What Are Retinoids Used in Skin Care Products?

Cartoon people holding hands to represent Vitamin A family of retinoids.

What is a retinoid? Retinoid definition

Retinoids are good for skin and are the best antiaging ingredients with the most evidence-based research.1 But what exactly are retinoids and what is the difference between retinol and a retinoid? Which retinoids are prescription and which are cosmetics. This is a basic guide to retinoids in skin care for beginners. You will see links to more information about throughout the article to learn "What are retinoids?". There are many myths about retinoids that we will try to clear up.

What are retinoids?

The definition of a retinoid is a natural or laboratory-made ingredient in the Vitamin A family that binds the retinoic acid receptor (RAR). When the RAR receptor is bound and turned on (like a key in a lock), many important genes are affected that turn on and off cellular pathways. 

Vitamin A family

Which Retinoid is Best for Your Skin?

There are many things to consider when choosing a retinoid. You need to consider:

  1. Your Baumann Skin Type®
  2. What other products are in your skin care routine
  3. When you are using the retinoid
  4. What strength of retinoid you should use. 

We can help give you advice based on your Baumann Skin Type.

Topical Retinoids List

Topical Retinoids List

The topical retinoid ingredients found in skin care include tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, trifarotene, and retinol. There are also retinoid esters such as retinyl palmitate and retinyl linoleate. Beta carotene, retinal (also called retinaldehyde) are other forms of retinoids. Beta Carotene, the retinyl esters such as retinyl palmitate2 and retinyl lineolate, and retinaldehyde do not penetrate into the skin well, and are therefore not very effective.

Plant Derived Retinoids, Natural Retinoids and Organic Retinoids

There are no organic or natural alternatives to retinol and retinoids on the market at this time that are effective on the skin when used topically. Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, retinol and beta carotene are retinoids found in the diet. These cannot be placed on the skin, nor can Vitamin A rich foods like carrots, because they will not penetrate into the skin to where the RAR are. So don’t waste your money on skin care products with carrot and other Vitamin A rich foods when you are wanting natural antiaging skincare. For retinoids in skincare to be effective- they must be made in the laboratory. 

Carotenoids are plant derived retinoids and include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. Plant derived retinoids are not very effective in topical skincare products because they do not penetrate very well into the skin. These natural plant derived retinoids are best to get in your diet. This is why you do not see vegan skin care products with retinoids. Homemade retinol serums will not work because putting carrots and other carotenoids on the skin is not beneficial because the Vitamin A is not in a form that it can get into the skin. 

Bakuchiol, a natural ingredient that many claim is a natural form of retinoid, does NOT bind the RAR receptor and therefore by definition is not a retinoid.3 Bakuchiol has been shown to have antiaging effects similar to those seen with retinoids.

To learn more about retinoid science and how retinoids work click here. 

What do retinoids do for your skin?

  • Retinoids for Acne

Retinoids were first used orally for acne with a drug called Accutane (isotretinoin). Soon after, topical forms called tretinoin were developed. Later more stable retinoids like adapalene4 and tazarotene5 6 were developed they do not break down upon exposure to light or benzoyl peroxide in acne medications. Now there are many prescription acne retinoids- some with antibiotics7 and benzoyl peroxide added to the formulation. The newest prescription retinoid for acne is trifarotene8 which selectively binds the RAR gamma receptor. 

Retinoids were used for acne before they were used for wrinkles. During the clinical trials for acne, investigators noticed that the skin looked smoother and younger when treated with tretinoin.9 This observation led to a plethora of research on retinoids to treat wrinkles on the face.

  • Retinoids for Wrinkles

Retinoids are the most effective and most proven skincare ingredients to improve wrinkles and sun damage (photodamage)10 11 12 because they have the most evidence-based data. In fact, tazarotene and tretinoin are FDA approved to improve photoaged skin.14 15 All retinoids that can penetrate into the skin should improve wrinkles, but only tretinoin, tazarotene and retinol16 have clinical studies proving that they treat wrinkles.17 Retinol is a cosmeceutical and is not FDA approved to treat wrinkles.

Retinoids are a must for anyone wanting to preserve the looks of their skin and to improve the appearance of the skin. Retinol is the only retinoid with good efficacy data18 19 that is available without a prescription.20 21 22 Retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde (retinal) do not penetrate well into the skin which lowers their efficacy.23

What you need to know when starting or choosing a retinoid

We can guide you on what retinoids are best for your Baumann Skin Type and how to use them.

You must use retinoids properly or you will have retinoid side effects. This is what beginners need to know about retinoids. Follow the links to learn more about each of these:

Retinoid vs Retinol vs Retinyl Esters

Many people confuse the words retinol and retinoid. Retinol is in the retinoid family (which is also the Vitamin A family). All retinoids work like retinoic acid because they bind the retinoic acid receptor (RAR).

What is a Retinoid

Retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate and any other ingredients with names resembling “Retinyl ____ate”, are chemically altered esters of retinol. While they are considered retinoids because they bind the RAR receptor, they penetrate very poorly into skin and are not very effective when used topically. Retinyl palmitate is controversial because it is believed to cause cancer when exposed to UV rays.24 (Avoid retinyl palmitate when you can or use it in conjunction with a sunscreen).

Other Names For Retinol?

There are many ineffective retinol products on the market. Retinol is the ingredient name to look for on the label- but many products that claim to have retinol actually have retinol-like ingredients that do not penetrate well into the skin like the retinyl esters: retinyl palmitate and retinyl propriate.25 This is a problem, but because retinol is considered a cosmetic ingredient, it does not have FDA oversight so quality control is compromised. Other names for retinoids are listed in the images above.

Which retinoid and retinol products are best?

All prescription retinoids undergo scrutiny from the FDA and can be trusted. They are manufactured properly and formulated with an FDA approved formulation.

Cosmeceutical retinoids are not regulated by the FDA and there are many ineffective ones on the market. Retinol breaks apart upon exposure to air or light and to oxidizing ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide. This means that the formulations, manufacturing, bottling and storage of retinol will affect its strength and efficacy. Also- the product labels of retinol products can be misleading. Many products that claim to have retinol on the label actually have retinyl esters such as retinyl palmitate.26 This is why you need to make sure you buy a retinol product from a source you trust. 

We can help you find a retinol product for your Baumann Skin Type®.

What do retinoids do for skin?

Retinoids do many important things to the skin. To learn more about the science of how retinoids work, click here or read this reference.27 Here is a list of some of the benefits of retinoids like retinol on the skin:

  • Increase the skin’s production of collagen, which helps smooth the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process to eliminate damaged surface cells
  • Treat uneven skin tone by fading excess pigment and evening skin tone
  • Prevent clogged pores and improve the appearance of pores
  • Prevent and treat acne
  • Improve red purple stretch marks28
  • Improve wound healing29 when used prior to a surgical or laser procedure30

Retinoid side effects on skin

You must know your skin type before using a retinoid. Knowing your skin type allows us to give you advice on if a retinoid is good for your skin type, the best retinoid for your Baumann Skin Type®, and the best skin care routine order steps for your retinoid. How you use the retinoid is also important and differs by skin type. Retinoids are not appropriate for all skin types. For example, if you have rosacea, using a rosacea cream may be more effective for your skin than a retinoid, or can be combined in a skin care routine for rosacea that allows your skin to tolerate the retinoid. For more information follow these links:

  • Find your skin type and get a skin care routine so you can see if a retinoid is right for you.
  • How to use retinoids on the face, neck and chest?
  • When to apply retinol in your skin care routine?
  • What are the side effects of retinoids when not used properly?

Long Term Effects of Retinol and Retinoids

Retinoids have been shown to thicken the dermal layer of the skin making it stronger and less likely to tear or wrinkle. Skin is smoother with less wrinkles. Skin pigmentation is more even. These benefits have been shown in dozens of studies. The longer you use the retinoid, the more benefits you will have. However- it may take 4-8 months to begin seeing benefits depending upon your skin type, the type of retinoid you use, and how much you use. You will get the best results if you follow the instructions at this link on how to use retinoids.

How long do retinoid benefits last?

How long retinoid benefits last depends upon the type of retinoid used and how long the retinoid was used. We recommend not stopping retinoids and staying on them until something better is invented.

The beneficial long-term effects of retinoids seem to last for many months to years after stopping the retinoid.31 32 It is best to continue the retinoid nightly forever (or until something better is invented). However, if you forget to use your retinoids every once in a while, do not worry- you still get a good benefit from the retinoid. One study showed that after using tretinoin 0.05% cream nightly for 48 weeks, decreasing application to 3 times a week was able to sustain the skin benefits.33 Once a week of retinoid use also had a benefit, but not as much as 3 times a week. Therefore- you should use the retinoid at least 3 times a week to maintain the benefit after you have finished a 48-week course of every night. Many studies that examined skin under the microscope have shown beneficial long-term effects of retinoids such as increased collagen and hyaluronic acid levels in skin.34 35

The Science of Retinoids and Skincare

The chemical structure of retinoids36 is shown below. Click here to learn more about the science of retinoids and how retinoids improve aged skin and acne.

Retinoids used in dermatology

There is so much to know about retinoids- but don’t worry- we can help you find the best retinoid for your skin type.

Level up.jpg

References

  1. Kang, S., & Voorhees, J. J. (1998). Photoaging therapy with topical tretinoin: an evidence-based analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology39(2), S55-S61.
  2. Duell, E. A., Kang, S., & Voorhess, J. J. (1997). Unoccluded retinol penetrates human skin in vivo more effectively than unoccluded retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid. Journal of investigative dermatology109(3), 301-305.
  3. Chaudhuri, R. K., & Bojanowski, K. (2014). Bakuchiol: a retinol‐like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti‐aging effects. International journal of cosmetic science36(3), 221-230.
  4. Millikan, L. E. (2001). Pivotal clinical trials of adapalene in the treatment of acne. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology15, 19-22.
  5. Shalita, A. R., Chalker, D. K., Griffith, R. F., Herbert, A. A., Hickman, J. G., Maloney, J. M., ... & Sefton, J. (1999). Tazarotene gel is safe and effective in the treatment of acne vulgaris: a multicenter, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study. Cutis63(6), 349-354.
  6. Kakita, L. (2000). Tazarotene versus tretinoin or adapalene in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology43(2), S51-S54.
  7. Ochsendorf, F. (2015). Clindamycin phosphate 1.2%/tretinoin 0.025%: a novel fixed‐dose combination treatment for acne vulgaris. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology29, 8-13.
  8. Tan, J., Thiboutot, D., Popp, G., Gooderham, M., Lynde, C., Del Rosso, J., ... & Gold, L. S. (2019). Randomized phase 3 evaluation of trifarotene 50 μg/g cream treatment of moderate facial and truncal acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology80(6), 1691-1699.
  9. Looking Back on Retinoid Discovery and Development with Dr. James Leyden. Podcast on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/episode/6sX8GgIhVYtWm50dyDsYIt
  10. Singh, M., & Griffiths, C. E. (2006). The use of retinoids in the treatment of photoaging. Dermatologic therapy19(5), 297-305.
  11. Baumann L Ch 45 Retinoids in Baumann’s Cosmetic dermatology. 3rd edition (McGraw Hill 2022) in press
  12. Fisher, G. J., Talwar, H. S., Lin, J., & Voorhees, J. J. (1999). Molecular mechanisms of photoaging in human skin in vivo and their prevention by all‐trans retinoic acid. Photochemistry and photobiology69(2), 154-157.
  13. Weinstein, G. D., Nigra, T. P., Pochi, P. E., Savin, R. C., Allan, A., Benik, K., ... & Thorne, E. G. (1991). Topical tretinoin for treatment of photodamaged skin: a multicenter study. Archives of dermatology127(5), 659-665.
  14. Kang, S., Krueger, G. G., Tanghetti, E. A., Lew-Kaya, D., Sefton, J., Walker, P. S., ... & Tazarotene Cream in Photodamage Study Group. (2005). A multicenter, randomized, double-blind trial of tazarotene 0.1% cream in the treatment of photodamage. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology52(2), 268-274.
  15. Olsen, E. A., Katz, H. I., Levine, N., Shupack, J., Billys, M. M., Prawer, S., ... & Thome, E. G. (1992). Tretinoin emollient cream: a new therapy for photodamaged skin. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology26(2), 215-224.
  16. Kong, R., Cui, Y., Fisher, G. J., Wang, X., Chen, Y., Schneider, L. M., & Majmudar, G. (2016). A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of cosmetic dermatology15(1), 49-57.
  17. Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging1(4), 327.
  18. Kafi, R., Kwak, H. S. R., Schumacher, W. E., Cho, S., Hanft, V. N., Hamilton, T. A., ... & Kang, S. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Archives of dermatology143(5), 606-612.
  19. Bellemere, G., Stamatas, G. N., Bruere, V., Bertin, C., Issachar, N., & Oddos, T. (2009). Antiaging action of retinol: from molecular to clinical. Skin pharmacology and physiology22(4), 200-209.
  20. Kang, S., Duell, E. A., Fisher, G. J., Datta, S. C., Wang, Z. Q., Reddy, A. P., ... & Voorhees, J. J. (1995). Application of retinol to human skin in vivo induces epidermal hyperplasia and cellular retinoid binding proteins characteristic of retinoic acid but without measurable retinoic acid levels or irritation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology105(4), 549-556.
  21. Li, W. H., Wong, H. K., Serrano, J., Randhawa, M., Kaur, S., Southall, M. D., & Parsa, R. (2017). Topical stabilized retinol treatment induces the expression of HAS genes and HA production in human skin in vitro and in vivo. Archives of dermatological research, 309(4), 275.
  22. Varani, J., Fisher, G. J., Kang, S., & Voorhees, J. J. (1998, August). Molecular mechanisms of intrinsic skin aging and retinoid-induced repair and reversal. In Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 57-60). Elsevier.
  23. Duell, E. A., Kang, S., & Voorhess, J. J. (1997). Unoccluded retinol penetrates human skin in vivo more effectively than unoccluded retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid. Journal of investigative dermatology, 109(3), 301-305.
  24. https://www.mdedge.com/dermatology/article/57245/melanoma/retinyl-palmitate/page/0/1
  25. Temova Rakuša, Ž., Škufca, P., Kristl, A., & Roškar, R. (2021). Quality control of retinoids in commercial cosmetic products. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20(4), 1166-1175.
  26. Temova Rakuša, Ž., Škufca, P., Kristl, A., & Roškar, R. (2021). Quality control of retinoids in commercial cosmetic products. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20(4), 1166-1175.
  27. Imhof, L., & Leuthard, D. (2021). Topical Over-the-Counter Antiaging Agents: An Update and Systematic Review. Dermatology, 237(2), 217-229.
  28. Elson, M. L. (1990). Treatment of striae distensae with topical tretinoin. The Journal of dermatologic surgery and oncology, 16(3), 267-270.
  29. de Campos Peseto, D., Carmona, E. V., Silva, K. C. D., Guedes, F. R. V., Hummel Filho, F., Martinez, N. P., ... & Priolli, D. G. (2016). Effects of tretinoin on wound healing in aged skin. Wound Repair and Regeneration, 24(2), 411-417.
  30. Orringer, J. S., Kang, S., Johnson, T. M., Karimipour, D. J., Hamilton, T., Hammerberg, C., ... & Fisher, G. J. (2004). Tretinoin treatment before carbon-dioxide laser resurfacing: a clinical and biochemical analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 51(6), 940-946.
  31. Ellis, C. N., Weiss, J. S., Hamilton, T. A., Headington, J. T., Zelickson, A. S., & Voorhees, J. J. (1990). Sustained improvement with prolonged topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) for photoaged skin. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 23(4), 629-637.
  32. Singh, M., & Griffiths, C. E. (2006). The use of retinoids in the treatment of photoaging. Dermatologic therapy, 19(5), 297-305.
  33. Olsen, E. A., Katz, H. I., Levine, N., Nigra, T. P., Pochi, P. E., Savin, R. C., ... & Jou, H. C. (1997). Sustained improvement in photodamaged skin with reduced tretinoin emollient cream treatment regimen: Effect of once-weekly and three-times-weekly applications. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 37(2), 227-230.
  34. Bhawan MD, J. (1998). Short‐and long‐term histologic effects of topical tretinoin on photodamaged skin. International journal of dermatology, 37(4), 286-292.
  35.  Bhawan, J., Olsen, E., Lufrano, L., Thorne, E. G., Schwab, B., & Gilchrest, B. A. (1996). Histologic evaluation of the long term effects of tretinoin on photodamaged skin. Journal of dermatological science11(3), 177-182.
  36. Baumann, L. Ch. 45 Retinoids in Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology Edition 3 (McGraw Hill 2022)

© 2006 - 2022 Skin Type Solutions