• Deborah Verga

Retinols, Retinoids, & Retin-A, Oh My!


When it comes to anti-aging skincare, you've got options... so many options... and some might say, too many options.


It can be confusing for sure.


Especially when you're looking at diving into the 3R's: Retinols, Retinoids, and Retin-A!


I know when I was trying to decide what to use to combat my aging skin: fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, loss of collagen and elastin, sun damage... I was overwhelmed and confused by the amount of information out there.


And the amount of crisscross terminology.


The two terms "retinoid" and "retinol" are often used interchangeably, yet they're not quite the same thing.


And Retin-A is often talked about as Tretinoin. Plus, it seems like it's in a category all by itself, but technically it's not.


See confusing!

So today I'm going to try to break it all down to help dispel the mystery and take away some of the confusion.


For me, when it comes to the 3R's of anti-aging skincare, it's really about anti-wrinkle skincare!


I'm here for it, let's get into it...


What are the 3R's?

The 3 R's in the anti-wrinkle skincare game are Retinols, Retinoids, and Retin-A.


All 3 are known as Vitamin A derivatives.


According to NCBI: "Vitamin A and its derivatives are among the most effective substances slowing the aging process."


All Vitamin A derivatives are grouped together under the umbrella of retinoids.


But aren't retinols, retinoids, and Retin-A all separate things? (I totally get this is confusing!)


They are, but they're all part of a huge group of chemical compounds all derived from Vitamin A.


And all three do the same thing but in different ways and with differing degrees of success.


Vitamin A Derivatives in Order of Strength

Weakest to Strongest:

  • Retinol esters (Retinyl palmitate, Retinyl acetate, and Retinyl linoleate)

  • Retinol

  • Retinaldehyde (also known as Retinal)

  • Retinyl retinoate

  • Adapalene (Differin)

  • Retinoic acid (Retin-A or Tretinoin - anti-aging/wrinkles & acne)

Chemical Conversion

In order for your body, your skin cells, to properly use a Vitamin A derivative, it needs to chemically convert it to retinoic acid.


Some of these conversions are multi-step metabolic processes at the cellular level.


For example, in order for your body to properly use a retinol ester, it needs to convert it to retinol, then from retinol to retinaldehyde, and finally from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid.


A good thing to keep in mind, is that while all retinoids work towards the same results, the more steps it takes your body to convert the retinoid to retinoic acid, the less effective it's going to be and the longer it's going to take to do anything.


And the results you're seeking may not be anything to write home about.


On the plus side, the more conversions a retinoid needs to take to get to retinoic acid, the less irritating it is.


So for those that have sensitivities to Retin-A (Tretinoin) which is retinoic acid - no conversion needed - a lesser retinoid is often a welcome alternative.


How do Retinoids Improve Aging Skin

Retinoids improve the look and feel of aging skin by...

  • minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

  • reducing texture

  • improving thickness and elasticity

  • increasing collagen

  • reducing hyperpigmentation and sun damage

Where do I find Retinoids?

Retinoids range from over-the-counter topicals found in moisturizers and serums to prescription strength topical heavy hitters like Retin-A known as Tretinoin.


Over-the-Counter Retinoids

Over-the-counter retinoids, like retinols, are weaker retinoids that help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and renew the skin’s surface for radiant, younger-looking skin.


Because they have to go through that cellular level conversion process, they can take several months to a year for any visible results to appear.


Here are a few of my Favorite Over-the-Counter Retinoids


The first one is the CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum.


I like this retinol serum because in addition to retinol, it also contains niacinamide and ceramides. Both are supportive ingredients for helping to reduce inflammation and hyperpigmentation while improving the skin's lipid barrier.


The other one is by Neutrogena. It's the Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream. In addition to retinol, it contains a Hyaluronic Acid to help your skin retain moisture.


If you want something stronger, but you're not yet ready to go to Retin-A, my favorite over-the-counter retinoid is Adapalene.


Adapalene is a third-generation synthetic retinoid. It's stronger than a retinol but much more tolerable than than prescription Retin A.


But don't let that fool you. It can still cause skin sensitivity and irritation.


Adapalene was approved for over-the-counter use by the FDA in 2016 to treat acne.


In recent years it has shown promise in reducing the signs of aging, namely wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.


In a 2003 clinical study, "...photographs (before and after 9-month treatment) revealed significant improvement in wrinkles and other clinical features of photoaged skin with adapalene." (NCBI)


My favorite Adapalene is from Differin.

The Gold Standard

The gold standard for anti-aging is Retin-A (also known as Tretinoin).


Tretinoin is the most well studied and well documented anti-aging topical.


Because Tretinoin is already a retinoic acid, there's no cellular conversion taking place. It gets right in there and starts working immediately.


Because it's so powerful, it's also very irritating.


Benefits of Using Tretinoin

Tretinoin improves your skin's texture and appearance.


It fades dark spots and hyperpigmentation, it shrinks pores, and it causes your cells to turn over more rapidly, getting rid of the roughness and texture that are part of aging skin.


Tretinoin is only available by prescription either through your dermatologist, or you can get it through Curology, which is how I get my Tretinoin prescription.


I love using Curology!


I get my prescription filled through Curology's online service.


It's super convenient, there's no in-office dermatologist visit, and my prescription is custom formulated from my Curology provider with 2 other anti-aging ingredients based on my specific skin care needs and anti-aging goals.


The first thing I noticed when I started using Tretinoin was my skin became super soft, especially on my cheeks where I have sun damage.


I've also noticed a slight tightness around my smile lines and my skin already looks plumper and fuller.


Side Effects from Using Retinods

The side effects from using topical retinoids vary based on which retinoid you use, the condition of your skin, and your tolerance level.


Some common side effects from using topical retinoids are:

  • Excessive dryness of the skin

  • Skin redness

  • Scaling, flaking or peeling of the skin

  • Itching

Parting thoughts...

There are so many retinoid products to choose from.


Dispelling the mystery behind the 3R's: Retinols, Retinoids, and Retin-A should give you the confidence to make a more informed choice for your skincare needs and anti-aging skincare goals!


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© 2019 Deborah Verga