The Ultimate Guide to Retinoids

Retinoid, not retinol.
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Nov, 2022
The Ultimate Guide to Retinoids and types

Not to be dramatic, but this one article might change the future of your skin forever. That’s because unless you’re a dermatologist, you might not know what retinoids and retinoid types are—which are not quite interchangeable with retinol. 

Retinoid is a term that includes retinol, tretinoin, and other types of vitamin A products that you can use for anti-aging and acne. Different kinds of retinoids can be used to help improve your skin and reduce the signs of aging.

So, what do retinoids do, what are the different types, and how might they help your skin? Welcome to your ultimate guide to retinoids.

What Exactly Are Retinoids?

What Exactly Are Retinoids

All retinoids are derived from vitamin A—but what exactly are they, and what do retinoids do?

Retinoids include different types of retinoids that can work differently on your skin. Some of these are prescription-strength products that you can only get from a dermatologist. Others, which are typically included under the umbrella term “retinol,” are available over the counter.

When you apply a retinoid to your skin, it’s already in its retinoic acid form and is ready to be utilized. However, when you use retinol, it needs to react with oxygen and convert to retinoic acid, which is a form your skin can utilize to reap all of the amazing benefits of this skincare ingredient. This is part of the reason why over-the-counter (OTC) retinol is less irritating, albeit less effective than prescribed retinoids.

Retinoids can come in many forms, including moisturizers, serums, and gels. All retinoids should be used at night, and always use sunscreen in the morning to protect against the sun sensitivity retinol can cause.

When asking what retinol does for your skin, it’s important to remember that although retinoids and retinol definitely work, they are not right for every skin type, and different forms may not be right for your specific skin type.

How Retinoids Work

How Retinoids Work

Retinoids were initially used to treat acne; however, it quickly became apparent that they didn’t just help breakouts but also corrected visible signs of aging, including wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Retinoids can also improve skin tone and texture.

So how do retinoids do all this?

Your skin goes through a natural process called cellular turnover. During cellular turnover, your skin replaces old, damaged skin cells with healthy new ones. You can think of this almost as an exfoliation process. However, as you age, this process naturally slows down, which can result in a dull, tired complexion and accumulated damage. 

Combine slower cellular turnover with reduced collagen production, and you have skin that can have more dark spots, wrinkles, and skin laxity

Retinoids speed up the cellular turnover process, helping those old, damaged cells get replaced more quickly, even as you age. The result is younger, healthier-looking skin with fewer noticeable wrinkles and dark spots.

What does retinol do for your skin? It helps increase collagen and cellular turnover to reverse age-related and environmental damage. It also keeps skin looking younger and healthier with an improved tone and texture. Retinoids can even help encourage new blood vessels to form, which can help improve the color of your skin. 

Types of Retinoids

Types of Retinoids

There are different types of retinoids, although they all are derived from vitamin A. The following are the most popular types of retinoids used today:

  • Adapalene 

This is a prescription retinoid that is also called Differin and is generally prescribed for acne.

  • Retinol 

Retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) skincare ingredient that is not as concentrated as prescription forms. It can come from both animal and plant sources naturally, but many forms found in skincare products are synthetic.

  • Retinaldehyde 

As one of the strongest retinoids available OTC, this vitamin A derivative is the closest you can get to tretinoin without a prescription.

  • Retinyl palmitate 

As its name implies, retinyl palmitate is retinol mixed with palmitic acid (a type of fatty acid naturally found in palm oil). It’s less potent than retinol, but that also means fewer side effects.

  • Tazarotene

This is also a prescription-strength retinoid that goes by Avage or Tazorac and can be prescribed for acne or psoriasis.

  • Tretinoin 

You may know tretinoin better than Retin-A, a prescription-strength retinoid that you can use for acne, photoaged skin, and wrinkles.

Which type is right for you will vary based on your specific skin type, your skincare goals, and which products you already use. 

Are Retinoids Right for You?

Are Retinoids Right for You

If you’ve ever wondered what retinol is for your skin, you may have come across its side effects. Retinol and other retinoids can cause side effects while your skin is adjusting to the product. Burning, flaky, and red skin are all common reactions to retinoids. Some people also see scaly skin or experience itchy skin.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t use retinoids. These reactions are more common in people who use higher concentrations of the product, such as prescription-strength retinoids.

Retinaldehyde and retinol are less irritating forms of retinoids compared to tretinoin and tazarotene. If you have sensitive skin or reactive skin, it may be a good idea to consider using a milder retinoid rather than stronger concentrations.

Prescription-strength retinoids won’t be necessary for every person who wants younger, healthier-looking skin. Often, OTC products can help improve skin without the higher risk of side effects. However, if you think a prescription-strength product would be right for you, talk to your dermatologist.

You can avoid many of the common side effects of retinoids by using the product as directed and only using retinol twice a week to start before working up to daily use. This can help minimize any reaction and give your skin time to acclimate to the product.

Take Our Free Skin Type Quiz Now

Knowing which types of retinoids would be best for you will depend on your specific skin type. Don’t know YOUR skin type, or has it been a while since you’ve evaluated your skin? Find out your skin type now by taking our free quiz and get started on your journey to healthy, beautiful skin at any age! 

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