Which Form Of Retinoids Is Right For You?

by Gio
which form of retinoids is right for you and your needs

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.

But first…

medik8 retinol 6 TR 02

What The Heck Are Retinoids And Why Should You Use Them?

Retinoids are all forms of Vitamin A. They include:

  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinol
  • Retinyl Palmitate
  • Tretinoin

Basically, if there’s a “retin” in there, you know it’s a retinoid. Retinoids do all kinds of wonderful things for your skin:

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:

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01


What it is: the alcohol form of vitamin A.

What it does: it stimulates the production of collagen, fights free radicals and speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process) to fade away wrinkle and dark spot and firm skin.

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.

Best Picks:

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol

Retinyl Palmitate

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.

Best Picks:

Related: Is Retinol Palmitate An Effective Alternative To Retinol For Sensitive Skin?

medik8 crystal retinal 6


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.

Best Picks:

Related: Does Retinaldehyde Provide The Same Benefits As Retinol Without The Side Effects?

Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate

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

Best Picks:

the ordinary granactive retinoid 5% in squalane 01

Retinoid Acid

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 dorm 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.


Doesn’t matter which form of retinoids you pick, always follow these tips to make the most out of them:

  1. Baby steps: start with a small dose twice a week and increase dose and frequency over time.
  2. Moisturise: apply cream afterwards to prevent dryness
  3. Use at night: retinoids can make skin more susceptible to sun damage
  4. 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.
  5. Avoid during pregnancy or breastfeeding: prescription retinoids can cause birth defects but smaller doses may potentially be problematic too.

What form of retinoids are you using? Let me know in the comments below.



Shweta March 24, 2018 - 9:56 am

Hi Gio, I use Retino-A 0.025 cream.. It was prescribed by my derma but I am not too sure which category of retinol it falls under.. Would u pls help me understand if it is effective enough to fight dark spots and wrinkles?

Gio March 30, 2018 - 6:56 pm

Shweta, that’s a prescription retinoid and yes, it’s powerful enough. 🙂

Alicia March 29, 2018 - 11:21 pm

Tretinoin 1% was prescribed after some weeks of melamin & melamix

Gio March 31, 2018 - 10:47 am

Alicia, how is that working for you?

Stephanie Schroter March 30, 2018 - 1:42 pm

Roc retinol night cream

Gio March 31, 2018 - 3:16 pm

Stephanie, that’s a great place to start your retinoids journey. 🙂

Mia July 19, 2018 - 10:57 am

Hi Gio, I have many questions regarding rosehip seed oil if you don’t mind 🙂
1) Is rosehip oil a strong retinoid?
2) Can we use rosehip oil after using vitamin c products / AHA products?
3) Can we use rosehip oil everyday? (AM&PM)
4) Can nursing mum use rosehip oil?
5) Why do we need retinol when we have rosehip oil, as the latter is cheaper! Is there difference in terms of their function?
6) Is rosehip oil suitable for first time user in their late 20’s?
7) Which one has higher concentration of vitamins A? retinol or rosehip oil? As retinol comes with 1%, 2%, etc, what does it mean?
8) Which is better- The Ordinary Rosehip Oil or Life Flo rosehip oil?

Gio July 21, 2018 - 7:19 pm

Mia, I don’t, no worries. 🙂

1) No, it’s not too strong. Definitely not on the same level as prescription retinoids.
2) That depends on how sensitive your skin is. Most people can but those with sensitive skin may find it too much.
3) You can use it every night.
4) Again, it depends. There’s some research that shows that vitamin A may cause birth defects in mice. I personally don’t think there’s enough vitamin A in rosehip oil to harm a baby but many dermatologist recommend you stay away from vitamin A until you’ve finished nursing, just in case.
5) It’s just personal preference. Some people may dislike oils or simply need a stronger retinoid.
6) Yes it is.
7) That’s difficult to answer. Usually, retinol products state the concentration on the packaging while natural brands don’t measure the amount of vitaminA in their products. So it’s hard to compare. Having said that, a first time user should never use 1% or higher concentration of retinol. This is an ingredient that’s effective at 0.1% or lower concentrations. It’s best to start with a gentler dose and work your way up.
8) The only difference is that Life Flo has added vitamin E to make the oil last a little longer.

Maryam January 11, 2019 - 4:45 pm

Excellent informative article Gio! I assume tretinoin is the same as Retinoid Acid? Also does ordinary have anything with Retinoic Acid?

Best Regards and thanks again

Gio January 12, 2019 - 6:10 pm

Maryam, yes tretinoin is retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is very harsh so available by prescription only. You need to see a derm to use it.

Jaime January 23, 2019 - 1:12 am

Hello! Great info 🙂 So because The Ordinary retinoids are in “squalane”, does that mean we should use them after water based serums and a moisturizer? Thank you!

Gio January 24, 2019 - 8:37 pm

Jaime, you can use them after water-based products if you don’t experience any peeling.

makemineirish March 21, 2019 - 11:07 pm

As I am getting older, I wanted to trade-out my Differin for some Retin-A micro. However, my dermatologist’s PA heavily advocated, and wrote a script, for Altreno. The ingredients list includes soluble collagen, glycerin, and sodium hyaluronate. Are these additions really a fair substitute for Retin-A Micro’s delivery system? Is the tretinoin in Altreno microencapsulated?

My dermatologist’s office appears to be pushing this new topical, even while information, reviews, and pharmacies that carry it are exceedingly limited. Am I a front-runner for an exciting new formulation, or just a patsy being upsold a inferior product dressed up in sexy marketing? Factoring price into the equation, a 45g tube of generic Retin-A Micro (0.04%) can cost between $140-$390 (dependent on manufacturer and pharmacy) while the same quantity of Altreno lotion rings up at $115.

I would love some clarification on the new line-up of retinoids hitting the market.

Gio March 29, 2019 - 1:09 pm

Makemineirish, I’m not very familiar with Altreno, but after doing some reseach it seems a good alternative. I don’t think the tretinoin is microencapsulated, but then in topical products it rarely is. it contains 0.05% tretinoin, which is the active ingredient that can treat acne and wrinkles, so they’re not skimping on that. The main difference seems to be that it’s loaded with humectants like glycerin and sodium hyaluronate that make it more hydrating.

Kaitlin April 17, 2019 - 1:56 pm

Hi. Great info in this, thank you. I’m 33, new to anti aging and I started with clarins, then to perricone MD, then decided I wanted to go a different route (I make my own facial toners, body scrubs etc ) so u went to the Mad Hippie line.

The vitamin A serum from the line seems good… but I’m looking at the ingredients and the order they are listed. The Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, is the 3rd to last active ingredient.

Can I add the ordinary serum to my skincare while using this, do I need to? Is this even strong enough , given the placement on the list ? Ahhhhhh!!! I’ve been using Mad hippie cream cleanser, vitamin c serum in morning, with their facial SPF cream. At night, I double cleanse (oil cleanse then a regular cream cleanser, vitamin A serum , the eye cream then face cream) … I also use the vitamin a and vitamin c on my neck, chest, and shoulders… upper arms.

Also a side note – I lost over 100lbs a year ago, and let’s face it; Stretch marks, loose skin are ailing me. Any tips? Can I use this on my looser areas ?

Thank you for your knowledge and time .

Gio April 20, 2019 - 3:04 pm

Kaitlin, vitamin A works even at incredibly low concentrations so I wouldn’t worry about the placement on the list, especially if you’ve just started out with it. Start with it and slowly increase tolerance till you can use retinol.

Unfortunately, skincare can’t tighten what has already loosened. The only option for that is surgery.

Luisa July 15, 2019 - 10:50 am

Dear Gio
Thank you so much for the article. Which product would you recommend if my main concern is moderate acne (especially on the cheeks and the areas left and right of the nose as well as on the temples and along the jaw line). I am 25, so it is not the typical teenage acne. I am not too concerned about anti-aging at the moment, I don’t have any wrinkles yet and am using sunscreen every day.
I think the acne is not bad enough to need to use Retin-A, but I would like to introduce some kind of Retinoid treatment at night. I have tried the Ordinary’s Granactive 2% Emulsion and after that moved to Avene TriAcneal. I didn’t experience any irriation, so I guess my skin ist somewhat tolerant. After I had finished TriAcneal I didn’t continue buying any more retinoid products because I didn’t really see any results, if at all, my acne seemed to get worse so i felt insecure about my choice of product. Is there any form or product of Retionoid or even a combination, that you could recommend specifically for people suffering from mild to moderate adult acne?

Gio August 8, 2019 - 4:18 pm

Luisa, could it have been a purge? Retinol can cause one: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/retinol-breakout-causes-treatment/

If that’s the case, you just have to suck it up and wait for the purge to be over. If you’re willing to try again, here are the best products for beginners: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/strength-retinol-need/

Also, use salicylic acid. It unclogs pores and treats breakouts, so it helps you get over a purge more quickly: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/salicylic-acid-skincare-benefits-oily-skin/

Luisa August 13, 2019 - 1:55 pm

Dear Gio, now that I think about it – it could have been a purge! I thought my skin was already used to Retinoids because of the Granactive, but maybe the Retinal in Triacneal worked differently and made me purge. I guess I’ll just have to try again slowly. Thanks for your reply 🙂

Eli Johnson February 7, 2020 - 5:49 am

You may also want to add Alpha Skincare’s version of retinol to your recommendations. This is a very affordable and easy to use option for beginners. I started with this product because there were no generics available when I started using Rx strength. (Yeah, I’m old!)


And it has antioxidants built in. Love this stuff.

Dana May 17, 2020 - 8:04 am

Hi Gio 🙂

I’m 23 with oily skin and I’ve been using my 1st bottle of granactive retinoid 2% in squalene (from the ordinary) and as you’ve mentioned, it’s been very gentle on my skin. It’s the 1st bottle of any retinol product I’ve used and I’m wondering if I should maintain and continue using this product, step down or step up (if so, which products would you recommend?)

I’m happy with the results thus far but I’m not sure if I’m “”too young”” (if there’s even such a thing haha) and am worried that its effectiveness would dip over time… esp in the future when I’m more likely to need its anti-ageing effects! Hence wondering if I should step down to a product with lower strength.

Thanks! x

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