Retinols and retinoids are popping up into skincare regimens everywhere. Whether you’re getting your skincare goods from a Sephora shelf or a pharmacy counter, that mysterious R ingredient is a popular one in the fight against aging and acne. AND if used properly, it could revolutionize your skin regimen and ultimately your skin.
What are Retinoids?
Retinoids are a group of chemical compounds that are derived from Vitamin A. Retinoids are effective in treating acne and lessening the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. There are 3 well researched topical retinoids that are popularly used in skincare; Tretinoin (Retin-A®), Adapalene (Differin®), and Tazorotene (Tazorac®). Tretinoin is prescribed most commonly for acne but is prescribed for anti-aging purposes as well. Tretinoin should not be mixed with other acne treating ingredients such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide because studies have shown that these ingredients increase irritation and potentially decrease Tretinoin’s efficacy. Adapalene, now sold over the counter in the United States under the brand name Differin, is used to treat mild to moderate acne. Unlike Tretinoin, Adapalene can be used simultaneously as benzoyl peroxide without losing its efficacy. Tazarotene is slightly less popular but is prescribed to treat psoriasis, acne, and photo-damage.
What do Retinoids do?
Retinoids primarily function by increasing cell-turnover which works to unclog pores, heal acne scarring, and fade fine lines and wrinkles. What makes retinoids unique compared to other active ingredients, is that with regular use, retinoids can regulate epithelial cell growth. Epithelial cells are the types of cells that make up our skin, our glands, and the lining of our organs. Within the body, retinoids play a variety of roles from immune function and vision to the activation of tumor suppressor genes and the growth of bone tissue. When applied to the skin topically over time, retinoids have shown efficacy in treating acne, psoriasis, photo-aging, and reversing signs of natural aging. They have been observed to thicken the epidermis layer, decrease depth of wrinkles, have anti-inflammatory benefits, and decrease clogged pores.
Retinoids vs Retinol?
The retinol that we see in over the counter products like serums and moisturizers differ slightly from the retinoids that can be prescribed by your doctor. The retinol sold over the counter is less efficacious due to the fact that it is in a form that your skin cannot immediately use. In order to process the retinol, the skin must first convert it to retinoic acid. This makes over the counter retinol less potent and more gentle. However, if you’re looking for major results or have severe skin issues you want to tackle, a retinoid may be your best bet since they are already in the retinoic acid form and can be readily absorbed and processed by the skin.
Starting a Retinoid or Retinol
I was introduced to topical retinoids years and years ago by a pediatrician who was trying to heal my acne plagued face. He prescribed me Epiduo which is a topical prescription that combines Adapalene and Benzyl Peroxide. At the time I was just too young and too impatient to deal with the side effects, so my time on Epiduo was short lived. The side effects of peeling, flaking, breaking out, burning, and dryness was too much for my high-school self to deal with and after being on Epiduo for about a month I gave up on it.
Starting any retinoid is usually accompanied by an uncomfortable adjustment period where your skin has to get used to the medicine. The “initial break-out” or “acne-flare” caused by starting retinoids can be enough to scare any acne-sufferer away. The last thing you want is for what you are using to heal your acne, to give you more acne. But, if you can get through the initial breakout and power through the peeling and dryness, there is clear, younger-looking skin waiting for you on the other side. To help you power through, you’ll want a heavy-duty moisturizer, a gentle cleanser, and a trustworthy daily sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher.
Two years ago, I was prescribed Tretinoin for the first time by my dermatologist after finishing a 6-month treatment of Accutane. My dermatologist prescribed me 0.025% Tretinoin cream at first to help heal my remaining acne scars and keep my pores clear. Since then I have transitioned to a 0.1% Micro-Tretinoin gel, which has a higher alcohol content than the cream and releases at a slower rate. Most doctors will ease you into a prescription retinoid to ease the initial flare of side effects. By starting on a lower concentration and working up to a higher one over time, the skin is allowed the time it needs to adjust to the active ingredient and will usually not be as irritated and sensitive.
For more info about my Accutane experience check out my Accutane Series:
*As always, I am not a doctor. Just sharing some research that I’ve done and some knowledge that I’ve gained through experience over the years.