Why Use Retinoids and How To Choose?

Retinoids, or vitamin A derivatives, really function as the A in the ABCs of active skincare. This whole class of ingredients has been considered skincare royalty since their discovery, treating everything from acne and hyperpigmentation to lines and wrinkles. However, retinoids do come with a few trade-offs. 

They’re also often known for their side effects of redness, flaking, and stinging. But with proper use, most of these retinol side effects can be toned down to a minimum so you can reap all those anti-aging benefits. 

In this article, we’ll break down the category, and then figure out the differences between different types of retinoids in stores, how to find the best one for your skin needs, and how much of it to use to maximize your retinoid experience with minimal irritation.

Why Use Retinoids?

Retinoids have one of the longest histories of testing and use and have been found to treat acne, wrinkles, and pigmentation. Consider this category the gold standard when it comes to wrinkle-fighting because of its ability to promote collagen production and prevent collagen degradation. 

Collagen actually makes up roughly 75% of the dry weight of your skin. With its tight-knit, triple-helix structure, it is responsible for the skin’s overall structural integrity. As such, the loss of collagen over time is a root cause of wrinkles and sagging.

Collagen doesn’t live forever. The most abundant collagen in your skin, collagen 1, has a life span of about 30 years. This presents a unique challenge, because as you age, a buildup of modifications and cross-links occurs with the old collagen, leading to collagen fragmentation (aka wrinkles, sagging, and everything that will just bum you out.) This can be aggravated by the accumulation of sun damage, but also just by time itself. 

Even worse, it’s difficult for fibroblasts to completely remove these modifications, and they can’t be incorporated into new collagen, disrupting the structural integrity of the dermis. Additionally, with collagen fragmentation, there’s a loss of sites where the fibroblast can attach, stretch out, and happily signal for procollagen production. Thus, collagen fragmentation is another root cause of our chronoaging (natural-aging) wrinkle worries.

The good news is that the retinoids are here to save the day. Retinoids interact with your skin’s retinoic acid receptors (RARs) to stimulate collagen production, improve fibroblast proliferation, and prevent collagen degradation. Of the many anti-aging ingredients out there, retinoids are some of the only ingredients proven to cover the full spectrum of collagen protection and promotion.

Speaking of full spectrum, we also cannot forget that this category is also backed by a plethora of studies in treating severe acne and postacne pigmentation, too. In fact, many people’s first experience with retinoids may come from acne treatments.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “It sounds like retinoids literally do everything. Sign me up!” Well, not everything is perfect. Using retinoids does come with some challenges and annoyances. For the most part, this category of ingredients is not the most stable bunch, and easily degrades (read: more headaches for chemists!). 

There are also the notorious side effects of peeling, sensitivity, and redness, which have deterred many. Finally, not all retinoids are alike, but with a little bit of guidance, you’ll find this to be an active ingredient you’ll use throughout your lifetime.

Types of Retinoids

The term retinoids is actually an umbrella name for all the vitamin A ingredients you can score on the market. For example, retinoic acid, retinol, and retinyl palmitate are all part of the bigger retinoids family.

But with all the retinoids on the market, how can we keep track of them all? You can generally break them into three classes: prescription, over the counter (OTC), and cosmetic.

Prescription: Let’s visit the dermatologist!

Product Name % Recommended for Benefit
Accutane N/A Severe cystic acne Oral medication. Not typically the first mode of treatment prescribed
Tazorac 0.1% Acne, postacne hyperpigmentation Shows sold benefits and treating postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and acne in darker skin tones
Retin-A 0.01-0.1% Severe acne, wrinkles The gold standard retinoid; the longest history of skin benefits

Listed above is a few commonly prescribed retinoids. In order to obtain any of these, you’ll need to take a trip to the dermatologist’s office. These retinoids are typically used to treat moderate to severe acne. We highly recommend that if you are struggling to manage your acne breakouts, it’s time to seek out a good dermatologist. Derms will be able to diagnose your acne and come up with a tailored course of treatment. We truly believe a derm partnership will be essential if you want to get serious about tackling your acne.

Over the counter (OTC): Let’s hit the pharmacy!

Product Name % Recommended for Benefit
Adalene 0.1% Acne, hyperpigmentation Gentler than tretinoin or retinol, with sold data about treating acne

Adapalene recently became available as an OTC ingredient, and we couldn’t be more excited. A newer member of the retinoid family, this synthetic retinoid has been shown to be more gentle than tretinoin, but still effective in treating mild to moderate acne. There’s even data that suggests it can help with postacne marks. Use an adapalene gel before your moisturizer step. Even though it is more gentle than tretinoin, we still recommend pairing this with a good, soothing moisturizer to keep any added dryness or potential irritation to a minimum.

In stores: Let’s go shopping!

Product Name % Recommended for Benefit
Retinol 0.1-1.0% Wrinkles, pigmentation The gold standard retinoid that you can buy in stores. Very effective and commonly found.
Retinal 0.1-1.0% Wrinkles Not as easy to find in products because of serious stability issues. But an alternative to retinol if you’re looking for something with slightly more efficacy
Retinyl palmitate -1% The trash can. This one is pointless. We find nothing beneficial about this ingredient.
Hydroxiypinacolone retinoate, granactive retinoid -1% People with sensitive skin looking for something more gentle New kid on the block with not a lot of data available; recent findings show that this gentle alternative also provides anti-wrinkle benefits
Plant retinol 0.5-1% Sensitive skin types, acne New kid on the bloc, also known as a “plant alternative” to retinol. Not a lot of data is available. 

Since neither retinol nor retinaldehyde is the most stable of actives to work with, many companies have developed different versions to achieve three main goals: more stability, less irritation, and prolonged efficacy. Of these new-gen retinoids, the ones that have caught the most traction are hydroxypinacolone (HPR) and bakuchiol (a plant-based ingredient). 

Our chart shows preliminary concentrations for tested effective levels, but we should mention that for any new ingredient like these two, there’s still a lot of data required to really understand how these actives work and the mechanism that’s giving those skin benefits. While the verdict is still out, we do recommend these alternatives for those who have really struggled with retinol and retinal.

Between retinol and retinal, retinal is actually the more potent of the two.

Sadly, it’s very difficult to find because retinal is annoyingly even more unstable than retinol. Thus, retinol is truly the gold standard retinoid that you can readily buy at the cosmetic level, and the data does support it. It has a long history of data showing its ability to tackle wrinkles and even pigmentation, but it’s one of the more fussier actives to incorporate. 

It also comes with those side effects of redness, flaking, dryness, and stinging, so it’s important to add this into your routine slowly and start at a lower concentration. Once you have a good idea of how your skin behaves on retinol, you’ll be able to reap all the benefits. 

Things to Consider When Choosing Retinoids

Don’t let the phrase “cosmetic grade” fool you—retinol is a potent molecule. But its place in the cosmetic section means that it takes some detective work to discern winning products from questionable ones. One of the most important considerations is that retinol is not the most stable molecule. (It’s really a big problem for the whole retinoid family.) Retinol is sensitive to light, air, and heat. Exposing retinol formulas to the elements can lead to an untimely retinol death before it can even deliver its benefits to your skin.

Packaging

The package should be a big deciding factor in your search for retinol products, as it can help sustain the product’s shelf life by limiting the amount of air it’s being exposed to and shielding the formula from light. Aluminum tubes with a tiny nozzle are the ideal packaging, with the least amount of oxygen exposure. Airless pumps are the next best in terms of protecting the formula. Dropper bottles are pretty “meh.” They can help minimize light, but you still expose the formula to air every time you open it. And just say no to jars.

Formula Consideration

Concentration is key. With a potent active like retinol, it’s even more true. Opt for a product that tells you how much retinol they use. (We recommended between 0.1% and 1%.) 

Also, be on the lookout for good supporting ingredients. Another chemist-favorite active, niacinamide, has been shown to reduce the irritation of retinol. We love products that combine the two!

Storage

For any active ingredient that isn’t stable, think “vampire” settings: Store your retinoids in cool, dark places, out of the sunlight, to extend shelf life.

Use

Retinol is best between 0.1% and 1%. The most important thing here is how to use it while minimizing the pain of shedding, sensitivity, and redness. The general approach is to go slow: If you’re a beginner, start with a 0.1–0.3% dose of retinol. 

Try to use it two or three times a week, and monitor how skin reacts. If there’s minor flaking or redness, but no lingering stinging, stay the course. Remember that everyone’s skin is different and thus tolerates ingredients differently. Some people will stay on a 0.1% dose for years before starting to work their way up.

How To Start Using Retinoids?

Retinol is one of the main retinoids you can purchase in stores that can provide pigmentation help.

Tretinoin is a prescribed topical that’s commonly used for acne treatment and is the gold standard retinoid. Seek out a derm.

For beginners, start in the 0.1–0.3% concentration range. Use 2–3 times a week until your skin has acclimated.

For experts, you’re working your way up to 0.5– 1.0%. Still consider starting out at 2–3 times a week until the skin has acclimated.

For sensitive skins, sometimes it’s just not meant to be; look into alternatives such as hydroxypinacolone retinoate or bakuchiol. Seek out OTC synthetic retinoid adapalene in drugstores.

For acne skins, start slow with just 2–3 applications a week. Typical acclimation takes anywhere from one to six months. Patience is key! f you have a good handle on your skin’s irritation moments with retinoids, you’ve mastered your retinoid routine.

Troubleshooting Your Routine

Just like all the other actives, it’s possible retinol might not be a good fit. There will be a select few of you who, even at a 0.1% concentration, will continuously struggle with the irritation. That’s just the way it goes; skin has a sense of humor like that. To help you troubleshoot your retinoid situation, here are a few checkpoints you can consider:

The irritation is irritating! You’ve been struggling for a long, long time with the shedding, sensitivity, and redness, and you’re only at 0.1%. It might be time for a switch. The good news is that there are now more gentle alternatives, like bakuchiol and hydroxypinacolone retinoate, that you can also consider.

My acne is angry! For all acne struggles, we prefer adapalene. This synthetic retinoid is now available as an affordable, OTC topical. There are several strong studies that have shown 0.1% adapalene performing on par with low amounts of tretinoin.

I can’t be flaking right now! For those big moments, it’s okay to give retinoids a rest. Plan one to two weeks out, before that big event, to pause the retinol so your skin will be flake free and makeup ready.

Retinoids FAQs

Q: How should I layer retinoids?

A: Retinoids are usually in cream or oil form. So, they come after your serum and before your moisturizer. Some retinol formulas are even moisturizing enough to replace your night moisturizer.

Q: I’ve been using retinoids for 10-plus years. Any downside?

A: Nope! You might notice your skin-sensitivity levels changing and may need to adjust your use frequency or take breaks once in awhile. But there isn’t a downside to using it in the long run. The one time you should take a break from retinoids is when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Q: I switched brands but used the same 0.5% retinol concentration, and my skin reacted differently. Why is that?

A: Because retinol has become so popular, chemists are hard at work formulating new and improved formulas that can include things like soothing ingredients or the latest encapsulation technology. This can explain why switching to a different product with the same concentration can result in a different reaction. Just remember to give it at least 8 weeks to see how skin responds.

Q: I want to use retinoids but don’t have acne; is there anything I should keep in mind when I choose a product?

A: If your skin’s on the dryer side and you want to start retinoids, pair with a moisturizer with higher occlusives since a common initial side effect is flaky dryness.

Q: I heard retinol is unstable. When should I throw out my retinol?

A: Responsibly formulated and packaged retinol will still last up to one year after opening. (Check the package label.) Make sure that you store it in proper vampire conditions! Two telltale signs of degraded retinol are a change in color and oil seeping out of the packaging.

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