INGREDIENT 101 | The Retinoid Family

INGREDIENT 101 | The Retinoid Family

When it comes to breathing life back into aging skin, most dermatologists and estheticians agree that retinoids are the answer. In fact, retinoids are one of the only ingredients shown to be beneficial at treating both intrinsic aging factors (sagging skin) and photo-aging (coarseness, irregular hyperpigmentation, and large pores). More importantly for the purposes of this Journal, retinoids original claim to fame was treating acne and inflammation (and they are still a first line treatment to this day).

Wonderful. So you’re ready to jump on the retinoid bandwagon. This is where confusion may set in because the form of retinoid in the product that you choose matters. Keep in mind that only retinoic acid works to influence skin health in the ways described above. And there are only a few pathways to reliably get there. Let’s take a look at the conversion process: retinyl esters > retinol > retinaldehyde > retinoic acid. The fewer conversion steps, the more potent the product. The results you are seeking and your skin’s sensitivity levels will guide you to your perfect retinoid.

Let’s take a brief, but closer look at the various forms of topical retinoids starting with prescription strength:

Tretinoin (Retin-A, Retin-A micro, and Renova) - Available by prescription only, this is the original topical retinoid. In numerous studies, tretinoin has been shown to reduce fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and rough texture. In short, it’s highly effective. But there is a dark side to tretinoin that some of you may have experienced called facial retinization. This involves peeling, redness, and burning and occurs when our skin’s retinoid receptors are overwhelmed. Luckily, it usually tapers off after a few weeks of use and can be minimized by slowly introducing tretinoin into your nighttime routine.

Tazarotene (Tazorac) - This is a third generation, synthetic form of topical retinoid that has been shown in studies to be effective at treating psoriasis, acne, and signs of aging. Again, it is available by prescription only and while it acts on different receptors in the skin than Tretinoin, it has the same potential for irritation.

Adapalene (Differin) - This third generation, synthetic retinoid used to be available by prescription only, but now you can pick up certain strengths at Target! Best of all, Adapalene has been shown to be less irritating than Tretinoin and Tazarotene. However, more research has been conducted related to Adapalene’s effectiveness at treating acne, rather than photo-aging, so if aging is your primary concern, this isn’t your best option.

Consider that an incredibly brief primer on prescription options (your dermatologist will be able to go much more in depth with you to determine if prescription strength is right for you). Now let’s turn to over-the-counter (I know, I know, I just said that Differin is available over-the-counter, but because it was formally prescription only and some strengths still are, let’s leave it up in the prescription category).

Retinol - Retinol is arguably the most common form of over-the-counter topical retinoid. While 20 times less potent than Tretinoin, retinol has the same potential for anti-aging benefits with less irritation. You simply need to use a retinol product longer to see results. That being said, at higher strengths retinol can still be irritating AND it is very unstable. It will break down to biologically inactive forms when exposed to light and air. Proper packaging is critical. My pick - Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum.

Retinaldehyde (Retinal) - I consider this one of the most exciting retinoic acid precursor ingredients. Studies have demonstrated Retinal’s effectiveness at treating signs of aging with a lower potential for irritation. One study even found Retinal to work 11 times faster than Retinol. Additionally, Retinal has been shown to exhibit antibacterial activity making it a fantastic choice for treating acne. Researcher’s believe this antibacterial activity is likely due to Retinal’s aldehyde group. My pick - Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask.

Retinyl Esters (retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate) - You will find retinyl esters, especially retinyl palmitate, in a lot of products. Keep in mind the conversion process to retinoic acid though when considering one of these ingredients. While they no doubt exhibit antioxidant activity, they just aren’t anywhere near as potent as Retinol or Retinal. That being said, the irritation potential for these ingredients is virtually zero. So for those with extra sensitive skin that simply want to dip their toe into the retinoid pool, this presents an option. My pick - Shani Darden Texture Reform.

Rosehip Seed Oil
- While this is a gorgeous, antioxidant-rich, lightweight form of hydration, do not believe the hype that it is a “natural form of retinoic acid”. My pick - Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil.

Phew. Before I wrap this up, let’s talk about the new kid on the block, the “Retin-alt.”

Bakuchiol - With its roots in Ayurveda, this plant-based, “retin-alt” is poised to be a star in 2019. While studies demonstrating its efficacy are limited, preliminary research indicates that Bakuchiol may help to reduce photodamage and minimize fine lines and wrinkles, while acting as an anti-inflammatory. All with zero irritation. Similar to Retinal, Bakuchiol exhibits antibacterial activity as well. Green beauty lovers rejoice! My pick - Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum.

Still confused? Book a Clear Skin Coaching Consult or purchase a Skin Session! I love chatting skin care.

1. Pechère M et al. The antibacterial activity of topical retinoids: the case of retinaldehyde. Dermatology. 2002;205(2):153-8.
2. Mukherjee, Siddharth. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006 Dec; 1(4): 327–348.


The information presented on this web site is not intended to take the place of your personal physician’s advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should never disregard medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here.