Retinoids have a well earned reputation as skin saviors, as they promote cell turnover, boost collagen and work on all skin types. But sometimes it can be confusing to know which form is best for your skin concern, be it breakouts, wrinkles, uneven tone or dullness.
We checked in with skin care experts Catie Wiggy, medical esthetician and advisor to MyChelle Dermaceuticals, and Alexis Mayne, vice president of research and development for Sanitas Skincare, to understand how retinoids can work for us.
What retinoids do
Retinoids are derived from vitamin A, and when absorbed into our skin, they convert to retinoic acid, the active ingredient that increases skin-cell turnover and increases collagen and elastin production thus making skin firmer and thicker.
It also stimulates blood vessels and is an anti-inflammatory, so skin becomes more radiant and evenly toned. And by unclogging pores it helps with acne. Alexis tells us that more and more research is being done on retinoids, and not only does it look like they counteract UV damage, but may pre-empt/prevent UV damage if used prior to exposure to UV rays.
The family of retinoids demystified.
Vitamin A is the common source behind retinoids, but they can come in different forms and strengths.
- Retinal (also known as retinaldehyde) is one of the most potent over-the-counter forms of vitamin A, and provides powerful results quickly because it converts to active vitamin A (retinoic acid) in just one step, but fortunately with less irritation than prescription forms.
- Retinol is another potent OTC form and it interacts directly with retinoid receptors in the skin—converting to active vitamin A in two steps but with similar results as retinal.
- Retinyl palmitate is a vitamin A derivative that is sometimes synthetically sourced and can convert to retinol through enzymes present in the skin. Not all material is converted and used, however, so it provides a lower level of vitamin A.
- Retinoic acid (found in medicines like Tretinoin® and Retin-A®) must be prescribed by a doctor and is the strongest form of vitamin A. Though very effective, it can often cause irritation and redness at first.
How do I use it?
Over-the-counter retinoids are excellent at enhancing skin radiance, treating signs of aging like wrinkles, fine lines and hyperpigmentation, as well as skin disorders and conditions like acne, oily skin, rosacea or congested pores. It’s a really effective skin treatment for all skin types, Alexis explains, but it’s important to note that it is not recommended during pregnancy or while breast-feeding.
Vitamin A is a low-dose active ingredient, meaning a very small amount is going to be plenty, so start with a lower dose and stick with it consistently. If you use other skin treatments, make your retinoid product the first layer, on completely dry skin, and allow a few minutes for it to penetrate the skin before adding serums or moisturizers.
It’s also best to use OTC retinoids at night because they aid in cell turnover that happens during skin’s nighttime repair cycle. Don’t forget, since retinoids stimulate cell turnover your fresh, renewed skin needs to be protected from sun exposure so make sure to use daily sunscreen (especially as you’re undoing past sun damage!). For some, skin may get slightly red or flaky at first, and if so, use the product once or twice a week and slowly add one additional night at a time until you’re using it nightly.
When will I see results?
Retinoids start working right away and smoother skin can be seen in as little as a few weeks. After 30 days you’ll notice changes to tone, skin elasticity and density, as well as improvements to acne. After 90 days the results are obvious both visually and at a cellular level, but you still need to maintain a nightly regimen.
Choose your favorite.
Here are a few we love.
Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster combines pure high-strength retinol with peptides that firm and hydrate skin along with soothing botanicals, including oat and licorice root extracts. It’s best for those with deeper wrinkles or very uneven skin tone, or for those whose skin didn’t respond to lower levels of retinoids.
For high and dry climates
MyChelle Remarkable Retinal Night Cream. This nutrient-rich rehydrating cream is especially beneficial for use in desert or high altitude climates. It’s a powerful skin rejuvenator and contains retinal, ultra-moisturizing shea butter, a ChroNOline™ Peptide that boosts collagen and cactus oil to help retain moisture.
Take on acne (and wrinkles too!)
MyChelle Remarkable Retinal Serum is an advanced serum that combines patented IconicA® (Retinal), a highly potent form of vitamin A, with Ceramide 3 and orange plant stem cells. This lightweight serum is good for acne and helps stimulate collagen for skin renewal and minimizes the appearance of lines and wrinkles.
Alchimie Forever Advanced Retinol Serum + Time Release Technology mixes a cocktail of active ingredients that release slowly so side effects like redness and flaking are minimized. A high concentration of pure retinol (.75%) is combined with skin-repairing antioxidant green tea, blueberry and vitamin C along with hyaluronic acid that hydrates and minimizes irritation—making this serum a complete product. It’s recommended that you use it just two times a week, at night on dry skin (no other products needed!) for best results.
Works deep in the skin
Sanitas Skincare RejuvenA is formulated with retinol, hydrating ceramides and skin-smoothing microalgae in a liposomal delivery system that mimics our natural skin lipids so that these ingredients penetrate better yet with less skin irritation.
Super moisturizing and restorative
Goldfaden MD Wake Up Call is the answer for dry, mature skin that needs a boost with its blend of botanical moisturizers, skin-firming DMEA, powerful antioxidants that repair sun damage (like co-enzyme Q10 and grapefruit peel oil) and .9% retinyl palmitate.
For sensitive skin
Derma E Anti-Wrinkle Renewal Cream, features retinyl palmitate, avocado, sesame and sunflower oils, creating a rich cream that’s gentle enough to use twice daily, leaving skin soft and supple with less noticeable fine lines.