Retinol – what is it and why you need it!

Retinol – what is it and why you need it!

Retinol is the ingredient of choice among dermatologists, skin therapists and beauty pros for one simple reason. It works. No other ingredient can compete with the transforming powers. In this article, we'll answer all questions you might have about retinol.

Written by Maria Ahlgren, co-founder, long-time beauty editor and Beauty Director

Girl holding Moon Balm – Common Clouds gentle retinol cream

Technically, retinol is only one of many vitamin A-derivatives that are converted via chemical processes into biologically available vitamin A (retinoic acid) in the skin. Today, there are several vitamin A derivatives that perform even better and faster than retinol, and doesn't give the initial irritation and dryness that often comes with traditional retinol. In Moon Balm, we chose the clinically tested molecule Sodium Retinoyl Hyaluronate, which combines hyaluronic acid and retinoic acid. We'll deep dive into it further down in this article!

Important note! In this article, we'll refer to vitamin A-derivatives as retinol, simply because it's the most famous one in the vitamin A-family. But keep in mind that the vitamin A family tree is huge, but the final goal is always to get to the stage where retinoic acid instructs the skin cells to do all sorts of magical stuff (like stimulating collagen and elastin and increasing cell turnover to create more smooth and even skin, regulating sebum to minimise acne, reducing the look of post-blemish scarring and hyperpigmentation, and more).


Retinol is one a the greatest and most researched ingredients in the world of dermatology. In high doses, vitamin A is used as an acne treatment, and it was in acne patients that doctors noticed that the skin also became smoother, plumper and younger-looking. How was it possible? Let's take a brief history lesson.

In the late 19050s, retinoic acid (the last conversion step of before vitamin-A can bind to the skin – it's complicated!) started to gain wide recognition as an acne treatment, but soon it was noted that not only did patients' skin clear up. It aslo became more plumped and seemed to age backwards. Further studies concluded that Vitamin A-derivates promoted several healthy skin functions, like cell turnover and collagen production.

In the 1980s, retinol was made available in cosmetics that consumers could buy in lower doses, over the counter, without a medical prescription (still, there's several high-dose vitamin A-creams that are prescription only, like Tretinoin).

To date, retinol (vitamin A) is the most researched and science-backed cosmetic ingredient – and the favourite of dermatologists and skin pros alike.

However, retinol and retinoids can initially irritate and dry out skin, and might not be an option for sensitive skin. Therefore, chemists have worked hard to create molecules that give all the results of high-performing retinol, but with none or minimal irritation.


When converted into retinoic acid (the bio-available form of vitamin A/retinol), retinol serves a smorgasbord of goodness, such as:

  • Stimulating collagen and elastin and increasing cell turnover to create more smooth and even skin. This is why you'll often see retinol in products targeted at aging skin. 
  • Reversing sun damage, such as hyperpigmentation and loss of collagen.
  • Regulating sebum production in the sebaceous glands to minimise acne – this function is what put vitamin A on the map to start with. 
  • Reducing the look of post-blemish scarring and hyperpigmentation.
  • Thickening the dermis, so skin looks fuller and plumped.


YES YES and YES! Vitamin A is the golden standard in treating acne since the 1950s (!). Vitamin A is the active component both in topical acne creams and oral medication (like Isotretinoin).

However, because high doses can come with several side effects, the doses in over the counter, cosmetic products are much lower (0,3% retinol equivalent is the max limit in the European Union).

Vitamin A is also commonly used to treat teenage acne, so unlike some popular belief, it's not an unsafe option for young skin. 

When using (non-prescriptive) retinol on teenage skin, it's important that the retinol molecule used is clinically tested and doesn't increase sun sensitivity, since many teenagers don't yet have the habit of using sunscreen daily. In Moon Balm, we used clinically tested Sodium Retinoyl Hyaluronate, which is a great option also for young skin since it's non-irritating and doesn't increase the risk of sun burn. In an in vivo-study, the look of acne significally improved in 6 weeks (sebum was decreased by 36%).


Moon Balm includes a new molecule (sodium retinoyl hyaluronate) that combines hyaluronic acid with retinoic acid (the active, bio-available form of retinol that binds to vitamin A receptors in the skin). It's the love-child between two of our all-time favourite ingredients – hydration-hero hyaluronic acid and transforming retinol.

The molecule structure delivers both hyaluronic acid (THE hydration hero!) and retinoic acid deep into the skin layers, where the retinoic acid can get to work without causing any irritation on the way. It's also highly effective (actually, retinoic acid is up to 20 x more effective than retinol), so only a very low dose is needed to get the results we want. This means even a lower risk to irritate skin. In fact, in tests, none (!) of the testers showed an adverse effects.

The hyaluronic acid in the molecule, along with hydrating and moisturising power players in the formula like glycerine, squalane and shea butter, makes Moon Balm a non-drying retinol cream that is suitable also for sensitive and dry skin.

However, if you are a retinol veteran, we can also promise that you'll love Moon Balm too. It's a democratic retinol cream that loves everyone!


Traditional retinols need to be slowly introduced to the skin. Since it acts on a cellular level and increases cell turnover, it's common to experience dryness and even irritation when starting using retinol. It's also fairly common to experience a "purge" where below-surface pimples are pushed to the skin, and you get many breakouts at once. It's like when you start working out in the gym – you need to start slowly before going into daily workouts using the heaviest weights. The recommendation when starting using retinol is to start 2 night a week and increase gradually.

However, the retinol molecule used in Moon Balm has been tested for daily use, and no irritation were observed.


Most likely, yes. The retinol used in Moon Balm (Sodium Retinoyl Hyaluronate) has been tested for daily use, and no irritation were observed. The formula is made to be gentle, soothing and barrier-strengthening, and potential dryness from the retinol is combatted by hyaluronic acid and several other hydrating and moisturising ingredients. It's like the retinol (or retinoic acid to be technical) is served wrapped in a soft blanket!

But if you are a retinol newbie or very sensitive, it's always a good idea to introduce ANY new skincare product slowly. Every skin is different and unique – skincare is ALWAYS a game of "no size fits all". You have to listen to your skin and it unique needs – and remember that skin always fluctuates with hormones, stress levels, illness and lifestyle factors.

There might be a brief period of "purge" when introducing Moon Balm, and you can experience some initial breakouts. This is a normal reaction when cell turnover increases. Over time, the retinol in Moon Balm will act to stabilise your sebum levels and reduce the likelihood of breakouts.


If you have acne-prone skin, retinol (vitamin A) and salicylic acid (the BHA-acid) are THE must-have ingredients in your skincare tool kit (along with azelaic acid).

Cloud Water and Moon Balm are a match made in heaven to balance and calm skin, unclog pores (Cloud Water) and prevent new breakouts.

However, if you are sensitive or new to active skincare, we suggest that you use them in separate routines. For example Moon Balm at night and Cloud Water in the morning, or on alternate days (skin cycling).

As is always the case with skincare, it's a case of "trial and error" and you have to find what works best for YOU.

In our team, we have people using Cloud Water, Cloud Milk and Moon Balm together a few nights per weeks, and others that keep Cloud Water and Moon Balm in separate routines.


Pregnant women should be careful about high levels of vitamin A. However, the major sources of Vitamin A comes from diet and supplements, NOT cosmetics. Because very high levels of vitamin A can negatively affect fetal development, acne medications like Isotretinoin (Accutane/Roaccutane) or Tretinoin are strictly off-limits for pregnant women.

The levels of active vitamin A in cosmetics are generally very low (in EU at least), and face products are usually used in small amounts (a pea-sized-isch amount) on a small area of skin (the face), so the systemic update in the body is very very low. For example, in Moon Balm we use 0,1% Sodium Retinoyl Hyaluronate. 

If you used your favourite retinol until you found out that you are pregnant, there's no need to panic. 

We can't speak for other brand's products, but you would need a whole lot of tubes of Moon Balm daily to even come close the upper recommended vitamin A intake (the safety levels include all sources, including food and supplements, which are the major sources).

However! As mothers, we know how the mind can race – especially 3 am when Google is you worst friend. To avoid worrying or conflicted feelings we suggest that you don't use Moon Balm, at least daily, when you're pregnant. For natural reasons, the product has not been tested on pregnant women. Our recommendation is purely based on protecting your peace of mind. The same goes for breast-feeding women.

If you're pregnant and looking for a safe but effective way to treat breakouts and troubled skin, azelaic acid is your best choice. Our redness-fading, hyperpigmentation-busting serum Cloud Milk contains 10% azelaic acid, and works a charm on hormonal, fluctuating skin.


You CAN, but here's the thing. Retinol molecules are often sensitive to the sun, and becomes less effective when exposed to UV-light.

You can use Moon Balm in the morning to get all the soothing, hydrating and barrier-loving effects of the other ingredients (like centella, purslane, ceramides and squalane), but the retinoic acid molecule works best at night, under the moon ;)

With that said, Moon Balm is a great, lightweight everyday moisturiser that sits great under SPF and makeup.

We hope this article answered some of your questions about retinol or Moon Balm. As you can see, we're obsessed with retinol and could never be without it in our skincare routines!

Our social media manager Dahlia after using Cloud Water, Cloud Milk and Moon Balm in her routine for 6 weeks.


Yes, teenagers who are experiencing breakouts or acne can safely use retinol. In fact, vitamin A-creams are commonly prescribed by dermatologists to treat teenage acne and clear breakouts. Vitamin A in the form of retinoic acid has been used to treat acne since the 1950s, and is one of the most studied and clinically backed ingredients in dermatology and skincare.

However, it's important to choose products that are specifically formulated to target acne, and that is gentle enough to suit young skin. The retinol molecule we use in Moon Balm (which combines hyaluronic acid and retinoic acid)  is clinically tested to reduce sebum production in the oil glands, and visibly improving the look of troubled skin in 6 weeks, without irritation. Moon Balm is also made with several calming, hydrating and barrier-strengthening ingredients, which makes it a great choice for acne-prone and sensitive skin.

Moon Balm doesn't increase the risk of sun burn, but we still recommend that you get in the habit of using SPF daily. Protecting your skin against harmful UV-rays is essential for long-term skin health. Trust us – your future self will thank you ;)

Read more and shop Moon Balm here!

Do you have any more questions about retinol or Moon Balm? Email me at


Shop Moon Balm – our deeply hydrating, soothing retinol cream

Shop Cloud Milk – 10% Azelaic acid redness-soothing serum

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