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What Are Retinoids Used in Skin Care Products?

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.

Types of Retinoids

Types of Retinoids

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.

Do retinoids have long term effects?

Retinoids have long term effects on acne and wrinkles, however the effects are not permanent.

Retinoids effects on dark spots only last a few weeks when they are stopped.

See the studies here.

Topical Retinoids List

Topical Retinoid 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.

tretinoin vs retinol

Tretinoin vs retinol

If tretinoin and retinol are both retinoids, what is the difference?

  • Tretinoin is retinoic acid.
  • Retinol turns into retinoic acid in the skin.
  • Tretinoin is prescription
  • Retinol is a cosmetic
  • There are retinols as strong as tretinoin

Is it better to use retinol or tretinoin?

Both are retinoids and are good. Retinol comes in lower strength versions that can help you work your way up to tretinoin with fewer side effects.

Can I use retinol and tretinoin together?

Tretinoin is retinoic acid and retinol turns into retinoic acid in the skin. Do not use these together because you can cause over exfoliation.

Adapalene vs tretinoin

Adapalene is available without a prescription

Tretinoin is prescription only

Adapalene is weaker than tretinoin

Both are used for acne

Should I start tretinoin or adapalene?

When you are a beginner to retinoids, it is best to start with a weaker retinoid and work your way up.

If you are choosing between adapalene and tretinoin- start with adapalene.

Begin with retinol, then use adapalene and then switch to tretinoin. Once you can handle tretinoin, switch to tazarotene

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

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:

What do retinoids do for your skin?

How to use retinol cream for beginners

What step to use retinoid in skin care routine?

Are retinoids dangerous?

How to choose the best retinoid for beginners

Are there natural or organic retinoid creams?

How do retinoids work on wrinkles?

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

16 Bauman Skin Types

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).

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.

If you are beginning retinol for the first time, this blog can help you figure out which retinol to buy.

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:

Retinoids are the best antiaging ingredient in antiwrinkle serums!

Will retinol improve crow's feet wrinkles?

Retinol has been shown to improve crow's feet wrinkles around the eyes when used for one year.

Two studies showed that using retinol 0.1% for 52-weeks (one year), 44% of subjects had a significant improvement of crow’s feet lines.(37-39) Combining retinoids with botulinum toxins like Botox in the crow’s feet area has been shown to improve crow’s feet better than Botox alone. (38) Retinol has also been shown to improve results of botulinum toxin injections. (39)

Using retinol and other retinoids has been shown to improve wrinkles, dark spots, acne, keratosis pilaris, skin texture and protect skin from further aging. It is worth the effort to use retinoids! Once you make it though the first 2-4 weeks you will get past the scaling and skin sensitivity and begin to see the befits. If you follow the skin care routine instructions for retinoids and use a skin care routine customized for your Baumann Skin Type, you should be able to begin using your retinoids without significant side effects.

Remember- only buy retinol products from a source you trust, there are many counterfeit products online and many products that do not contain what they claim or that are manufactured improperly. Here are some of our favorite retinols. You can also talk to your dermatologist about getting a prescription for tretinoin, adapalene or trifarotene or tazarotene.

Retinoid side effects on skin

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.

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

Learn more about retinoids on social media

Does retinol exfoliate skin?

Yes retinoids are exfoliants. The stronger the retinol is the more exfoliating abilities it has.


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  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 science, 36(3), 221-230.
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  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.
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  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.
  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.
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  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.
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  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.
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  36. Baumann, L. Ch. 45 Retinoids in Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology Edition 3 (McGraw Hill 2022)
  37. Randhawa M, Rossetti D, Leyden JJ, Fantasia J, Zeichner J, Cula GO, et al. One-year topical stabilized retinol treatment improves photodamaged skin in a double-blind, vehicle-controlled trial. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015;14(3):271-80.
  38. Carcamo, A. S., Guiha, I., Goldman, M. P., Rao, J., & Ehrlich, M. (2008). The Safety and Efficacy of Botulinum Toxin Type A Plus Tazarotene 0.1% Cream in the Treatment of Lateral Canthal Rhytids: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. The American Journal of Cosmetic Surgery, 25(2), 78-88.
  39. Ascher, B., Fanchon, C., Kanoun-Copy, L., Bouloc, A., & Benech, F. (2012). A skincare containing retinol adenosine and hyaluronic acid optimises the benefits from a type A botulinum toxin injection. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, 14(5), 234-238.

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