When it comes to retinoids and skincare, things can get confusing. There are many different kinds of retinoids, and they go by many different names. At the highest level, retinoids are a family of compounds derived from vitamin A. They are often used in skin care products thanks to their antiaging and anti-acne effects. For example, retinoids can be found in topical creams to treat mild acne and reduce the appearance of wrinkles, or in oral form (i.e., Accutane) to treat more severe acne. Clinical studies have proven that topical retinoids can enhance cellular turnover, increase collagen production, reduce acne, soften wrinkles, fade pigmentation, and add to your skin's youthful glow.
How do retinoids help with acne?
Retinoids were first developed to treat acne. They can prevent the clogging of pores and reduce blackheads, whiteheads, and inflamed acne pimples. Retinoids accomplish this by causing a mild peeling of the skin (called desquamation) that leads to a faster turnover of the epidermis. This turnover allows our skin to shed old, dead skin cells and replace them with healthier new skin cells.
How do retinoids improve the appearance of wrinkles?
Topical retinoids include pure retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinoic acid. These compounds are the only ones proven (via clinical studies) to decrease wrinkles. They do this by affecting collagen. The collagen fibers in our skin are what keep it looking tight and elastic. However, following the age of 20, our skin loses collagen fibers at a rate of about 1% per year, and this loss leads to wrinkles.
Using retinoids can help slow the loss of collagen fiber and promote new collagen production in the dermis, increasing the strength and elasticity of the skin. Bonus, retinoids can also make your epidermis thicker, which improves skin texture.
The different retinoids explained:
Retinoic acid (tretinoin):
Retinoic acid is the active ingredient in all retinoids and was the first topical retinoid used. Because it has been around for a long time, it has a record of proven efficacy. Although effective, retinoic acid also has some clear disadvantages. It can irritate the skin, increase skin's sensitivity to the sun, and it requires a medical office visit with a sometimes costly prescription. Most retinoic acid creams have also been on the market for years and contain ingredients (like propylene glycol or parabens) that are not considered "clean" by today's beauty standards.
Retinol, perhaps the most commonly known retinoid, is the best vitamin A compound found in OTC skin care products. As retinol meets the skin, it's converted into retinoic acid. So, at the right concentration, it's just as effective as retinoic acid but causes less irritation and doesn't require a prescription. Retinol is about 10 times weaker than retinoic acid (Cosmetic Dermatology – Baumann). Thus, 0.5% retinol is similar in efficacy to 0.05% retinoic acid.
Retinyl palmitate is also a Vitamin A compound that transforms into retinoic acid once applied to the skin. It's less effective than pure retinol, but it's also less expensive and has better stability in cosmetics products.
Retinoids in Action: How to Choose the Best Retinoid Cream
The effectiveness of a retinoid depends on three main elements: conversion, concentration, and additional ingredients.
Conversion: Each retinoid converts to retinoic acid differently. The critical thing to remember is that the fewer conversion steps a product has to make to reach this active form, the better. Retinyl palmitate requires three conversions before turning into retinoic acid on the skin. Retinol, on the other hand, only takes two steps to convert to retinoic acid. So, from a conversion perspective, retinol is the better ingredient.
Concentration: Only purchase products that have their exact retinoid concertation listed on the label. OTC retinol is available in concentrations from 0.25% to 1.0%. However, the optimal concertation is between 0.25% - 0.50%, as products with a concentration above 0.50% can be too irritating.
Additional Ingredients: New developments in retinol formulations allow for enhanced efficacy with less irritation. Combining pure retinol (0.50%) with niacinamide (4%) is a great way to improve results. Niacinamide increases retinol's effectiveness on acne, wrinkles, and dark spots while adding a hydration element that reduces irritation. On the other hand, certain ingredients (such as parabens) can cause increased irritation and should be avoided.
In summary, the best retinoid creams will:
1. Contain pure retinol at a concentration of 0.25% to 0.50%
2. Contain retinol vs. retinyl palmitate because retinyl palmitate requires too many conversion steps
3. Not contain preservatives like parabens, phthalates, or sodium benzoate that may irritate the skin.
How to use a retinol cream based on your specific concern
For Retinoid Newbies: Start with a 0.25% or 0.5% retinol concentration. Apply a very small amount to your whole face, every 2 nights and work your way up as needed. If clogged pores are your biggest concern, a pea-sized amount of product on your face can do wonders.
For Acne: If you have acne-prone skin, use a cleanser with salicylic acid to absorb excess oil, then apply an oil-free retinol formulation.
For Skin Brightening or Dark Spots: Avoid combining vitamin C and retinol as they do not work well together. If you want to use both, you can apply your vitamin C serum in the morning and your Retinol cream in the evening. Or, you can alternate days of use. The best skin brightening creams will contain a gentle exfoliant (such as BHA or AHA), retinol or retinyl palmitate to trigger collagen production, and hydroquinone to block melanin overproduction and fade dark spots.
Tips & Tricks for Using a Retinol Cream:
Mix your retinoid cream with a bit of moisturizer; this is an excellent way to dilute the cream and reduce irritation.
Your skin needs time to get used to retinol. If it's the first 10 days you're using it, apply it every other night. You can work your way up from there. If your skin is handling it well, you can start using the product every night.
Retinol, like all retinoids, makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. Thus, always use it a night and use a broad-spectrum, oil-free UVA/UVB sunscreen during the day.
Don't apply retinol to sensitive facial areas where the skin rubs together: the corners of the mouth, edges of the nose, or around the eyes.
People with acne and acne-prone skin can easily incorporate a retinol cream into their acne treatment routine. Regular use of a retinol cream sloughs dead skin cells out of pores, which makes them look smaller. It's also an anti-inflammatory, which helps with redness.
All retinoids degrade with regular exposure to light, heat, or air. Make sure you choose a retinol product packaged in an opaque tube and always keep the cap on when not in use. If possible, store the product in the back of your fridge. The darkness and cooler temp is ideal for skincare antioxidants and will help preserve your product.
If your retinol changes color or gets a strange smell, it means it has lost some of its antioxidant power. Discard the tube in favor of a fresh, new product.
For best results, do not use retinoids and acidic products at the same time. If you use both salicylic acid and retinol, use them on alternating nights or use the acid in the morning and the retinol cream at night.
How quickly will I see results?
Retinoids act gradually, so expect to see results in 3-6 months. For faster results, you could combine your retinol product with a cream containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. If you choose to use both of these products, do not apply them together. Instead, alternate usage by applying retinol one night and the benzoyl peroxide/salicylic acid cream the next. If you are looking for faster results for sunspots or post-acne spots, look for a dedicated high-quality dark spot corrector.
My skin is dry or peeling, is that normal?
It's normal to experience dryness, tightness, peeling, and redness when you first start using a retinoid cream. Your skin should adjust to the product in 2-4 weeks. If symptoms persist, discontinue use and consult with your physician.
How much MDacne retinol cream should I use?
A pea-size amount of product is enough for the entire face.
Is it better to use a retinol cream or gel?
Creams are better for skin that needs a bit more hydration, and gels are better for oilier skin. Gels penetrate the skin more quickly but can cause overdrying in normal to dry skin.
Can I apply retinoids around my mouth and eyes?
Yes, but be very careful when applying retinoids around the mouth or eyes. If you want to use the retinol cream on these areas, apply an eye cream first, and then follow with your retinoid.
I need quick results, should I use a higher concentration of retinol?
Stronger percentages of retinol will NOT give you better or faster results. The opposite is true. People that start with a retinol concentration that's too high will generally experience more irritation and will give up using the product.
At what age should I start using retinoids to reduce visible signs of aging?
If you want to prevent or treat wrinkles (and sun-induced pigmentation), you should start using a retinoid in your mid-to-late twenties or early thirties, as this is when the body begins to produce less collagen.
How long can I use retinoid products?
Forever! Retinoids work best with the continuous, long-term application.
What is the best retinoid for people with acne? Should I get a prescription?
No, pure OTC retinol is the best retinoid for acne. It is highly effective but less irritating than prescription retinoic acids.
Will retinoids make my skin thinner?
No, retinoids do not make the skin thinner. Instead, retinoids stimulate collagen production and will make your skin thicker and healthier over time.
Can teenagers can use retinoids?
Everybody, including teens, can use retinoids. There is no age limit.
Can I use retinoids if pregnant or breastfeeding?
No. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid all retinoids, including retinol.