Retinyl Propionate

Retinyl propionate is a milder, more tolerable retinoid than tretinoin and retinol that is less well-tested but may be helpful in easing wrinkles and lightening hyperpigmented spots.


Grade Level of Evidence
A Multiple double-blind, controlled clinical trials.
B 1 double-blind, controlled clinical trial.
C At least 1 controlled or comparative clinical trial.
D Uncontrolled, observational, animal or in-vitro studies only.
Grade Effect Size of Effect Comments


Wrinkle treatment


0.3% retinyl propionate is more effective than 0.15% retinol in reducing wrinkles.


Skin lightening


0.3% retinyl propionate is more effective than 0.15% retinol in improving redness and hyperpigmentation of the skin. Also improves sun spots when used together with sunscreen.


Reduced actinic keratoses


Treatment with a 0.15% retinyl propionate cream over a 48-week period may possibly improve actinic keratoses without causing serious irritation.

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Scientific Research

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Table of contents:

1. Sources

Retinyl propionate, sometimes called vitamin A propionate, is the synthetic ester of retinol and propionic acid. It is an oily liquid that is insoluble in water.

2. Bioavailability

Like the other retinoids, retinyl propionate is lipophilic, which in theory should help it penetrate the skin barrier. It also has a lower molecular weight (342.51) than retinyl palmitate (524.86), another retinyl ester that is known to be percutaneously absorbed by human skin.[1][2] However, we were not able to find any published studies or data to verify whether retinyl propionate is absorbed by the skin and metabolized to the active forms of vitamin A.

3. Effects on the skin

Retinyl propionate is a hypermitotic agent that speeds up the renewal of the stratum corneum.[3] Retinyl propionate also seems to affect the synthesis of various glycosaminoglycans, with fibroblasts exposed to it and tretinoin showing a decrease in the incorporation of glucosamine in hyaluronic acid but increases for heparan sulphate and chondroitin sulphates.[4]

The sole independent clinical study on the effects of retinyl propionate on photoaged skin was published in 1998. In this trial, 11 men and 69 women were randomly allocated to receive either 0.15% retinyl propionate cream or its placebo base in a double-blind fashion. They were instructed to apply a pea-sized amount of the assigned cream twice daily to the face, forearms and hands. 75 subjects completed the initial 24-week study period, following which 60 subjects elected to continue treatment for a further 24 weeks. No statistically significant differences between the effects of the retinyl propionate cream and its placebo were found for any of the clinical, histological or profilometric parameters of skin photoageing, although there were minimal trends towards improvement. Actinic keratoses virtually disappeared in the few subjects in the active group that had them by the end of the 48 weeks, but the difference was not significant.[5]

Since 1998, a number of studies have been published by Procter & Gamble on the effects of retinyl propionate and of a few products containing niacinamide, retinyl propionate and the peptides carnosine, Pal-KT and palmitoyl pentapeptide (Pal-KTTKS). One poster presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2002 evaluated the use of retinol and retinyl propionate both co-applied with sunscreen. Those using retinyl propionate and sunscreen showed a significant reduction in wrinkles and sunspots with no irritation, whereas the retinol-sunscreen combination exacerbated skin irritation and lessened the skin benefits.[6] A different poster presented at the same meeting compared retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate and tretinoin, and found that retinyl propionate exhibited the highest rating when evaluated for efficacy and non-irritation. 0.30% retinyl propionate also demonstrated superior reductions in wrinkles, redness and hyper-pigmentation versus 0.15% retinol.[7]

Another study detailed the results of 2 double-blind, randomized, controlled and split-face studies in women with periorbital wrinkles. 4 test products containing the aforementioned active ingredients including a daytime SPF 30 lotion, a night cream, an eye cream and a wrinkle treatment were used for 4 weeks. The daytime lotion, night cream and eye cream were significantly better than no treatment at improving the smoothness of crow's feet and the skin barrier in the first study, while in the second study the night cream, eye cream and wrinkle treatment (but not the daytime lotion) were effective in smoothing crow's feet, and the daytime lotion, night cream and eye cream (but not the wrinkle treatment) were effective in improving the skin barrier.[8] The second paper compared a cosmetic regimen comprising 3 products from the Olay Professional Pro-X line (Olay Professional Pro-X Age Repair Lotion, Olay Professional Pro-X Wrinkle Smoothing Cream and Olay Professional Pro-X Deep Wrinkle Treatment) to a prescription tretinoin regimen (Renova). 196 women participated in the study for 8 weeks, with 50 subjects continuing treatment for an additional 16 weeks. Both regimens achieved reductions in the periorbital wrinkle area fraction after 8 and 24 weeks, with no statistically significant differences between them.[9]

2 posters were also presented at the American Academy of Dermatology's 71st Annual Meeting by P&G scientists on these products. One described the outcomes of 2 double-blinded facial studies conducted in the US and in China on women with facial fine lines, wrinkles and bumpy texture who applied a facial moisturizer containing the 5 active ingredients twice daily for 12 weeks. The moisturizer improved skin appearance (fine lines and wrinkles at the eye area and bumpy texture on the cheeks) about as well as a formulation containing retinol, but produced less skin irritation.[10] The other enrolled a pair of identical twins aged 35 with visible signs of photodamage. The twin with greater photodamage was placed on a cosmetic regimen that involved an SPF 30 sunscreen, day/night moisturizers containing the 5 active ingredients, an exfoliating cleanser, and regular use of a powered facial cleaning brush, whereas the other twin remained on her usual skin care treatment program and served as a control. After 10 months, the twin on the cosmetic regimen had achieved a 20% reduction in facial hyperpigmentation as well as increases in forehead and cheek skin lightness, with the result that she now showed nearly the same level of facial hyperpigmentation and essentially the same skin colour lightness as her sister.[11] Apart from the lack of independence however, it is also difficult to distinguish whether these effects are attributable to retinyl propionate or the other active ingredients included in the formulations.

4. Side Effects

Of the 80 subjects involved in an independent trial of a 0.15% retinyl propionate cream, 8 in the active treatment group experienced irritation, redness and drying or flaking of the skin during the first 12-week treatment period. This may not be attributable to the presence of retinyl propionate however, as 10 subjects on the placebo also observed similar reactions. 2 subjects withdrew because of dermatitis, and 1 withdrew after developing new actinic keratosis-like lesions on the forearm.[5]

Several unpublished safety evaluations of topical products containing retinyl propionate have been submitted by the US Personal Care Products Council to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. In one, 33 subjects applied a facial moisturizer containing 0.3% retinyl propionate twice daily for 28 days. 2 had adverse reactions during this time; 1 had mild erythema and pruritus in the right temple area, lateral upper eyelid, and malar cheek after 1 week, while the other had a severe sinus infection. However there was little to no change in facial neck and skin irritation and dryness overall.[12] Another study evaluated a facial moisturizer containing 0.5% retinyl propionate in a cumulative irritation study involving 26 subjects. 0.2 ml of the product was applied to a 2x2 cm occlusive patch for 21 days, as were distilled water (negative control) and sodium lauryl sulphate (positive control). Unlike for sodium lauryl sulphate, there was no evidence of significant irritation for the moisturizer or distilled water.[13] 3 other studies tested the phototoxicity, photoallergenicity and skin sensitization potential, respectively, of a face cream containing 0.4% retinyl propionate on 10 subjects, and found no reactions suggestive of any.[14][15][16]

Scientific References

  1. Antille C, et. al. Penetration and metabolism of topical retinoids in ex vivo organ-cultured full-thickness human skin explants. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. (2004)
  2. Boehnlein J, et. al. Characterization of esterase and alcohol dehydrogenase activity in skin. Metabolism of retinyl palmitate to retinol (vitamin A) during percutaneous absorption. Pharm Res. (1994)
  3. Ridge BD, et. al. The dansyl chloride technique for stratum corneum renewal as an indicator of changes in epidermal mitotic activity following topical treatment. Br J Dermatol. (2006)
  4. Edward M. Effects of retinoids on glycosaminoglycan synthesis by human skin fibroblasts grown as monolayers and within contracted collagen lattices. Br J Dermatol. (2006)
  5. Green C, et. al. A clinicopathological study of the effects of topical retinyl propionate cream in skin photoageing. Clin Exp Dermatol. (1998)
  6. Oblong JE, Abel Saud A, Bissett DL. Topical retinyl propionate improves photoaged facial skin with a favorable irritation profile. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2002)
  7. Bissett DL. Topical retinyl priopionate – clinical comparison: a low irritation retinoid for diminishing wrinkles and hyperpigmentation in photoaged human skin. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2002)
  8. Kaczvinsky JR, et. al. Efficacy of anti-aging products for periorbital wrinkles as measured by 3-D imaging. J Cosmet Dermatol. (2009)
  9. Fu JJ, et. al. A randomized, controlled comparative study of the wrinkle reduction benefits of a cosmetic niacinamide/peptide/retinyl propionate product regimen vs. a prescription 0.02% tretinoin product regimen. Br J Dermatol. (2010)
  10. Osbourne R, et. al. Improved appearance of facial wrinkles with use of a cosmetic moisturizer containing retinyl propionate, peptides and niacinamide. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2013)
  11. Hillebrand G, Johnson M, Wagner T. Improvement in facial skin appearance by a cosmetic treatment regimen: A case study in identical twins. J Am Acad Dermatol. (2013)
  12. North Cliff Consultants, Inc. A 28-day ophthalmologic and dermatologic safety evaluation of a moisturizer product containing 0.3% retinyl propionate. Unpublished data submitted by the Personal Care Products Council. (2013)
  13. TKL Research, Inc. 21-day cumulative human irritation patch study (facial moisturizer containing 0.5% retinyl propionate). Unpublished data submitted by the Personal Care Products Council. (2005)
  14. KGL, Inc. Human phototoxicity test of a topical product (face cream containing 0.4% retinyl propionate). Unpublished data submitted by the Personal Care Products Council. (2001)
  15. KGL, Inc. Human photoallergy test of a topical product (face cream containing 0.4% retinyl propionate). Unpublished data submitted by the Personal Care Products Council. (2001)
  16. TKL Research, Inc. Human repeated insult patch study (facial cream containing 0.4% retinyl propionate). Unpublished data submitted by the Personal Care Products Council. (2001)