Retinoids: Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and Other Retinoids

Retinoid Retinol Guide Erica Bracken

While there’s no magic elixir for perfect skin (sadly!), retinoids (the umbrella term for retinol treatments, more on that below) come close.

You might have heard that products containing retinoids are incredibly good for the skin, but also that they are somewhat tricky to use properly.

The reality is that the transformative effects retinoids have on your skin are due to very potent formulations. These positive effects can come with some less appealing side effects, too when used without proper guidance.

But, please, don’t let that put you off! Read on for everything you need to know about retinoids, and go forth and reap its (almost) magic benefits.

What is Retinol?

As mentioned, retinol is part of a group of ingredients called ‘retinoids.’ These might sound pretty scientific but they are actually just different forms of Vitamin A. Each type of retinoid, or vitamin A, differs in concentration and efficacy.

The strongest are types of retinoic acid (also known as Retin-A or Tretinoin). These are only available on prescription, to treat acne and advanced signs of ageing.

There’s also a variety of retinoids available over-the-counter (OTC). They have different names and strengths, including, from strongest to weakest, retinaldehyde, retinol and retinol derivatives (called pro-retinols, such as retinyl palmitate.)

From the OTC formulas available, retinol is said to be the closest to retinoic acid. Research shows that biochemically it does exactly the same thing as retinoic acid, but it’s more gentle and takes longer to yield results.

What Effect Do Retinoids Have?

Put simply, vitamin A is one of the only ingredients proven to visibly reduce the appearance of ageing and improve the quality of your skin. Research shows that among the many benefits of vitamin A, it can stimulate the turnover of skin cells and increase collagen production.

These proven effects work to (among other benefits) reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even skin tone, treat pigmentation, brighten skin, smooth the surface of the skin, and prevent acne and blemishes.

How Long Does it Take to See Benefits?

It can take up to 12 weeks to see visible results, depending on the strength and formulation of the product you use. This is because vitamin A works on a deeper level in the skin, rather than just superficially. So even though you might not see it working straight away, know it’s beavering away deep down trigger skin cell renewal and increasing collagen.

Who Should Use Retinoids?

If you have acne you may be prescribed a retinoid by your doctor. Otherwise, in your mid to late twenties you should consider using a retinoid. This is the age that skin starts to lose the ability to retain moisture and collagen levels begin to drop. The age you start also depends on your lifestyle. If you’re a sun worshipper and/or if you smoke, you might want to start earlier.

If you’re breast feeding or pregnant it’s advised that you steer clear of retinoids entirely. Baukihol is a safe and effective alternative, however. More details on this up and coming skincare ingredient below.

What Are The Side Effects of Using Retinoids?

The side effects of retinol and other vitamin A products include: break outs (known as purging), irritation, burning, itching, and dry, flaking or peeling skin. However, if you are using over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin A products your skin should not suffer from any major side effects.

Stronger OTC treatments, when first introduced, can initially cause flushed, drier-than-usual, lightly peeling skin. But any side effects should not last for weeks on end. If they do, down-scale to a milder product until your skin adjusts.

It’s more common for prescription strength vitamin A products, prescribed by a dermatologist or doctor, to trigger side effects. This is more likely to occur as you are using medical strength drugs and the effects will be safely monitored under the care of a medical professional.

What Retinoids Should I Use?

You can’t simply slap any retinoid product onto your skin, you have to build up a tolerance and gradually add it into your skincare regime in order to avoid unwanted side effects.

When it comes to choosing a retinoid product you need to consider three things: form of retinoid (e.g retinol versus more gentle retinol esters), concentration (the % of the chosen form), and delivery method, or formulation.

With all of this in mind it can be quite confusing to gauge how effective retinoids actually are, and which is right for your skin. For example, 0.025% tretinoin is far stronger than 1% retinol. In general, if you’re starting out try using a retinol between 0.1 and 0.2% strength and build up to 1%.

A good rule of thumb is once you’ve finished an entire tube, and you’ve not experienced any side effects, you can think about levelling up the strength of the next retinoid product you buy.

Another watch out is that there are many products available that state that they contain a form of vitamin A, but in reality contain little to none of it. Chose products that clearly state the percentage on their products.

Formulation of retinoid products can also make a big difference to their efficacy and likelihood to cause any side effects. Some new products buffer the retinoid in a more gentle formula as it enters skin, or drip-feed the ingredient into skin over time. Look for ‘encapsulated’, ‘drone’ or ‘time-release’ technology on packaging. You’ll usually pay more for these high-tech products.

Retinoids are most often found in serum form. You’ll also find retinoids included in moisturisers. These won’t be as potent, but are an option if you have sensitive skin and want to wean yourself onto retinoids.

When To Apply Retinoids?

It’s advisable only to use retinoids at night as part of your evening skincare routine. This is because they increase skin’s sun sensitivity, so don’t forget your SPF in the morning.

How to Apply Retinoids?

Apply retinoids to skin after cleansing. Apply directly to dry skin, this reduces the potential for irritation. If you’ve been using retinoids for an extended period of time, try applying to damp skin to see better results.

You can simply leave it at that, or follow with other products. These always go on after retinoids and you should leave the retinoid for 15-20 minutes to dry before applying anything else. If you’re new to retinoids, or are introducing a stronger product, it can be helpful to ‘buffer’ it by applying a moisturiser or mild facial oil.

How Much Retinoid to Apply?

A pea sized amount is all you need. Don’t apply a lot, thinking it will work faster. It won’t. When it comes to retinoids less is more. Applying more than you need can trigger an increase unwanted side effects, won’t increase positive benefits, and wastes products.

How Often Should You Apply Retinoids?

Because of it’s potency, depending on the strength, it’s recommended not to use vitamin A every day.

When you are first using retinoids, start with the lowest strength available and introduce slowly on a twice weekly basis to your night time routine. As your skin adjusts you might find you can use it more frequently, eventually upping to 5-7 nights per week.

Are There Any Alternatives to Retinoids?

Bakuchiol (pronounced ba-koo-heel) is often heralded as a gentle alternative to retinol. While Bakuchiol is not part of the retinol family, initial research shows it can have similar effects without causing any of the common adverse reactions which can occur with retinol.


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