The Retinol 101: A Guide To The Types of Retinoids, Retinol Usage, and Related Myths

Retinol 101

Retinol is a mystifying ingredient. Although Retinols makes its way to the top shelf of dermatologists, it remains all of a doodah. This is because you just cannot slap the ingredient on, it needs you to build a tolerance first. From Tretinoin to Retinyl Palminate, there are more than one type to choose from and there are different percentages to unsnarl. Hit the nail on the head and the expert’s agree to the fact that there’s no ingredient any better than Retinol for smoothing skin. It’s a wonder ingredient to address anti-ageing and acnes.

Retinol is a virtuoso multi-tasker. It augments cell turnover and stimulates collagen and elastin production, create a fresh epidermis or the upper layer of the skin and improves an overall skin tone. A retinol is a synthetic derivative of vitamin-A that would help make your skin firm, plump out the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, or acne spots, polish away the rough skin and combat the blemishes. All the wondrous and proven-benefits that it renders makes it a star ingredient that would appropriately treat anything from pigmentation to wrinkles and cystic acne.

Photo by cottonbro studio

Benefits of Retinol:

  • Stimulates collagen production.
  • Accelerates skin cell proliferation.
  • Turn down the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Eliminates sun spots, age spots, and smoothens skin texture.
  • Regulates an oily skin type and minimizes breakouts.

How To Use Retinol?

  1. After cleansing and patting down your face at night, wait for 15 minutes before you apply a retinol. A damp skin can interfere with the absorption of retinol, furthermore, leading to irritation.
  2. Squeeze a pea size dab of retinol on your palm and, using your fingers, smooth the retinol over your face. Make sure you start with the forehead first (the skin there is less sensitive and can withstand a stronger dose if you accidentally apply too much), and then move towards nose, cheek and chin.
  3. Allow full 20 minutes for your skin to absorb the retinol before you head to any other skin care product.
  4. Proceed with your usual serums and moisturizers, and finish off with a layer of sunscreen. But, make sure you avoid any acne-fighting products (or any product that includes benzoyl peroxides or salicylic acids, unless you want to freak out your skin and go gaga with irritations).

If you’re already worried about skin not playing well with the retinols, you can apply a moisturizer first over your cleansed face, wait for 20 minutes, and then apply your retinol to weaken its potency. This technique is called buffering.

Types of Retinoids:

Retinoid is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A that unclog pores, stimulate collagen production to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, speed up cell turnover to even out the skin discoloration and achieve a smooth skin – and all this, in as little as period of 3 to 4 weeks. The first prescription topical retinoid – tretinoin – was FDA approved, under the brand name Retin-A, almost 40 years ago. The Dermatoligsts observed and soon learned that the patients under Retin-A did not only experience a clear skin but also soft, brightened, and smooth with minimal lines. Currently, there are three prescription-strength retinoids: tretinoin (under the brands Retin-A, Avita, Atralin, Retin-A Micro, Renova), Adapelene (Differin), and Tazarotene (Tazorac, Avage).

Many dermatologists find the preliminary results from tazarotene stronger than tretinoin. Adapelene is the third generation retinoid that’s designed to treat acne effectively and still be gentle to the skin. The ideal time to use a retinoid is before bed at night. And, this is not because a retinoid would make your skin photosensitive, but because the ingredient itself is photosensitive. Prescription retinoids contain retinoic acid, however, over-the-counter retinoids gradually convert into retinoic acid through a reaction within the skin.

Retinoic Acid:

Retinoic acid, prescription only, is a metabolite of vitamin-A. It is ‘bio available’ meaning this is naturally available in our skin and needs no conversion. The retinoic acid is a strongest form of retinoid that works significantly faster than any other retinoid since no conversion is required in the skin. Highlighted below are the functions of retinoic acid:

  • Promotes cell turnover
  • Supports collagen and elastin production
  • Help fix hyper-pigmentation


This is an over-the-counter form of retinoid that has less potential, and thus fewer side effects as well, than retinoic acid (prescription level). A retinol would convert on the cellular level of the skin, therefore, taking months or even years to show up with visible results. Retinol is one common ingredient that you would find in majority of anti-aging beauty products. Retinol synthesizes in the skin to promote cell turnover and stimulate collagen, thereby, reducing the wrinkles and the fine lines.


Tretinoin, also known as retin-A, is a prescription-only topical retinoid that works significantly faster than a retinol since it requires no conversion in the skin. The milder version of a treitnoin is used to battle the signs of aging while the stronger version of a tretinoin is recommended for acne treatments.


Isotretinoin is an oral derivative of vitamin A which is more effective than its topical form. Isotretinoins are prescribed for severe forms of acne like cystic acne and needs to be taken under medical supervision only.


Adapalene, better known as Differin, is an over-the-counter form of retinoid. It plays well with the sensitive skin as it is not irritating in nature. Adapalene works by slowing down the process of excessive growth in the lining of skin pores. Also, it would desensitize the skin to inflammation, thus, making it an ideal treatment for acne.

Retinal / Retinaldehyde:

Retinal or Retinaldehyde is one of the recent form of retinoid. It is faster and more efficient as compared to retinol.

How To Pick The Right Retinol:

When eyeing on a retinol, it is suggested to pick the one that’s in it’s most stable form i.e. encapsulated. An encapsulated retinol would enable deep skin penetration because a retinol tends to break down in the presence of light and air. The best part about a retinol is that it suits all skin types, however, it is usually recommended for people with sensitive and dry skin type to use lower strength concentrations of a retinol. You can go for a higher concentration depending on your age. A retinol comes in multiple strengths whereby 1%, 0.5%, 0.3% and 0.25% are the most common ones. If a product doesn’t mention the percentage of retinol on it’s label, it usually implies it’s weaker than 0.25% and would not reap you full benefits of a retinol.

According to several studies, you must use at least 0.25% of a retinol and 0.025% of tretinoin to reap full benefits. When you introduce your skin with retinol product, it is always ideal to start with lowest concentration and gradually step up. Another ground that you need to consider is your skin type and condition. If you have a thick or oily skin or if you have a matured skin, you could try a higher-strength product. But, if you have a dry or thin skin, start with a weaker formula.

Note: In case of any adverse skin reaction, it is always suggested to immediately switch to a weaker formula.

Caveat Emptor

  • Always do a patch test before you introduce retinol on your face.
  • Excess of anything is bad and so is the case with retinols too. If used very often, retinol can lead to redness and peel the skin.
  • It is always recommended to use retinol during night because that’s when a retinol would works most effectively. During daytime, a retinol might breakdown and, thus, making it less potent.
  • Like any other skincare product, retinol too needs a time bracket to get itself adjusted into it. After a retinol is incorporated to your skincare regimen, you might witness flakiness, dryness and occasional breakouts. If the irritation is too much, you might want to switch to a formula with lower concentration.
  • Don’t use retinol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Do not layer Benzoyl Peroxide or Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) with retinol or retinoids. This might deactivate or reduce the efficiency of the retinol. It might also lead to any redness or skin irritation. If you’ve accidentally layered them, pop in an anti-inflammatory pill to calm the skin.
  • Avoid waxing on a retinoid or retinol treated skin or otherwise it might cause you excess redness. Consider taking a break from retinol a week before you plan a waxing session.
  • Ensure using a broad spectrum sunscreen when using retinol.
  • Go slow: use retinol once or twice a week, starting off between 0.1% and 0.2% strength, and gradually build up from there.

How Long Does It Take For A Retinol to Show Up With Results:

Patience and consistency with any skincare product or DIY. It takes time for a skin to adapt with the new skin care regimen. With retinols, it might require around 12 weeks of usage to show up with some results.

At What Age One Should Start Using Retinol?

A retinol serum should be introduced when one hits their 30’s. Use it twice or thrice a week. Once you reach your 40’s, a retinol could be used almost every night.

Retinol Myth Busters:

There are a several myths linked to the retinols and that we’ll bust for you so you learn what benefit this holy grail can reap you.

Myth 1: Retinols Thin The Skin

When retinols are first incorporated to the skin care regimen, skin peeling is one of the common side effect. It is, thus, to a common belief that retinol thins the the skin. However, quite the vice-versa it is. A retinol boosts collagen production, and that actually helps thicken the skin. It indeed dismisses the thinning skin, a natural sign of skin aging, with a firm and plump skin.

Myth 2: Retinols Should Be Avoided Around The Eye Areas

It is a common belief that the areas around the eyes are sensitive enough to beat retinols. However, this is nothing but a misconception. The eye areas are more prone to aging. In fact, the sensitive areas around the eye tend to show up the first signs of aging. Hereby, the eye areas can reap the best of collagen stimulating and anti-aging benefits of retinols.

Myth 3:If You Experience Peeling or Redness, You Should Discontinue Retinol

It would be precise to describe retinols as “worse-before-better”. The most common side effects that one could experience when first starting out with retinol includes dryness, flakiness, tightness, redness, and peeling. Once the skin acclimates the ingredient with two to four weeks of usage, the side effects usually subside. It is only recommended to “go slow” when starting out with retinols.

Myth 4: Results Will Show Up in 4 to 6 Weeks

We all would wish this myth was a truth indeed. But, no. It ain’t! An OTC Retinol can take up to six months to show up with some visible results while a tretinoin requires up to three months for the results to show.

Myth 5: Retinols Makes The Skin Photo-Sensitive

There’s an immense belief about retinols making the skin sensitive to the sun. Hang on! that’s a huge myth. Retinols itself breaks down in the skin, thus, becoming unstable and less effective. This is the only reason that retinols are packaged in opaque bottles or metal tubes and are recommended for use at night. Nevertheless, that’s never an authorization to step out in the sun devoid of sun protection. Why? Because photo damage is one major contributor to extrinsic skin aging.

One thought on “The Retinol 101: A Guide To The Types of Retinoids, Retinol Usage, and Related Myths

  1. Retinol is actually a key ingredient in skincare that targets every skin concern , thank you for sharing this great article 🙂 very helpful

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