Retinoids are the most powerful family in the skincare world.
They’re the ones you turn to when you want to get those pesky wrinkles off your face, fade away dark spots and kick acne in the butt.
But, they’re not all created equal…
Some members are more powerful than others and will deal with wrinkles quickly while others take their sweet time to work.
Some are so gentle you can’t feel a thing and others turn your face into a red, flaky mess you wonder why the heck you started using them in the first place.
Some are tried and tested while others are newborns who have yet to prove their worth.
How the heck do you know which one you should use?! Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out which form of retinoid is right for you.
What Are Retinoids?
Retinoids are all forms of Vitamin A. They include:
- Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
- Retinyl Palmitate
Basically, if there’s a “retin” in there, you know it’s a retinoid.
Struggling to put together an anti-aging skincare routine that really reduces the look of wrinkles and gives your skin a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
Retinoid Benefits: Why Should You Use Them?
Retinoids do all kinds of wonderful things for your skin:
- Accelerate cellular turnover (a natural process that replaces old dead cells with new healthy ones)
- Boost the production of collagen, which firms skin
- Bust acne
- Fight the free radicals that cause wrinkles
- Reduce the appearance of dark spots
- Shrink the size of pores
The catch? Almost of all them must be converted into retinoid acid to work. The conversion looks like this.
Retinyl palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid
Usually, the further away a form of Vitamin A is from retinoic acid, the less effective BUT gentler it is.
Related: 3 Reasons Why You Should Use Retinoids
Now that you know what retinoids are and what they do, let’s take a look a closer look at each member of the family:
What it is: The alcohol form of vitamin A.
What it does: It stimulates the production of collagen, firms skin, and fights free radicals and speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process) to fade away wrinkle and dark spot.
Side effects: Dryness, flaking, peeling and redness. A trick to minimise irritation is to use microencapsulated, time-released retinol that’s delivered into the skin over a period of several hours.
Who should use it: 25+ women who are serious about antiaging but aren’t ready to go prescription yet.
- Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($88.00): available at Nordstrom and Sephora
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (£8.00): available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
- Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): available at Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice
Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol
What it is: A mix of retinol and palmitic acid, a fatty acid.
What it does: You need a high enough concentration to reduce wrinkles and smoothen out the texture of your skin.
Side effects: It’s the gentlest retinoid out there. If your skin peels and flakes from it, you might not be able to use retinoids at all.
Who should use it: Only people with super sensitive skin who can’t tolerate any other form of retinoids.
- Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 PA++++ ($65.00): available at Feel Unique, Look Fantastic, Nordstrom and Sephora
Related: Is Retinol Palmitate An Effective Alternative To Retinol For Sensitive Skin?
What it is: A.k.a. retinal, it’s the aldehyde form of vitamin A.
What it does: It boosts collagen and makes skin firmer.
Side effects: It’s fairly gentle but can still cause irritation in people with sensitive skin.
Who should use it: Anyone who can’t tolerate retinol well but would like a stronger form of vitamin A.
- Arcona Advanced A Serum ($85.00): available at Dermstore and Nordstrom
- Medik8 Crystal Retinal 10 (£79.00): available at Medik8
- Osmosis Renew Level 4 Vitamin A Serum ($88.00): available at Dermstore.
Related: Does Retinaldehyde Provide The Same Benefits As Retinol Without The Side Effects?
What it is: An ester of all-trans direct retinoid acid that doesn’t need to be converted into retinoid acid into the skin.
What it does: It’s the newest retinoid so research here is still scant. It’s good at treating acne and it should help with wrinkles too.
Side effects: It’s very gentle. If your skin can’t tolerate it, you may not be able to use retinoids at all.
Who should use it: Anyone who can’t tolerate traditional retinoids
- Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum: £19.88/$34.00 at iHerb
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane: £7.80 at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% In Squalane: £11.90 at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
What it is: The acid form of Vitamin A and the one your skin can use immediately. No conversions needed here.
What it does: It’s very effective at treating photo damage (think wrinkles and dark spots).
Side effects: Peeling, flakiness, dryness, irritation. The side effects are so harsh, it’s available by prescription only. Ask your derm how to minimise side effects and follow her instructions to a T.
Who should use it?: Those with resistant skin (i.e. skin that tolerates harsh ingredients well) who’ve already tried all OTC retinoids and need something stronger.
Best Picks: Retin-A and Renova
How To Use Retinoids
Doesn’t matter which form of retinoids you pick, always follow these tips to make the most out of them:
- Baby steps: Start with a small dose twice a week and increase dose and frequency over time.
- Moisturise: Apply cream afterwards to prevent dryness.
- Use at night: Retinoids can make skin more susceptible to sun damage.
- Alternate it: If you use other powerful skincare ingredients, such as vitamin C, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide, put them on in the morning and retinol at night. Another option is to use them on retinol-free nights.
- Avoid during pregnancy or breastfeeding: Prescription retinoids can cause birth defects but smaller doses may potentially be problematic too.
The Bottom Line
If you’re just starting out with retinoids, opt for low concentrations of retinol or retinaldehyde and slowly increase them. If you’re already using the highest possible concentrations of retinol or retinaldehyde and you need something stronger, it’s time to go prescription. Avoid all other forms, unless your skin is so sensitive even the tiniest concentrations of retinol and retinaldehyde irritate it.