tolerated from HPR and the highest dose of HPR out-performed tretinoin. Pretty encouraging, though we are very much waiting for a study to confirm all this on real human beings.
Bottom line: We are really happy to see some innovation happening with retinoids, and we think Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate is a super promising rising star, but it’s not fully proven yet. If you are someone who likes to experiment and try out the newest things, grab your running shoes and try some HPR containing serum now (see product list below :)). If you like the tried and true, however, stick to retinol and tretinoin for now and re-examine the question in a couple of years when (hopefully) more research will be available.
Are you into Retinoids? Read our shiny description about other members of the retinoid family:
- Retinyl Propionate: the most promising retinol ester out there
- Retinyl Retinoate: a super interesting retinol-retinoic acid hybrid molecule
- Tretinoin: the FDA-proven, well-known active ingredient
- Retinol: the good old vitamin A molecule
- Retinyl Palmitate: a super common, but our least fav member of the retinoids
The extract coming from a rare, blue-green algae that's touted to have retinoid-like effects but without the side effect. If you do not know what retinoids are, you are seriously missing out, please click here and catch up on the topic.
To be more specific about the "retinoid-like effects", the manufacturer found that Lanablue (the trade name of this algae) affects gene expression (a fancy way of saying how an ingredient might influence how a skin cell produces different things such as proteins) and regulates epidermal differentiation (how skin cells at the bottom of the top layer of our skin replicate) similar to good-old retinol. However, that is only in-vitro (made in test-tubes) data, that may or may not happen on real human skin.
As far as clinical data goes, the manufacturer did a 21 days study with 40 volunteers and found that 3% Lanablue showed a "clear reduction of the skin microrelief", or to say it in another way, it made the skin smoother. Based on the data we have seen, we think that "retinoid-like effects" claim for this algae is an exaggeration. If you are into retinol alternatives, Bakuchiol is a more promising molecule to check out.
A new tripeptide (meaning that it contains three building blocks called amino acids) that can do all kinds of good things for the skin, at least according to the ingredient's manufacturer. Its modest trade name is simply "PerfectionPeptide P3" :) and it can supposedly reactivate the natural desquamation process of the skin. Better desquamation means better skin quality with fewer irregularities and imperfections and in general fewer signs of aging.
It also speeds up cell renewal that results in fresh, glowing skin, it intensely hydrates, refines skin texture and reduces wrinkle depth. Hence the name Perfection Peptide. (Don't forget, these are all claims coming from the manufacturer, so maybe take it with a little grain of salt. :))
It’s the - sodium form - cousin of the famous NMF, hyaluronic acid (HA). If HA does not tell you anything we have a super detailed, geeky explanation about it here. The TL; DR version of HA is that it's a huge polymer (big molecule from repeated subunits) found in the skin that acts as a sponge helping the skin to hold onto water, being plump and elastic. HA is famous for its crazy water holding capacity as it can bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water.
As far as skincare goes, sodium hyaluronate and hyaluronic acid are pretty much the same and the two names are used interchangeably. As cosmetic chemist kindofstephen writes on reddit "sodium hyaluronate disassociates into hyaluronic acid molecule and a sodium atom in solution".
In spite of this, if you search for "hyaluronic acid vs sodium hyaluronate" you will find on multiple places that sodium hyaluronate is smaller and can penetrate the skin better. Chemically, this is definitely not true, as the two forms are almost the same, both are polymers and the subunits can be repeated in both forms as much as you like. (We also checked Prospector for sodium hyaluronate versions actually used in cosmetic products and found that the most common molecular weight was 1.5-1.8 million Da that absolutely counts as high molecular weight).
What seems to be a true difference, though, is that the salt form is more stable, easier to formulate and cheaper so it pops up more often on the ingredient lists.
If you wanna become a real HA-and-the-skin expert you can read way more about the topic at hyaluronic acid (including penetration-questions, differences between high and low molecular weight versions and a bunch of references to scientific literature).
It's a super small, chemically chopped up version of sodium hyaluronate. Its trade name is miniHA, and its molecular weight is 10 kDa. This counts as really tiny given that "normal" HA has a molecular weight of 0.5-2 million Da.
To be honest, low molecular weight (LMW), and especially this ultra-low molecular weight HA is a controversial ingredient. On the upside, it can penetrate the skin better (though 10kDa still counts as big!) and might be able to moisturize the deeper layers of the skin where normal HA cannot get. Also, according to the manufacturer of miniHA, it has better antioxidant activity than a 1.6MDa version HA and it also has better sun protection and after-sun repair abilities than the higher MW versions. It also works in synergy with higher molecular weight versions, and the combination of 0.1% 1.45MDa-HA + 0.1% 380 kDa-HA + 0.1% miniHA hydrated the skin significantly better than 0.3% 1.45MDa-HA alone.
On the downside, the biological role of LMW-HA in the skin is being a pro-inflammatory signaling agent and there is a study by another manufacturer called Evonik showing that HA versions with smaller than 50kDa molecular weight might be pro-inflammatory when put on the skin. Granted, the study was only done on reconstituted human epidermis, so it might or might not be like this on real human skin.
If you wanna get confused and read much more about hyaluronic acid and what the different molecular weight versions might or might not do, click here and read our excruciatingly long description.
It's a special "cross-linked" from of IT-moisturizer, hyaluronic acid (HA). Cross-linked means that "normal" HA pieces (1-2 million Da molecular weight) are chemically bound togeather to create a big, "infinite" mesh.
The special HA mesh has a remarkable water-binding capacity, 5 times more than the already crazy water-binding capacity of "normal" HA. This water filled crosslinked HA gel forms a smooth film on the skin and continuously delivers the bound water, so it gives long-term moisturizing benefits.
Btw, crosslinking HA was developed for dermal fillers (as crosslinking helps their longevity), and this guy is the topical version of FDA approved dermal filler called Hylan B gel. Smearing crosslinked version all over ourselves is a newish thing, and incoming evidence so far suggests that it's a great idea, even better than normal HA.
A very recent, 2016 research article compared the topical moisturizing effect of crosslinked HA (not Hylan B gel specifically, but something called Resilient HA or RHA), HMW-HA and LMW-HA and found that "TEWL (that is trans-epidermal water loss, the water that evaporates from the skin) was reduced by 27.8% with RHA, and by 15.6% with HMW HA, but increased by 55.5% with LMW HA." (You can read much more about HMW and LMW HA here in the geeky details section.)
All in all, we think Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer is an awesome version of HA, probably superior to traditional versions, so be happy to spot it on the ingredient list.
Sodium Acetylated Hyaluronate is a variation of current IT moisturizer, Hyaluronic acid, where some water-loving -OH groups are replaced by amphipathic (partly water-loving and partly water-hating) acetyl groups. The modified molecule is claimed to have even better moisture retention ability than normal HA and better affinity to the skin surface.
The better affinity comes from the acetyl groups that act as tiny "anchors" to attach the HA molecule to the skin. Staying on top of the skin better and longer means longer-lasting surface hydration and improved elasticity. It is also less sticky and more cosmetically elegant than normal HA, so no wonder the nickname of this molecule is super hyaluronic acid.
An easy-to-formulate, commonly used, nice to have ingredient that’s also called pro-vitamin B5. As you might guess from the “pro” part, it’s a precursor to vitamin B5 (whose fancy name is pantothenic acid).
Its main job in skincare products is to moisturise the skin. It’s a humectant meaning that it can help the skin to attract water and then hold onto it. There is also research showing that panthenol can help our skin to produce more lovely lipids that are important for a strong and healthy skin barrier.
Another great thing about panthenol is that it has anti-inflammatory and skin protecting abilities. A study shows that it can reduce the irritation caused by less-nice other ingredients (e.g. fragrance, preservatives or chemical sunscreens) in the product.
Research also shows that it might be useful for wound healing as it promotes fibroblast (nice type of cells in our skin that produce skin-firming collagen) proliferation.
If that wasn’t enough panthenol is also useful in nail and hair care products. A study shows that a nail treatment liquide with 2% panthenol could effectively get into the nail and significantly increase the hydration of it.
As for the hair the hydration effect is also true there. Panthenol might make your hair softer, more elastic and helps to comb your hair more easily.
Super common soothing ingredient. It can be found naturally in the roots & leaves of the comfrey plant, but more often than not what's in the cosmetic products is produced synthetically.
It's not only soothing but it' also skin-softening and protecting and can promote wound healing.
A white, waxy emollient that gives "body" to skincare formulas. Comes from coconut or palm kernel oil.
A very common ingredient that can be found in all cell membranes. In cosmetics it's quite the multi-tasker: it's an emollient and water-binding ingredient but it's also an emulsifier and can be used for stabilization purposes. It's also often used to create liposomes.
It's one of the most commonly used thickeners and emulsion stabilizers. If the product is too runny, a little xanthan gum will make it more gel-like. Used alone, it can make the formula sticky and it is a good team player so it is usually combined with other thickeners and so-called rheology modifiers (helper ingredients that adjust the flow and thus the feel of the formula). The typical use level of Xantha Gum is below 1%, it is usually in the 0.1-0.5% range.
Btw, Xanthan gum is all natural, a chain of sugar molecules (polysaccharide) produced from individual sugar molecules (glucose and sucrose) via fermentation. It’s approved by Ecocert and also used in the food industry (E415).
A big sugar molecule (polysaccharide) that is used as a natural thickening and gelling agent. It is similar to more commonly used Xanthan Gum, and the two are also often combined to create gel formulas or to stabilize emulsions.
A super common emollient that makes your skin feel nice and smooth. It comes from coconut oil and glycerin, it’s light-textured, clear, odorless and non-greasy. It’s a nice ingredient that just feels good on the skin, is super well tolerated by every skin type and easy to formulate with. No wonder it’s popular.
- Works best between a concentration of 5-20%
- Boosts the skin’s own collagen production
- Fades pigmentation and brown spots
- If used under sunscreen it boosts its UV protection
- Extremely unstable and oxidizes very easily in presence of light or air
- Stable in solutions with water only if pH is less than 3.5 or in waterless formulations
- Vit E + C work in synergy and provide superb photoprotection
- Ferulic acid doubles the photoprotection effect of Vit C+E and helps to stabilize Vit C
- Potent Vit. C serums might cause a slight tingling on sensitive skin
Citric acid comes from citrus fruits and is an AHA. If these magic three letters don’t tell you anything, click here and read our detailed description on glycolic acid, the most famous AHA.
So citric acid is an exfoliant, that can - just like other AHAs - gently lift off the dead skin cells of your skin and make it more smooth and fresh.
There is also some research showing that citric acid with regular use (think three months and 20% concentration) can help sun-damaged skin, increase skin thickness and some nice hydrating things called glycosaminoglycans in the skin.
But according to a comparative study done in 1995, citric acid has less skin improving magic properties than glycolic or lactic acid. Probably that’s why citric acid is usually not used as an exfoliant but more as a helper ingredient in small amounts to adjust the pH of a formulation.
A form of skincare superstar, vitamin C. Even though we are massive vitamin C fans, Ascorbyl Palmitate (AP) is our least favorite. (Btw, if you do not know what the big deal with vitamin C is then you are missing out. You must go and read our geeky details about it.)
So, AP is one of the attempts by the cosmetics industry to solve the stability issues with vitamin C while preserving its benefits, but it seems to fall short on several things.
What's the problem?
Firstly, it's stability is only similar to that of pure ascorbic acid (AA), which means it is not really stable. A great study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology compared a bunch of vitamin C derivatives and this derivative was the only one where the study said in terms of stability that it's "similar to AA". Not really that good.
Second, a study that examined the skin absorption of vitamin C found that ascorbyl palmitate did not increase the skin levels of AA. This does not mean that ascorbyl palmitate cannot penetrate the skin (because it can, it's oil soluble and the skin likes to absorb oil soluble things) but this means that it's questionable if ascorbyl palmitate can be converted into pure Vit C in the skin. Even if it can be converted, the palmitate part of the molecule is more than the half of it, so the efficacy will not be good and we have never seen a serum that contains a decent (and proudly disclosed) amount of AP. We are highly skeptical what effect a tiny amount of AP has in a formula.
Third, another study that wanted to examine the antioxidant properties of AP was surprised to find that even though AP does have nice antioxidant properties; following UVB radiation (the same one that comes from the sun) it also promotes lipid peroxidation and cytotoxicity. It was only an in-vitro study meaning that it was done on cell cultures and not on real people, but still, this also does not support the use of AP too much.
The only good thing we can write about Ascorbyl Palmitate is that there is an in-vitro (made in the lab, not on real people) study showing that it might be able to boost collagen production.
Regarding the skin-brightening properties of pure vitamin C, this is another magic property AP does not have, or at least there is no data, not even in-vitro, about it.
Overall, Ascorbyl Palmitate is our least favorite vitamin C derivative. It is there in lots of products in tiny amounts (honestly, we do not really understand why), however, we do not know about any vitamin C serum featuring AP in high amounts. That is probably no coincidence. If you are into vitamin C, you can take a look at more promising derivatives here.
Super common little helper ingredient that helps products to remain nice and stable for a longer time. It does so by neutralizing the metal ions in the formula (that usually get into there from water) that would otherwise cause some not so nice changes.
It is typically used in tiny amounts, around 0.1% or less.
Simply alcohol refers to ethanol and it's a pretty controversial ingredient. It has many instant benefits: it's a great solvent, penetration enhancer, creates cosmetically elegant, light formulas, great astringent and antimicrobial. No wonder it's popular in toners and oily skin formulas.
The downside is that it can be very drying if it's in the first few ingredients on an ingredient list.
Some experts even think that regular exposure to alcohol damages skin barrier and causes inflammation though it's a debated opinion. If you wanna know more, we wrote a more detailed explanation about what's the deal with alcohol in skincare products at alcohol denat. (it's also alcohol, but with some additives to make sure no one drinks it).
If you have spotted ethylhexylglycerin on the ingredient list, most probably you will see there also the current IT-preservative, phenoxyethanol. They are good friends because ethylhexylglycerin can boost the effectiveness of phenoxyethanol (and other preservatives) and as an added bonus it feels nice on the skin too.
Also, it's an effective deodorant and a medium spreading emollient.
It's one of those things that help your cosmetics not to go wrong too soon, aka a preservative. It’s not a strong one and doesn’t really work against bacteria, but more against mold and yeast. To do that it has to break down to its active form, sorbic acid. For that to happen, there has to be water in the product and the right pH value (pH 3-4).
But even if everything is right, it’s not enough on its own. If you see potassium sorbate you should see some other preservative next to it too.
BTW, it’s also a food preservative and even has an E number, E202.
It’s pretty much the current IT-preservative. It’s safe and gentle, but even more importantly, it’s not a feared-by-everyone-mostly-without-scientific-reason paraben.
It’s not something new: it was introduced around 1950 and today it can be used up to 1% worldwide. It can be found in nature - in green tea - but the version used in cosmetics is synthetic.
Other than having a good safety profile and being quite gentle to the skin it has some other advantages too. It can be used in many types of formulations as it has great thermal stability (can be heated up to 85°C) and works on a wide range of pH levels (ph 3-10).
It’s often used together with ethylhexylglycerin as it nicely improves the preservative activity of phenoxyethanol.
|what‑it‑does||emollient | solvent|
|what‑it‑does||solvent | viscosity controlling|
|what‑it‑does||solvent | moisturizer/humectant|
|what‑it‑does||emollient | solvent|
|what‑it‑does||skin-identical ingredient | emollient|
|irritancy, com.||0, 1|
|what‑it‑does||skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|what‑it‑does||emollient | emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing|
|irritancy, com.||0, 1-2|
|what‑it‑does||emulsifying | surfactant/cleansing|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|what‑it‑does||antioxidant | emollient|
|what‑it‑does||skin-identical ingredient | moisturizer/humectant|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|what‑it‑does||skin-identical ingredient | antioxidant | moisturizer/humectant|
|what‑it‑does||soothing | moisturizer/humectant|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|irritancy, com.||0, 0|
|what‑it‑does||emollient | emulsifying|
|what‑it‑does||antioxidant | skin brightening | buffering|
|irritancy, com.||0, 2|
|what‑it‑does||chelating | viscosity controlling|
|what‑it‑does||antimicrobial/antibacterial | solvent | viscosity controlling|