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Part 1 - Knowing your Retinols from your Retinoids - What's the real difference?

Updated: Jan 14, 2023


Retinoids are the market's most researched and most effective anti-ageing compounds. They are one of only a few skincare ingredients proven to improve fine lines and the appearance of sun-damaged skin.

The most well-known retinoid is vitamin A or retinol.

Sold on TV, through social media, via Amazon, or in glossy beauty magazines, retinoids are the skincare industry's "go-to" ingredient.

And why not, they work, and they sell.

Skincare in the USA alone makes 50 billion dollars. As consumers, we can't seem to get enough. This is why all the leading skincare brands will have at least one (or a hundred) retinoid-containing products and creams.

As this is a complicated topic, I will break this down into four parts:

In Part 1, we will get some confusing terminology out of the way.

In Part 2, we will briefly cover the problem with manufacturing and packaging retinoids.

Part 3 will show how to combat skin irritation and how retinoids should really be applied.

In part 4, we will tell you what products we recommend and why.

What is a retinoid?

Scientifically, a retinoid is any substance that acts on a retinoid receptor.

What do retinoids do?

Binding to a retinoid receptor results in several anti-ageing effects on the skin, such as:

  • Preventing the breakdown of "old" collagen.

  • Building new collagen.

  • Replacing old skin cells.

  • Repairing damaged skin cells.

  • Protecting the skin from ageing free radicals

As a result, skin thickness increases, skin becomes much smoother and fine lines and wrinkles are softened.

The downside to retinoids

Retinoids ingredients are well known for causing irritation and flaking of the skin.

This is the main reason people tend to give up using them.

This is a shame as this is a good sign the retinoid is working; it occurs because either the cream has been misapplied or it is too strong (see part 3 - coming soon).

Retinoids can also take nine months to one year before improvements can be seen.

Another reason retinoids, your most important skincare ingredient, soon get forgotten about and left at the back of the shelf.

The emergence of Retinoic acid

The first retinoid used on the skin was retinoic acid (brand name Retin A). Retinoic acid is also known as Tretinoin or ATRA (All-Trans-Retinoic-Acid).

Retinoic acid was first given to treat acne in 1971 and is still used today.

Generation of retinoids

Based on their introduction, retinoids can be classified into four generations.

The latest generation has an entirely different structure from vitamin A.

Skin irritation with retinoids

Retinoids can cause a temporary skin reaction known as retinoid dermatitis. This is more common with tretinoin, and the higher the % of retinol.

With the latest technology, such as Retinsphere manufactured by Cantabria Labs (who make Heliocare and All Skin | Med), skin irritation with retinoids has become less of a problem.

So, where does retinol fit in?

Did you know that retinol is converted into retinoic acid when it is applied to the skin?

The advantage of retinol is that it is less irritating than higher-strength retinoic acid (Tretinoin).

As retinol is better tolerated, it is the most common retinoid ingredient in skin care creams.

Another big advantage is that retinols do not need to be prescribed.

Retinol is made in concentrations ranging from 0.1% to 1.0%.

What is retinol converted to?

The body converts retinol into either:

  • Retinaldehyde (also known as retinal)

  • Retinyl esters (the storage form of vitamin A)

Retinol, Retinaldehyde (Retinal) and Retinyl esters are the most commonly listed and unregulated ingredients in your creams.

What are retinoids used for?

Skin conditions retinoids improve are

  • Wrinkles (also known as rhytids)

  • Sun damage

  • Acne

  • Psoriasis (tazarotene)

Fact: Tretinoin is the only retinoid indicated for sun-damaged skin and wrinkles.

Type of retinoids

Retinoids can be roughly divided into cosmeceutical retinoids and therapeutic (or prescription) retinoids.

Prescription retinoids

Therapeutic or Prescription retinoids are stronger than those you get over the counter. And are more likely to work.

As a rule, prescription retinoids have

  1. Better quality control.

  2. More transparent labelling (for example, the strength of retinoids they contain).

  3. More rigorous manufacturing processes.

Now for some good news - you can now buy some therapeutic retinoids, such as adapalene, over the counter. This is a recognition of the overall safety and effectiveness of retinoids.

By the way, the way that retinoids are manufactured is crucial. See my next post to find out more!

Cosmeceutical retinoids

Cosmeceutical retinoids are regarded as a “cosmetic product” and, as a result, are freely available.

Examples include:

  • Retinyl esters (storage forms of retinol with no known biological action)

  • Retinol

  • Retinaldehyde (retinal)

As a cosmeceutical, they usually have a weak action on the skin, or at worst, none at all.

Most retinols you can get over-the-counter (OTC) fit into this category.

Warning - most cosmeceutical retinoids do not bind to retinoid receptors. So their beneficial effects are less certain, at best unpredictable, or they have no effect at all!

Retinols produce fewer side effects because most do not work.

How do retinoids work?

Retinoids work through two specific types of receptors; retinoic acid receptors (RARs) and retinoid X receptors (RXR).

RARS in more detail

The main effect and side effects of retinoids, such as skin irritation, are mediated through the RARs.

Each type of retinoid affects a different receptor, giving a different effect.

Knowing about RARS is important.

There are three main types of RAR, and the more that are activated, the more side effects a retinoid has.

Older retinoids bind to all three.

The newer generation of retinoids is more specific and binds to only one or two.

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are divided into six classes.

  1. Tretinoin (all-trans retinoic acid - ATRA)

  2. Adapalene

  3. Tazarotene

  4. Trifarotene

  5. Alitretinoin

  6. Bexarotene

Only the first four are used in skincare ingredients.

Are retinols less effective than retinoids?

The tolerability of cosmeceutical retinoids (retinal, retinol and retinyl esters) makes them preferable to prescription retinoids. But they are not as effective.

All cosmeceutical retinoids are converted to another type of retinoid when they are applied to the skin.

Let us look at how -

Retinyl ester is converted to retinol.

Retinol is converted to retinaldehyde (which appears as "retinal" on skincare labels)

Lastly, retinaldehyde is converted to retinoic acid.

Always remember retinoic acid is the only retinoid that causes a therapeutic effect.

Retinyl esters and retinol, which need 3 and 2 steps to become retinoic acid, are the main reason they are classified as cosmeceuticals (which makes some preparations completely ineffective).

Since retinaldehyde (retinal) requires only one conversion step to retinoic acid, it is considered more potent than the other two.

Confused - so what do you do now?

Without a doubt, retinoids are the most effective anti-ageing ingredient out there. And only a few have been FDA-approved.

Whether your retinol or retinoid cream is working or not, there may be a good reason.

So check on your retinol skincare label now:

As a rule, if your cream contains:

Retinol - this will only work if the manufacturing process is right.

If it contains retinol (or worse - a retinyl ester) with poor labelling, a low % or is presented in an open jar - it is almost guaranteed it will not work. See part 2.

Retinaldehyde (labelled Retinal) - is the strongest OTC "retinoid" you can get.

In part 2, I will cover how important labelling and packaging are for the effectiveness of your retinol or retinoid cream.

If you cannot wait that long, book a skin consultation at our clinic now.

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