Retinol vs. Retinoid vs. Retin-A: The Ultimate Guide

Retinol vs. Retinoid vs. Retin-A: The Ultimate Guide

Retinoids are a family of ingredients that are chemically related to vitamin A and are a diverse group of compounds that occur naturally all over our bodies. They help with vital internal processes like tissue repair and the body’s immune function, which include reproduction, growth, vision, embryogenesis and inflammation.

Retinoid is an umbrella term that consists of various types of ingredients like retinol and Retin-A, which is a brand name of a prescription retinoid called tretinoin. It is another name for retinoic acid, which is the only type of retinoid that the skin can process immediately. All other retinoids are first converted into retinoic acid by skin enzymes before your skin can use them. Retinol and Retin-A are used to treat a variety of skin conditions.

What is the difference between retinol and Retin-A?

Even though both are retinoids, there are a few inherent differences between retinol and Retin-A:

  • Efficacy - Both retinol and Retin-A (retinoic acid or tretinoin) are used to treat various skin conditions ranging from age-related issues to acne and pore problems, but tretinoin has an efficacy of about 20 times more than retinol. This is because Retin-A contains vitamin A active ingredients at a higher concentration. 
  • Tolerance - But some studies show that both of them display similar results. Yet even though the results were similar, it was also seen that the skin had a better tolerance for retinol because its lower strength elicited fewer skin reactions.
  • Availability - Retinol is generally found in OTC topical skincare products, while retinoic acid can be obtained only through prescriptions.

How do retinoids affect the skin?

Free radicals on our skin cause collagen damage, which is an important component in keeping skin young and strong. With age, the body starts to produce less collagen and causes a breakdown of elastin, subcutaneous fat and collagen. This will lead to ageing signs like wrinkles, fine lines and sagging skin.

Retinoids are an important part of anti-ageing skincare as they work by counteracting the free radicals on the skin, thereby preserving your body’s collagen reserves while also promoting collagen production. They are also responsible for thickening the epidermis, thereby affecting the molecular and cellular properties of the dermis and epidermis layers of the skin.

As a result, retinoids can visibly improve the appearance of:

  • Age spots
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Skin hydration
  • Skin texture
  • Skin tone

Do retinoids work against acne?

Acne is mainly caused by bacteria infecting the dry and dead skin cells and oil buildup in the skin. The oily pool gives the bacteria a chance to flourish, causing an excess of oil production which traps the dirt and dead cells in the skin.

Retinoids work by stripping away the outer layer of dead cells, leaving the skin free from dirt, debris and excess oil. So, when retinoids clean the potential acne causers, you have fewer chances of breaking out.

Are there any side effects to using retinoids?

Even though retinoids are a great part of your skincare routine, they also come with their fair share of side effects depending on your skin type:

  • Irritation - Retinoids can cause itching, dryness, skin peeling and a burning sensation when applied. This is more common when using Retin-A in place of retinol due to its higher concentration of vitamin A active ingredients.
  • Sun sensitivity - When you start using retinoids, your skin may become very sensitive to sunlight. This is why you should always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen when using retinoids. You can also use it only at night to minimize sun exposure as much as possible for the first few months since starting retinol.
  • Irritant conjunctivitis - In some cases, if you apply topical retinoids very close to your eyes, you may end up with irritant conjunctivitis.

How should you use retinoids?

Despite the side effects, retinoids are a popular choice in skincare due to their vast number of benefits. You can use them strategically though, to avoid the side effects:

  • Nighttime use - It’s best to use retinoids at night to avoid exacerbating the irritation with added sun exposure.
  • Minimize sun exposure - The fairly volatile nature of retinoids makes them break down when exposed to the sun. It is important to use sunscreen as much as possible when using retinoids while keeping your sun exposure limited.
  • Use with Vitamin C - Adding vitamin C to your retinoid skincare routine can prove quite beneficial. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that works against skin stressors and free radicals during the day, thereby reducing the risk of more serious side effects.

Can you get retinoids from food?

Retinoids are types of vitamin A that are present in both plant and animal products. For animal sources, you can find them in:

  • Dairy products like milk, butter and cheese
  • Seafood like fish, shrimp and cod liver oil
  • The liver of beef
  • Eggs

You can find carotenoids, preformed vitamin A, in plant products like:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Underground veggies like potatoes and carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Fruits like plums, mangoes and apricots

You may also find vitamin A in supplements, but they are not recommended by the WHO for pregnant women.

Should you consider topical retinoids?

Apart from the usual side effects, topical retinoids are proven to be safe and effective against various skin problems. But, if you are worried about the damage, speak to your doctor to get proper recommendations about which retinoids will best suit your skincare needs.

It is advisable to do a little research and speak to a dermatologist before jumping into any new skincare product, especially ones that contain strong ingredients like retinoids. They will be able to give you proper guidance and also able to understand whether you need retinoids in the first place.

Typical myths associated with retinoids

Great as they are, there are many myths associated with retinoids that need to be debunked immediately:

  • Myth 1: All retinoids are the same - Retinoids come in a large variety of vitamin A derivatives and range from over-the-counter to prescription variants.
  • Myth 2: They can make your skin thin - In reality, retinoids help produce more collagen, which thickens your skin.
  • Myth 3: Only prescription retinoids are effective - It really depends on your skincare needs about which retinoid you should consider using. Many OTC retinoid products give amazing results and it is a very popular ingredient in anti-ageing cosmetics.
  • Myth 4: Young people can’t use retinoids - Originally when retinoids had hit the market, they were used as a remedy for acne. In the 1980s, they began to be marketed as a family of anti-ageing ingredients, as it was newly discovered that retinoids worked great against wrinkles, fine lines and hyperpigmentation. So, retinoid usage really depends on the skin condition and not the age of a person.
  • Myth 5: They give quick results - Retinoids can take up to 6 months to produce visible results. So, you have to be patient with them and if you don’t see any difference even after several months, you can visit a dermatologist for proper guidance.

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