Updated: May 7, 2020
What is the difference between retinol and retinoids? We will explain all the different types of retinoids. How to use retinoids? Which retinoid is best for your skin type?
What are retinoids?
Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives. Retinoids have long been considered the gold standard for acne and anti-ageing. There are two main types of retinoids, natural and synthetic.
Both natural and synthetic retinoids behave the same way but they are different. They both activate RARs (retinoic acid receptors) in your skin. This activation is how retinoids work to trigger beneficial skin responses.
Natural retinoids activate all your skin's RARs, while synthetic retinoids activate a directed selection. Both natural and synthetic retinoids activate different RARs in your skin, the effects are different even though they are both retinoids.
The active ingredient that does all the magic is retinoic acid.
What does Retinoid do?
There have been many studies done on retinoids. Research shows that it can:
Stimulate collagen growth
Increase cell turnover rate
Reduce fine lines and wrinkles
Reduce sebaceous gland size and secretion
Decreases the chances of the mixture of sebum with dead skin cells causing clogged pores
What are the types of retinoids available? Do they all work the same?
There are many variations of retinoids.
Over the counter Retinoids: Retinyl palmitate, Retinol and Retinaldehyde
These are the most common retinoids you find in the over the counter products. There are mostly classified as retinol but they are not the same. For these ingredients to work, they all first need to be converted into retinoic acid, the active ingredient that repairs signs of ageing. They are converted into retinoic acid by your body through different rounds of conversions.
For examples, if you have a product which contains retinol, it needs two rounds of conversion before it turns into retinoic acid (first to Retinaldehyde and then to Retinoic acid) and one for Retinaldehyde. During the conversion, it is not clear as to how much of the retinol was eventually converted in the oxidation process (i.e. the retinol may not be 100% converted into retinoic acid). Therefore, the fewer the conversion steps it takes to get to retinoic acid, the stronger the retinoid. This makes tretinoin (retinoic acid) quite strong as it required no conversion and works on your skin immediately.
Adapalene is a naphthoic acid. Unlike retinoic acid, adapalene activates selected retinoic acid receptor (RAR). It targets irregular peeling of the skin, modulates cellular differentiation, and also holds anti-inflammatory properties. Due to it’s receptor selectivity, it causes less skin irritation. Adapalene has been successful for treatment of acne but not a lot of studies were conducted on anti-ageing.
The above retinoids do not need conversion as they are retinoic acid so they are stronger. In most countries, you would need a doctor’s prescription. They are not the gentlest to use so you need to exercise caution when these ingredients. Most 1st time users cannot tolerate this as nightly usage. Some might take up to 6 months to build tolerance from one a week to nightly use.
Here is a guide on retinoids strength.
Why don’t we use the strongest retinoids so we can get maximum benefits?
Many of the stronger retinoids are only available through prescription and for good reasons. They are amazing if used correctly but can have adverse effects when not.
What are the factors to look out for?
When shopping for retinoids, as with all skincare products, you need to consider
Your skin type
Your skin concerns
When can you see results?
Retinoids, unlike exfoliant acid which delivers instant visible results, take time to work. It works deeper with skin’s dermis layer. You may not see any difference for months. Especially with Tretinoin, most people may experience initial skin peeling and once that stops, they assume it stops working. On the contrary, skin peeling is an undesirable side effect. Tretinoin continues to work even when your skin stops peeling. You will notice the difference in the long run. Like all skincare products/ regime, it’s a marathon not a sprint. You need to invest in a skincare routine that suits you and your lifestyle. The only way to tell is to use it consistently.
How to use retinoids?
If you are new to retinoids, introduce it slowly. Start using them every 3rd night. Once you build tolerance, you can use to nightly.
All Retinoids are light sensitive. You only use this at night as the final step in your routine.
Applying straight after cleansing increases your chance of skin irritation.
Always use a sunscreen even when you are not using retinoids, it’s your best defence against premature ageing.
Who cannot use retinoids?
Do not use retinoids if you are planning to have a baby
Do not use retinoids during pregnancy or breastfeeding
Do not use retinol during the day. It breaks down in the sun and you will be wasting your money.
Retinoids also makes your skin sensitive to sun exposure so always use a sunscreen.
What the alternatives if you can't use retinoids?
Bakuchiol is not retinol but said to have the same effect as retinol. There has not been as much studies on Bukuchiol as Retinol. It is a plant-based alternative that can also be used in the day. That also means you will go through your product twice as fast.
Rosehip oil has been suggested as a natural alternative to retinol as it contains retinoic acid, therefore has the same properties. There is a lack of regulations around “natural” and what constitutes a product to be natural. Just because the word “retinol” is added to a natural product, it does not mean it shares the same clinical studies on effectiveness. For example, coconut oil is natural but it’s also highly comedogenic.