What's The Deal With Retinoids?

Hello again! Welcome to our second post on aging, as part of our month-long focus on this hot skin care topic. Today I'm here to talk a little more about retinoids. Retinoid acid, as you may already know, is essentially a form of Vitamin A. It can also be referred to as Retin-A, Retinol, Retinaldehyde, or Retinyl Palmitate along with a host of other names. I'll get into the differences in a moment, but for all intents and purpose today, I'm going to use the all-encompassing term retinoid when talking about these products.

As ingredients for aging go, retinoids are kind of the mother of them all. Most anti-aging gurus will tell you that retinoids are a must-have for keeping the skin youthful and combatting other skin issues. But they can also be extremely potent and damaging if used incorrectly with your skin. I will candidly admit here, that I have yet to consistently incorporate a retinol into my daily care routine. Finding the right retinol and using the right amount can be tricky. I'll talk about the alternatives later on, too.

That said, skin care pros love retinoids because they do have some amazing benefits and can produce some of the best long-term results for your skin. Let's take a look at the basics of this super ingredient, so that you can make an educated decision when using it for yourself.

What is it and how does it work?

The idea behind retinoids is primarily to increase cellular turnover. As we age, our natural skin regeneration process slows down, just a little more each year. Retinoids are able to kick it back into gear, forcing your skin to perform more like that of someone in their 20s. They can also help stimulate collage and elastin, increase hydration and fight off conditions such as acne or pigmentation.

Formula matters

Most forms of retinoids are derived from the same source (vitamin A) but vary greatly from there. The ingredient is commonly found in night creams, but also some serums, spot treatments and even some chemical peels. Retinoic Acid in pure form can be too harsh and is not suitable for all skin. Derivatives such as Retin-A however, can be converted to retinoic acid when applied topically are less irritating or inflammatory.

The potency of retinoids will vary greatly. From prescription strength to over the counter. It's important to pay attention to what percentage you are using and follow the advice of your skin care professional when using these products.

Technology is advancing, and many skin care companies continue to work on different delivery systems, making retinoid ingredients gentler, more effective and better able to penetrate the skin.

Where to Start

You can start using a retinol in your 20s, as preventative skin care, and most estheticians recommend that everyone start by their 30s. Starting earlier can help undo visible sun damage that has already occurred and prevent future sun spots.

Retinoids are also a key ingredient in preventing wrinkles. By keeping the skin's turnover going at a healthy pace, your skin will exfoliate itself naturally and this helps diminish the appearance of those fine lines. It can also help with hormonal acne.

Retinoids can take up to a couple of months, to produce visible results. For this reason, it's important to stick with your product and be consistent. Not being consistent will not only not produce results, but if you fail to condition your skin with a regular routine, you are more likely to experience irritation or other adverse effects.

With any new product, but especially with retinoids, I recommend starting out slow. Once or twice a week on a low dosage and then work your way up to greater potency and/or more application, as long as your skin is tolerating it. If you're young and you feel like once or twice per week is enough, there's nothing wrong with sticking to that. You can also adjust as needed, but try to keep consistent.


Retinoids tend to be beloved because of their ability to target so many issues in one pop. However, if you can't use retinoids for whatever reason - pregnancy, sensitivity, other contraindications - you can still find ingredient-alikes to meet various anti-aging needs. For example arbutin or hydroquinone can be used to treat pigment. Vitamin C and lactic acid work for brightening. Peptides will target your fine lines and wrinkles and boost collagen production. You can get your antioxidant fix from a host of other products containing vitamin E and Niacinamide (a vitamin B derivative).

For exfoliation glycolic acid is a good alternative that can be found in various products and treatments. Although facials are not a complete substitute for at-home exfoliation, professional treatments can also help stimulate cellular turnover.

Another product I like to start people on before retinoids is a gentle exfoliating serum such as the Beta-Carotene Papain Renewal Serum from Skin Script RX. This product uses fruit enzymes and beta-carotene, which is considered a pre-cursor to vitamin A. It's also buffered with fatty acids and ingredients like aloe to soothe the skin and repair your natural barrier.

Other things to know

It is important to be aware that retinoids are contraindicated for some conditions. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should stop using retinol products throughout, as they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. You should also stop using your retinol about a week prior to any professional exfoliation treatment such as a chemical peel or dermaplane treatment. The same goes for waxing. Avoid using retinoids near areas that you planned to have waxed such as your upper lip or eyebrow area and be honest with your skin care professional about your usage. A simple brow wax can result in lifted skin, if retinoid usage has thinned the skin in that area.

Retinoids can make the skin more sensitive, which is why it is recommended that you only apply these products at bedtime and you will want to be even more diligent about SPF. In fact, if you spend a lot of time in the sun or if your skin is naturally somewhat sensitive, retinoids are typically not recommended.

If you're skin starts to flake, peel or feel irritated, this is usually a sign that you are using too much retinoid. Overuse can cause the skin to become thinned and more translucent. At this point, backing off can be a simple fix. This is also why I recommend starting out on retinol only 1 or 2 nights per week and then working your way up. Your skin needs time to adjust to potent ingredients and overdoing it could result in damaged skin.

Although they can be a little intimidating, retinoids used correctly can offer some amazing age-management benefits. If you still aren't sure where to start, feel free to get in touch. I am happy to help you find a solution that works for your skin.

<3 Jenny

About the blog:

This is a blog about everyday skin health. As an esthetician I strive to provide comprehensive skin care advice and knowledge to anyone who wants to know more.

Read on and please don't hesitate to reach out! I love educating people about their skin and am always happy to respond to questions.

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