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What Is Encapsulated Retinol And Why It Is A Great Retinol Alternative

Encapsulated retinol in skincare explained.

Retinol is the most-beloved ingredient of anti-aging because it truly delivers skin-transforming benefits — no wonder it’s rarely missing from people’s beauty routines.

But as far as our love for retinol goes, it has some drawbacks that are difficult to overlook: it is aggressive. Those with sensitive skin know very well that retinol isn’t the easiest to tolerate, not to say about its drying and irritating effects. 

This is why this guy, encapsulated retinol, could be the next thing in skincare, now popping up in more and more formulations as a retinol alternative. Simply put, encapsulated retinol is thought to carry the same long-term benefits as retinol but with less irritation risk. 

But what exactly is encapsulated retinol? How does it work, and how is it different from retinol? Is it really gentler than retinol and as effective? Buckle up because these are all questions we’ll answer to in this post. First, let’s break down the basics.

What is encapsulated retinol?

Encapsulated retinol is the result of a procedure that encapsulates retinol molecules in order to control their release in skin layers.[1] Imagine it as a bubble carrying the retinol and gradually releasing it through the layers of your skin. That bubble not only protects retinol from degradation (hence it doesn’t break down as fast, having an increased shelf life), but it also makes retinol act more gently.[1] Basically, microencapsulation is an alternative method to help stabilize and overcome the irritating effects of retinol.

For the record, encapsulated retinol is also often referred to as time-release retinol.

Because the retinol molecules are slowly released into skin tissues, instead of all at once, encapsulated retinol is less likely to trigger adverse effects compared to retinol. As a note, the process can take more than several hours from the moment the ingredient touches the skin until fully activated. By the same token, due to the increased release time, encapsulated retinol allows retinol molecules to reach deeper into the skin layers, which could be even more effective.

Studies have actually confirmed that encapsulated retinol was maintained in the skin for a longer period than free retinol.[3]

How is it different from retinol?

Encapsulated retinol works similar to pure retinol; however, it delivers the benefits slightly differently. Thanks to the controlled release of retinol, encapsulated retinol travels gently through the tissues while also penetrating deeper into the skin. As such, encapsulated retinol is more tolerable and causes less irritations and dryness than retinol alone while having the same benefits.[1]

At least that’s the theory, as the research going into the benefits of encapsulated retinol is far from conclusive. 

There’s one study that shows 0.5% encapsulated retinol has the same UV-protection effects as 0.05% retinoic acid (the active form of vitamin A) with fewer side effects.[2]

Who should use encapsulated retinol

Overall, everyone can use encapsulated retinol, and people who cannot tolerate pure retinol have even more reasons to do so. Usually, those with problematic and easily reactive skin are the most excited ones to try encapsulated retinol. Besides, since encapsulated retinol mimics the skin-care effects of retinol, it’s great for addressing a wide range of skin concerns such as wrinkles, loss of firmness, lack of radiance, uneven skin tone, dark spots, and acne.

How to use encapsulated retinol

Although encapsulated retinol tends to be gentler on the skin, it is still a retinoid that can trigger sensitivities, so you should perform a patch test before applying the product. To avoid messing up with your skin, start with two times weekly applications while gradually increasing frequency to build tolerance.

Just as retinol, encapsulated retinol is best to apply at night since it increases the skin’s photosensitivity. You should always follow up with a hydrating and cell-regenerating moisturizer after your retinoid treatment to support the skin’s recovery process and reduce the chances of irritations. And never skip sunscreen!

Can you use encapsulated retinol with pure retinol?

While the general belief is that using encapsulated retinol with pure retinol wouldn’t bring any extra benefit but increase the risk of irritation, some products have included both of them in their formula — like Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum. The theory behind using encapsulated retinol and pure retinol together is that one is working deeper in skin layers while the other does its magic on the upper levels. So yes, you can use them together (but with extra caution) as long as your skin can tolerate it. 

The best products with encapsulated retinol

Here’s a list of the best products with encapsulated retinol you can include in your skincare routine: 

  • Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Night Serum – It contains a potent formula with 1.5% encapsulated retinol to boost cell turnover and visibly improve the appearance of aging marks, uneven tone, and skin firmness – Available on Amazon, $65.
  • PCA Retinol Treatment for Sensitive Skin – It’s a retinol treatment for sensitive skin combining the renewing properties of time-release retinol with the protecting effects of niacinamide – Available on Amazon, $111.
  • CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum – For a budget-friendly product containing encapsulated retinol, reach this serum. It also has ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide to calm and soften skin – Available on Ulta, $19.
  • Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum – This one combines a 5% solution of stabilized retinoid blends and botanical retinol-alternative extracts with 1% encapsulated retinol to deliver even more intense skin-renewing benefits – Available on Amazon, $85.


If your skin still gets red and irritated after using retinol, although you’ve gotten past the acclimation period, then it’s time to add retinol alternatives to your skincare arsenal. And here’s where encapsulated retinol gets on the stage. Compared to the mainstreamed retinol alternatives (which rarely mimic the effects of retinol), encapsulated retinol is literally a version of retinol — so it has the exact same benefits but with fewer side effects. 

There are also quite a few products containing encapsulated retinol specifically formulated for sensitive skin that can’t tolerate pure retinol, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to add it into your routine.

If encapsulated retinol is still causing you irritations, you’ve got three options: either you try another retinol alternative (like granactive retinoid or bakuchiol), reduce the concentration, or give up retinol at all.

And if you’re still drawn to use it, remember this: if retinol is causing damage to your skin, then you’re not getting any of its benefits.

  1. Shields CW 4th, White JP, Osta EG, Patel J, Rajkumar S, Kirby N, Therrien JP, Zauscher S. Encapsulation and controlled release of retinol from silicone particles for topical delivery. J Control Release. 2018 May 28;278:37-48. doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2018.03.023. Epub 2018 Mar 28. PMID: 29604311.
  2. Research & Development, SkinMedica, Inc. An Allergan Company. MatTek Corporation, Encapsulated Retinol (0.5%), And Retinoic Acid (0.05%) Are Equally Effective At Protecting Against Uv-induced Damage In Epiderm-ft Tissues.
  3. Failloux, N., Baron, M.-H., Abdul-Malak, N. and Perrier, E. (2004), Contribution of encapsulation on the biodisponibility of retinol. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 26: 71-77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0412-5463.2004.00206.x
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