Some retinol products cost $10 and some $50+ - with the same retinol concentration. What can be the difference and is it worth paying more?
Pure retinol is unstable. It loses its effectiveness fast when exposed to air, light or high temperature. Researchers first discovered the potential skin benefits of topical retinol in the 1960s. They tested it in trials, but the results were not impressive. The formulations they've tested did not stabilize it, and, as a result, the active did not work.
In the late 1990s, formulators found ways of stabilizing retinol in skincare. It involves adding antioxindants and chelating agents to the mix. This new way of using retinol is a success. Studies show that stabilized retinol works for anti-aging, acne and evening out the skin tone.
Most reputable brands that market skincare products with retinol today stabilize it. This includes the affordable brands, too. For example, The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalene uses an anti-oxidant Hydroxymethoxyphenyl Decanone, stabilizer & anti-oxidant BHT, as well as anti-oxidant compounds from two plant extracts to stabilize the Retinol. The formula also does not contain water, which helps the Retinol stability.
As you can guess from the price of The Ordinary product and similar brands, this method of stabilizing Retinol is not expensive. You can buy a very effective Retinol product for little money.
But recently, "fancier" methods of stabilizing Retinol appeared. You might have seen the terms "encapsulated" or "time-release technology" on the Retinol product labels. Retinol used in these products is a little different from the one from The Ordinary formulation. Chemists "put" this Retinol into tiny capsules made out of other ingredients (lipids, silicones, proteins, polysaccharides). These "envelopes" protect the Retinol from the destabilizing influence of air, light, water & temperature.
What is even more interesting is that they also help the Retinol to get through the skin barrier better. Once you apply such a product on your skin, it takes time for the "envelops" to dissolve (hence the term "time-release"). This way, more active retinol gets inside the skin. These "envelopes" also help to reduce the irritation risk of the retinol.
These technologies are more expensive than the "traditional" stabilization method. This is why products with "encapsulated Retinol" are more expensive. But are they worth the extra money?
We do not have good studies to show that products with encapsulated Retinol are meaningfully more effective in practice compared with "traditionally" stabilized Retinol. At the same time, most likely, they are marginally better and less irritating.
How much this difference is worth is, of course, a personal matter. If you are on a budget, you can confidently buy a "normal" stabilized Retinol. If the concentration is right, you will, most likely, get positive results from it.
If the price is less of a consideration, going for a product with encapsulated Retinol product will decrease the chance of irritation a little and might even get you better results from the same concentration. The only caveat is that encapsulated technologies differ. Some of them are more effective than others. Unfortunately, there is no way for us as consumers to guess the quality of the technology used by a particular brand. You can't tell it from the ingredient list. This is where we have to rely on the brand's reputation, clinical tests run by the brands themselves and reviews from other consumers.
Illustration from C. Wyatt Shields et al.