A history lesson in Retin-A
Gather round kiddies — it’s story time! We’re going to weave a web of alchemy, Pope-dom, Jack Daniels, prison, and the search for the fountain of youth — combining history and science in the story of how Retin-A came to be… and how it almost didn’t happen.
An article in Allure magazine recently turned us on to the adventures (and misadventures) of one particular University of Pennsylvania medical school professor named Albert Kligman, who made that one giant leap and discovered what is now considered the gold standard in anti-aging — Retin-A.
We begin our tale in the groovy 1960’s, when dermatologists were focusing less on anti-aging and more on treating debilitating skin diseases. Kligman, while researching treatments like psoriasis and acne, took an interest in a derivative of vitamin A acid called tretinoin, which German scientists had experimented with but determined was ineffective against acne.
But did that negative-Nelly analysis stop Kligman? NO. Something had switched the good professors’ light bulb on and he decided to take a second look. And here’s where the alchemy comes in (I like to embellish, but stick with me here folks.)
Having been given tretinoin in a fancy brown bottle, Kligman gave the derivative of vitamin A another shot and found that it did indeed seem to help clear the skin. Magic! But then it stopped. *Boo. But why?
A brown bottle.
Kligman sleuthed it out and found that the magical effects of tretinoin on acne stopped right around the time the potion was poured into a clear bottle. Eureka! It seemed tretinoin was not a friend of ultraviolet light, so without the protection from the sun provided by the brown bottle, the ingredient broke down and ceased to work.
A fricken’ brown bottle. Seriously folks, the lesson here is about the importance of the little things… am I right?
Anyways, Kligman dubbed the tretinoin formula Retin-A, patented it, and had it approved by the FDA for the treatment of acne in 1971. The ball was officially rolling by the time manufacturer Ortho Pharmaceutical mixed tretinoin in creams and gels to make the ingredient less irritating.
Another lightbulb went off when acne patients began reporting that their skin looked smoother and younger when using Retin-A. “Hey! This might help with wrinkles,” we imagine someone on Kligman’s crew must have said — an assertion that Kligman’s wife, being the fancy research professor that she was, confirmed with lab studies. Eureka! Enter the dawning of a whole new era of fighting wrinkles.
People rejoiced Jack Daniels (Kligman’s drink of choice) and Retin-A flowed freely, and the good people of France dubbed Kligman the Pope of Dermatology… in France. Which may have been Kligman’s final triumphant legacy, had he not had his good name sullied by the fact that, in 1998, it came to light that Kligman’s studies of other skin condition were conducted on inmates at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, including exposing the prisoners to pathogens like the herpes virus and staphylococcus bacteria — a controversy which dogged the professor for the rest of his life. In light of this little ethical foible came the overshadowing of Kligman’s many achievements and vast changes in government rules about the use of prisoners — even the willing ones — in medical experiments.
Albert Kligman, described by a colleague as “colorful” with “beautiful skin,” was determined “to know everything about skin before he died” — and according to that same colleague, he came “damn close.” His secret? “I stay out of the sun, drink Jack Daniels, and use Retin-A… only on the weekends.” The end.