Chances are that you have already heard of retinol, retinoids, or tretinoin. They all are widely used in skincare and tackle many different skin concerns.

Vitamin A

Retinoids are a group of compounds derived from vitamin A. Retinoids is the umbrella word for all these vitamin A derivatives (like flavonoids for a class of plant polyhenols or carotenoids, the pigments that give colour to carrots, tomatoes, etc) . Probably best known is retinol which is widely used in skincare. Another famous one is tretinoin. Tretinoin has a popular brand name – Retin A, so much so that many people use it and mean any type of tretinoin (just like “I need to still hoover the house – vacuum the house”).

Retinol and tretinoin are both retinoids. You can think of them like lemon and lime, both are types of citrus fruits.

How Do Retinoids Work?

The active agent in retinoids is retinoic acid that boosts cell turnover. When applied, the retinoic acid diffuses through the cell membrane then acts on the DNA. It causes the cell to turn over faster. The increased cell turnover helps the skin to continually shed damaged cells so that healthy new skin appears. This enhances radiance.

The active agent retinoic acid suppresses collagenase production. This enzyme breaks down collagen, the protein that holds together the body tissue. Further, it also boosts the production of collagen. More collagen means more youthful, plumper skin, or less sagging.

Retinoids also help uneven skin tone, because they block melanin production.

In a nutshell, retinoids are tremendous multitaskers.

  • They promote skin cells to turn over and die quickly revealing glowing skin underneath.
  • They slow down collagen breakdown while thickening the second layer, the epidermis, where wrinkles start.
  • They shrink pores.
  • Last but not least, retinoids fade dark spots.

Many people confuse retinol with tretinoin. Even if they are related, they are distinctly different. Think of retinol and retinoids like a factory line. Retinol is the first in line and undergoes many changes to its formulation in order to become retinoic acid. Tretinoin starts much further down the line and doesn’t take as many steps to reach that final product. So in general, tretinoin acts faster and is more intense than retinol. The closer the vitamin A derivative is to retinoic acid, the more readily it converts, and the faster it can take effect.

As a general rule of thumb, retinol products can be purchased over the counter and tretinoin needs to be prescribed. In the same vein, the stronger the retinoid product is prescribed by your dermatologist.

How To Use Retinoids In Your Skincare

Before you head out to buy over the counter retinol products or get a prescription, here are the basics:

  • Always do a patch test before adding it to your skincare routine.
  • When exposed to light and air, all vitamin A derivatives become unstable and disintegrate. Retinoid products therefore are packaged in opaque containers. You will often see these products in metal tubes in prescription form.
  • Start slowly (maybe once a week) and gradually let your skin get used to retinoids. Once your skin is used to this active ingredient, you can apply once a day. Only apply it as often as your skin can tolerate it.
  • Try to apply it in the night. As retinoids break down in sunlight, they will be rendered inactive. It is not true that you will get more sensitive to the sun, although it is a must to always wear sunscreen, regardless of using retinoids or not.
  • Don’t apply retinoids when you are having an eczema or psoriasis episode. Wait until your skin is completely healed.
  • Avoid using retinoids while you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive.

Side Effects

When starting with retinoids, the most common side effect is irritation. As it increases cell turnover, it “exfoliates” your skin from the inside-out and your skin may become sensitive. It can turn red, peel, flake, and dry out. If you are using retinoids to treat acne, your acne may look like it is getting worse.

When Can I Start Using Retinoids?

As retinoids are so effective in treating acne, there is not really an age limit to when you can start using it.

If you are considering retinol as an antiaging ingredient, you can start in your 20s. This active ingredient prevents photodamage and boosts skin cell turn over. So it is a good time to start. You can use it nightly to help you protect your skin from external damaging factors like, sun, environment, and pollutants to which you are exposed to at any age.

Even if you’re not thinking about anti-aging yet, you can still benefit from using a retinol product. You can use tretinoin or retinol forever.

Which Products Should You Avoid When Using Retinoids?


Retinoids already exfoliate your skin. When you use another chemical or physical exfoliant into your regimen, it can irritate your skin even more. You may risk burning your skin and remove the protective skin barrier.

Drying Agents Like Astringents

As a side effect, retinoids can dry out the skin. So, you should avoid more products that also have this effect. Instead, apply – even in multiple layers – rich moisturizer.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide has the same effect as retinoids. It is widely used as an acne treatment to kill off the acne-causing bacteria. When used in combination with retinoids, it further dries out the skin but it renders the active compound of retinoids inactive by oxidizing it.


There are botanical alternatives that you want to consider incorporating into your skincare regimen.


Bakuchiol is an antioxidant found in the seeds of the plant psoralea corylifolia. It works similarly to retinoids and boosts skin cell turnover and stimulates collagen. Bakuchiol has one more advantage in that it seems to be gentler to the skin and does not cause irritation.

Rosehip Oil

Rosehip oil is rich in several nutrients that are beneficial to the skin including vitamin A.

Photo by Stefan Cosma

Bottom Line

Retinoids seem to be the holy grail ingredient in skincare. But you need to be patient to see its effects. You may have to wait up to six months until you see improvements.

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