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  • Writer's pictureJill Stetson

Vitamin A - the “Hero” ingredient of skin care. What are retinoids and why should you use one?

Topical Vitamin A is the powerhouse ingredient for anti-aging products. Over the course of 35 years, many retinoid products (Vitamin A) were developed thus, this ingredient has evolved significantly since the beginning in skin care. It all started in 1971 when Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a famous Dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) for acne treatment. It was sold by Johnson & Johnson with the brand name of Retin-A and was an extremely effective acne treatment and is still on the market 35 years later.

Retinoid products were first available by prescription only starting with Retin-A used to treat once. Then it was discovered that Topical Retinoids were also effective in treating anti-aging conditions such as fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of collagen. Therefore the pharmaceutical world developed Renova, which is Retin A with a moisturizing ingredient.

Over time the world of topical Vitamin A products or retinoids evolved and now medical grade products and over the counter products contain some form of a retinoid. And with that it can be quite confusing to select one for your skin conditions. So let me help break this world of retinoids down so you understand some of the primary differences.

What does a retinoid product do for your skin?

The main benefits are anti-aging and acne treatment. Specific benefits include:

• Increases exfoliation or desquamation, smoothes skin, creates an even skin texture

• Increases cell renewal or new cell growth

• Stimulates collagen production through creating fiber blasts in the dermis

• Fight free radicals, which damage your skin

• Promotes and maintains healthy skin tissue

• Brightens and lightens skin color - photo damage(dark spots) and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH)

• Improves firmness by working at the epidermal/dermal junction

• Regenerates UV damaged skin

• Thickens the epidermis

• Increases skin cell turnover to heal lesions and acne scars

• Improves collagen production

• Reduces the appearance of pores & unclogs pores

Here are the primary types of retinoids available in skin care:

Prescription - Retinoids - Retin A( Tretinoin), Renova, Tazarotene, and Adapalene (Differein), now available OTC. This group is strong, effective and irritating to skin. Transitioning your skin into the use is important.

Medical Grade - Retinol can be irritating. Retinyl Acetate is effective and not irritating.

OTC - Retinyl Palmitate, retinaldenhyde or retinal. Less effective and non-irritating

Retinyl Palmitate or acetate can be used as a preservative at very low concentrations in products. If used this way, there is no effect on your skin.

Prescription Retinoid Products

The prescription products of RetinA and Renova contain retinoic acid, which is what the body uses directly to treat skin conditions, meaning no conversion is happening in your skin once it is applied. Although very effective, it can also cause skin irritation. It is recommended to phase or transition your skin into this product over time; don’t use it every day in the beginning, and make sure to use sun protection. These two products are very good for mild acne to severe acne, acne scars and photo or sun damaged skin.

Medical Grade Products

Medical Grade products are products that are not prescription but have a high concentration of active ingredients with medical research behind them. These are products available at a dermatologist office, estheticians or med-spa. These products use retinol or retinyl acetate in their formulations. Retinol is broken down in the body to produce the retinoic acid which does the work. Retinyl acetate takes two steps to break it down in your skin for use. However, there is still some irritation with a retinol product but not with the retinyl acetate product. Each of these ingredients are effective and it depends on your skin’s condition and your age to select the right formulation for you.

Over-the-Counter Products

The primary ingredient used in the over the counter retinol products is retinoid palmitate which is a gentle form of Vitamin A and takes three steps in your skin to break down and do its work. Your skin is getting some benefit, but this is the less effective retinoid.

Another retinoid ingredient new to the market, and one to watch is Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR). This ingredient has a high efficacy and associated with little irritation.

Ingredient Concentrations

The types of products and ingredients above are all effective but at various levels based on the concentration of the retinoid and in some cases the ingredient carrier system. A stronger retinoid at a lower concentration can be more effective than an a weaker retinoid at a high concentration. For example you could use a retinyl acetate at a 1% that’s as effective as a retinol as a 0.05% , but the retinol can cause irritated skin. Medical grade products also contain different carrier systems in the product formulation that should be considered when selecting the concentration. A product with a 0.05% concentration but a deeper carrier system can be equal to a higher concentration.

Again, selecting the right product formulation depends on what you are treating and your skin condition. Having a dermatologist or esthetician help you make the right decision is essential.

What is more effective - a gel or lotion?

A retinoid or retinol gel formulation absorbs better in the skin than a lotion. Although a cream is not absorbed as quickly ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin can enhance the absorption.

Retinol Treatments

In addition to the daily care products formulated with a retinoid, there are professional treatments that have much higher concentrations that are very effective for acne or aging issues of the skin. Here are a couple examples of professional retinol treatments:

• 2.5% Vitamin A Accelerator by Circadia - Is added to a facial or chemical peel to accelerate the results. Very good for your skin once a quarter to slow down aging and more frequently for pigmentation and acne issues.

• 4% to 6% Pure Retinol Peel by PCA - Very effective in treating aging skin, pigment disorders, smoker’s skin and photo or sun damaged skin.

How to use a retinoid product?

When adding retinol products to your skincare routine, all retinoid products should be used at night, and it is a must to use a daily broad spectrum sun screen. Be sure to use an eye cream before applying the retinoid product to your skin to protect that area. Retinoids can be too harsh for the under eyes.

When should you start to use a retinoid product?

It all depends on your age, how your skin is aging and if you have a skin condition like acne or dark spots or sun damaged skin. How our skin ages depends on the following:

• Intrinsic aging - aging issues that start in our bodies naturally in our late 20’s and we begin to see the effects in our mid 30’s and beyond.

• Extrinsic aging - what the environment, lifestyle or sun exposure does to our skin These issues accelerates the inner aging process.

If you don’t have sun damage, smoked, and are going through the normal aging process starting a retinoid product with a lower concentration retinyl acetate in your 30’s make sense. Additionally starting with a Vitamin C and of course, always using a broad spectrum sunscreen. As you progress into your forties you can move up to a product with a higher concentration of the retinyl acetate or retinol and professional treatments using the higher concentrations of retinol.

On the other hand, if you have sun damage, I suggest starting with a retinol product at 0.05%. And definitely add professional treatments using the higher levels of retinol.

We all think that more is better and that’s really not the case with these retinoid products. When using these products, you want to control any inflammation because inflammation causes premature aging. Using higher concentrations or different formulations are not always the best way to go.

Topical Retinoid and Vitamin A Alternatives

In addition to the many forms of retinoids, there are a number of plant based alternatives (also known as retin-alts) that provide similar benefits to retinoids while being much gentler though not as effective.These are becoming increasingly popular in the skin care world. They both are great for people new to retinoids or have tried in the past but found they could not tolerate.


This is the most popular retinoid alternative and is natural and plant based. Also it has been used throughout history in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Bakuchiol has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties similar to retinol and treats signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. It will increase firmness & reduce the appearance of pores.


Revinage is a retinol-like molecule obtained from the extracts of Bidens Pilosa, palm seed oil, linseed oil, and cottonseed oil. It is known to mimic retinol-like action through the retinoid receptors in the skin. It is known for its powerful, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory affects. It brings about all the change without causing any side effects. It is available in the form of topical lotions, serums, creams and is also found in lipsticks. It has an excellent safety profile and can be used even in sensitive skin types without it causing much trouble.

In conclusion, retinoids are powerful ingredients to use on your skin. Work with a skin care professional to help select the right formulation for your skin. At SkinTrust, we have many formulations of retinoids for daily and professional use. We can help you select the right one for your skin and concerns.

SkinTrust, Palos Heights Esthetician

Highly recommended for serving Palos Heights, and the surrounding Palos Park and Palos Hills, SkinTrust offers services and treatments ranging from a classic facial, to chemical peels, to aging beautifully treatments, and the finishing touches of makeup.

​Although not a dermatology practice, SkinTrust offers advanced treatments including fillers, botox, micro-needling, and threading provided by our Nurse Practitioner.

Whether you want a single facial, several treatment options from our Power of Youthful Aging skin, or product recommendations - all options are customized to meet your needs. Let Skin Trust help you with Aging Beautifully and enjoying healthy, beautiful skin.

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