So you’ve seen retinol, retinal, retinoid, retinoic acid, and tretinoin either in articles, on social media, or where ever you get your updates about anti-aging skincare.

It’s even been called the “holy grail” of anti-aging skincare because it is effective. But you have to stay consistent with it in your routine.

But maybe you’re left wondering, what’s so special about this ingredient that makes it so much better than others?

Well, you have come to the right place because I’m gonna explain it all!

So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and get ready to finally understand this magical anti-aging ingredient!

What is retinol?plaque with vitamin A, retinol, and retinol molecule on it

Retinol is a fat soluble vitamin A1 that you can find in food you eat, like eggs, dairy products, oranges, and yellow fruits. Actually, it has several functions in the body, such as with vision, cell growth, the immune system, and even reproduction.

In skincare, though, it improves skin texture, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, promotes collagen production, and clears acne.

Types of retinol/retinoids

There are several types of retinol that you can use for anti-aging, acne, and skin conditions, such as psoriasis. However, not all of them can be effective for anti-aging.

They are classified into 2 main categories, over-the-counter and prescription. The potency and effectiveness of the forms can also vary.

1. Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin)- Retinoic acid is the only form of vitamin A that our skin can utilize. So, Tretinoin is the active form of vitamin A. This means it doesn’t have to go through any conversions to become retinoic acid.

This molecule is extremely small and can easily penetrate the skin. In contrast, other retinoids have larger molecules and need more conversions. The number of conversions needed determines the strength of a retinoid.

Tretinoin is only available by prescription. Even though it’s very effective, it has the potential to be very irritating to skin.

Uses: Anti-aging, acne,hyperpigmentation, keratosis pilaris, actinic keratosis

Most Common Stengths: 0.25%, 0.5%, & 0.1%

2. Retinaldehyde (Retinal)- Because of its small molecular size and ability to convert quickly into retinoic acid, retinaldehyde is considered the most potent over-the-counter retinoid.

 However, it may cause irritation, particularly for those who are new to using retinoids.

Uses: Anti-aging, acne, hyperpigmentation, enlarged pores 

 Most Common Strengths: 0.01% to 0.2%

3. Retinol- For retinol to be effective in the skin, it needs to undergo a two-step process of conversion to retinoic acid. The first step involves conversion to retinaldehyde, followed by conversion to retinoic acid within the cell. Despite the need for two conversions, retinol is still highly effective in the skin.

Retinol is known for its instability because of the presence of a hydroxy group, showed by the “ol” in its name, which readily reacts with various elements such as temperature, air, water, and light. 

If retinol degrades in a container, it cannot be transformed into retinoic acid when applied to the skin. To prevent this, it is recommended to use airless packaging when producing products containing retinol.

To prevent the premature decomposition of retinol, it is important to keep it out of light. Retinol products should not come in transparent packaging as they are not photostable.

 It is also advisable not to use retinol during the day because UV rays can lead to photosensitivity and phototoxicity on the skin.

Uses: Fine lines, wrinkles, acne, hyperpigmentation, sun spots, uneven skin texture

Most Common Strengths: 0.01% to 2%

4. Retinyl Esters- The common retinyl esters are retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate. These retinoids are classified as the mildest, but they are also the least bothersome, making them ideal for individuals with delicate skin or those who are new to retinoids. 

They comprise bigger molecules that need to undergo a three-step transformation to become retinoic acid. 

This type of retinoid is preferred by most skincare brands, as it is more stable compared to retinol.

Uses: Fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, uneven texture 

Most Common Strengths: 0.1% to 2%

5. Adapalene (Differin)- Topical retinoid most commonly used to treat acne. It works by reducing inflammation and preventing new acne from forming.

It has also been useful in reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. Other uses include alopecia areata, skin discoloration from acne, and photoaging.

Strengths: 0.1% OTC & 0.3% By Prescription

6. Tazarotene- they consider Tazarotene to be more powerful than tretinoin and is the strongest topical retinoid available, with higher concentrations than tretinoin.

 It may be more effective for severe acne. However, it can also be more irritating to the skin compared to tretinoin.

If you have significant sun damage on your face, tazarotene may provide quicker results compared to tretinoin. In a study, tazarotene was found to be more effective in treating photodamage, fine wrinkles, mottled hyperpigmentation, and coarse wrinkles.

However, tretinoin is the cheaper one of the two.

Strengths: Gel  0.05%/30g- 0.05%/100g & 0.1%/30g- 0.1%/100g 

If there is not a strength listed on the container, it usually means the strength is below 0.25%.

Of course, the higher the strength, the quicker the results.

What can retinoids do for your skin?lady looking at skin in mirror

While you can probably guess by now, from the list above, the benefits of incorporating a retinoid in your routine, let’s find out exactly what they can do for you.

1. Stimulate cell turnover- They help increase skin cell production, which promotes getting rid of old skin cells and growing new ones. This will give you a fresh and more youthful appearance.

2. Collagen production- Stimulates collagen production by stimulating fibroblasts to synthesize collagen fibers, which will reduce fine lines and wrinkles and plump up your skin.

3. Unclogs pores- This helps get rid of acne and prevents future breakouts.

4. Exfoliates- By promoting exfoliation, it will even out skin tone and texture.

5. Fades dark spots- By promoting skin cell turnover and inhibiting melanin production, it will reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots caused by hormonal changes, sun damage, or acne scars.

6. Treats acne- Will unclog pores and reduce inflammation as well as prevent future breakouts.

7. Increases skin thickness- By stimulating collagen and elastin production.

It can also treat other skin conditions listed above, depending on which retinoid you choose.

Side effects

Even though retinoids are extremely beneficial for anti-aging concerns, acne, etc, they can also come with some unwanted side effects.

These side effects include:

1. Skin irritation- This can be redness, peeling, and burning sensations.

2. Dryness- Can cause the skin to become dry and flaky.

3. Sun sensitivity- Increases your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight so you should always wear sunscreen, SPF 30 or above, to protect your skin.

4. Acne purge- Although it’s not too common, some people have experienced a worsening of acne before it started getting better.

They have reported oral retinoids to cause headaches, nosebleeds, and general pain.

How to avoid or minimize side effects

First of all, if you’re new to using retinol, you’ll want to start slow. By slow, I mean using only as of a strength as your skin can tolerate without side effects.

You can also start by applying it once or twice a week at first and then build up to every night

Which brings me to my next point.

While there are some retinoids that you can use during the daytime, most you use at night. The sunlight will decrease its effectiveness.

Always wear sunscreen when using a retinol/retinoid product. As you have already learned, they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.

SPF 30 or above is best. If you’re going to be out in the sun, be sure to reapply SPF often. 

It’s really best to limit sun exposure when using retinoids, though.

Always use a moisturizer. This will help keep your skin from drying out and peeling.

You can also use a hyaluronic acid serum or moisturizer with hyaluronic acid to help maintain your skin’s hydration.

Another little trick you can try is if the retinol seems too strong for your skin, you can apply your moisturizer first, then the retinol.

It will help keep side effects at bay.

Avoid other exfoliating products while using retinol. At least until your skin can tolerate the use of both. 

I can use a glycolic acid exfoliator in the morning, but I never use it at night with my tretinoin.

If you have sensitive skin, though, you probably don’t want to attempt it!

Avoid other products that can dry out your skin. This includes astringents, toners, or medicated cleansers because you don’t want to overdry your skin and these could also cause irritation when paired with retinoids.

It may go without saying, but don’t use it on your lips or eyelids. 

Do not use retinol/retinoids if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding. It can cause Fetal Retinoid Syndrome and birth defects. It can also be absorbed into the bloodstream and passed on to the baby through breastmilk.

How long does it take to work?

Honestly, there are several ways to answer this.

Because it depends on which retinoid and strength you are using, along with what skin condition you are treating.

It may take OTC retinol 6 months to produce the same results that a prescription can in a matter of weeks.

Also, acne and fine lines may fade much quicker than sun damage and deeper wrinkles.

Your skin cells turnover approximately every 28 days, so you should give any new product at least that much time to work.

If 3 months have gone by and you don’t notice any improvement at all, then it’s time for a change.

 If you are noticing improvement, stick with it because you’ll see even more by the time you get to the 6 and 12 month mark.

Take a before and after picture and compare them side by side. It really is the easiest way to see if anything has changed!

When you’re ready

When you decide you’re ready for prescription tretinoin, you no longer have to go to the doctor’s office for your prescription!

You can do it all online now! As long as they’re able to where you live.

However, you have 2 great choices, Agency and Dermatica.

You can get started with a free trial with both and only pay about $5 for shipping.

They both will customize your formula tailored to you and your skincare goals based on your skin quiz. Both have licensed dermatologists.

With Agencyyou’ll get your personalized formula, a cleanser, and a moisturizer.

With Dermaticayou get your personalized formula.

I have personally tried both and they are both great. They start you off slow, you’ll have skin check-ins, and they increase the strength gradually if you want.

If you ever have questions, both are quick to respond.

I have continued to use Dermatica because I only wanted to receive the prescription formula. Don’t get me wrong, the cleanser and moisturizer that Agency sends are great, but I just have my favorites that I prefer using.

So, what are you waiting for?

Get started on meeting your skincare goals now by clicking the links below!

Check out Agency                                           Check out Dermatica

Agency Skincare

What’s your experience with retinol/retinoids? Let me know below.

Or do you have any questions? I am happy to answer!



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