Vitamin A: Retinoids, Retinols & Retinals Guide

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Retinol bottle and Adapalene Differin gel tube

Topical Retinoids are man-made Vitamin A derivatives that have an array of benefits for our skin backed by several clinical studies. Their main use is to reverse the signs of aging, treating acne and improving the overall health of your skin. 


Retinoids are essentially a prescription medication and you cannot buy them over the counter. Recently, Adapalene (a type of retinoid for treating acne) has been made available over-the-counter. The other less potent forms of Retinoids that are available for purchase without prescription are Retinol and Retinaldehyde which are less irritating, less potent but still effective.


Retinoids are basically Retinoic Acid. It takes some time for your skin to get used to it and incorporate in your skin care and available only with prescription. Retinoids have scientifically backed benefits with controlling acne and sebum production and are regarded as the standard anti-aging ingredient. You can get retinoids over-the-counter in the form of retinoid precursors (Retinols, Retinaldehyde and Retinyl Palmitate) which are less potent forms of Retinoids which also mean they will take more time to see benefits, and on the positive side would be less irritating than prescription Retinoid.

Benefits of Vitamin A for Skin

  • Reduces appearance of Hyperpigmentation & fine lines

How? Here is the science behind it if you are interested. New skin cells are produced in the skin and they come to the surface and give you a fresh layer of skin. As we age, this turnover of skin cells reduces in speed. Retinoids increase the cell turnover speed in your skin which means that there is less time for melanin to transfer from melanocytes to these new fresh skin cells around it, so when they reach your top layer of skin, these cells will have less melanin content and you see less pigment and glowing skin.

  • Younger looking skin:

Vitamin A is one staple ingredient that you need in your skin care if aging is one of your skin care concerns. It is the only over-the-counter product that you can purchase that actually stimulates collagen production when used over a period of time. Retinol stimulates fiberglass which are cells in your dermis (middle layer of skin) that produce collagen and help diminish scars.

  • Reverses photo damage:

Retinoids can repair sun damaged skin cells.

  • Controls Sebum Production:

Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives that help to shrink large oil glands with people who have large oil glands.

  • Exfoliation:

help in clearing off the dead skin cells within the pores. Basically Retinoids help in unclogging pores and that is why they are the prescription medication for acne treatments.

  • Acne Control:

Retinoid decreases the amount of acne and inflammation.

Types of Retinoids

  1. Adapalene (Brand name: Differin)

Best form of acne treatment and can be used along with Benzoyl Peroxide to treat acne.

  1. Tretinoin (Brand names: Retin A, FISA, Atralin, Renova, Avita)

Good for Anti-aging benefits like wrinkles and fine lines and prevention of skin cancer.

  1. Tazarotene
  2. Retinols

Retinol is a less potent form of Retinoid but is more readily available. These are available from brands like Paula’s choice and The Ordinary. These types of Retinoids are actually less effective compared to the above 3 because they need help from our skin biology to convert the retinol in our skin and then release the enzymes that deliver the benefits of a standard Retinoid.

Retinol vs Retinaldehyde

The main ingredient in a Retinoid is Retin A or Retinoic Acid which is only available as a prescription from a dermatologist. It is also not recommended that you use it without seeing a dermatologist first. 


What we can buy without prescription as a retinoid are basically Retinoic Acid precursors: that are Retinols, Retinaldehyde and Retinyl Palmitate


These precursors need help from your skin to convert the ingredient into something that will then derive the benefits of a standard Retinoid.

Retinaldehyde needs one conversion step: meaning when you apply it, it gets absorbed into the skin and it needs skin enzymes to transform it into an active form - the Retinoic Acid. Retinol needs two conversion steps and Retinyl Palmitate needs three conversion steps. The problem is that with each conversion, you lose a huge amount of efficacy. 


If you are using Retinol, you need 20 times the amount of Retinoic Acid to get the same effect of a standard Retinoid.


Retinoic Acid > Retinaldehyde (1 step conversion) >Retinol (2 step conversion) > Retinyl Palmitate (3 step conversion)


Retinaldehyde is 20 times as effective as Retinol but with zero side-effects. 


Some experts say that using Retinyl Palmitate topically loses so much of its power that it is basically useless.


So why would we even consider using less potency form of Retinoids?

Because less potency means less irritation. The other factor is that the true Retinoic Acid form of Retinoid is only available when prescribed by a doctor. If you are using Retinol, you don’t have that severe of flaking and irritation and these less potent forms have little to no downtime so you can lead your life normally and go out without experiencing some serious flaking of your skin while getting all the benefits of Retinoids with the long term use less potent forms of Vitamin A derivatives.


If you have been using Retinol for a long time with a high concentration (2%) and not seeing enough results, you can take things up a notch and graduate yourself to Retinaldehyde which is the strongest form that you can get without a prescription.

Retinyl Retinoate

This is basically a Retinol molecule linked with a Retinoic Acid molecule. The reason for creating something like that is if you apply Retinyl Retinoate to your skin, the molecules get broken down and you have


  1. Retinol
  2. Retinoic Acid


The Retinoic Acid molecule needs no conversion so it directly starts working on your skin and gives immediate benefits. On the other hand, the Retinol in this compound would need the usual 2 conversion steps and will take time to act when it reaches the active form (retinoic acid). So Retinoic Acid gives the immediate effect and when the effect of retinoic acid molecules go down, by that time the Retinol must have already finished the 2 step conversion and reached an active form of Retinoic acid and the work continues on your skin.


That is why brands label this as “All day Retinol” or “Time-Release Retinol” on their retinol products.

Encapsulated Retinol

This is a Retinol formulated with hydrating ingredients and makes the Retinol more stable. It is difficult to know how much retinol is actually in such products because if the product says “5% Encapsulated Retinol” it means that it is 5% Retinol together with the complex, not just the Retinol. 

Plant Based Vegan Retinols

Bakuchiol or “plant-based retinol” is just marketing gimmick retinol targeting people who look for Vegan skincare. Basically, all Retinols are man-made and vegan.

How To Apply Retinol

Here’s how to apply retinol, how much retinol to use and when to use it in your skincare routine:


  1. Cleanse: Wash your face with a cleanser.
  2. Wait for the skin to dry. Do not apply retinol on damp skin as it can penetrate deeply and cause irritation.
  3. Apply 2-3 drops (or pea sized amount if it is a gel/cream) of Retinol on your face excluding the sides of your eyes and contour, the sides of your nose and sides of your mouth as these areas of the face have thinner skin and can be quite irritating. 
  4. Moisturize: Finish off with a thick moisturizer to seal the product in and prevent water loss from your skin at night.
  5. Sunscreen: When you wake up in the morning, do not forget to apply sunscreen every 2-3 hours throughout the day as Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun.


If you have not been prescribed an active form of Retinoid by a Dermatologist and would like to incorporate Retinoids in your skincare routine, the best approach for first time users of Retinoids would be to start off with the lowest available concentration of Retinols (0.2%) or Tretinoin (0.025%) and use them for a few months, before graduating to Retinaldehyde form of Retinoid or higher concentrations of Retinol/Tretinoin.


Once you start to notice that you do not experience irritation or dry flaky skin with your Retinoid use anymore, you can increase the concentration of your Retinoid strength.

When to use Retinol

In your PM skincare routine:


Retinol is a very active ingredient that should not be applied to the skin during the day as it will sensitize the skin when exposed to UV rays. Always wear your Retinol in the night time and double cleanse in the morning to get your skin clear of retinol before heading out in the sun.


It is recommended to avoid the usage of Retinol for pregnant or lactating women. 


According to Dr. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC, we should start using retinoids in our 20s and 30s when our skin starts to lose its collagen; the building block of our skin that makes our skin look young and firm.

Active Ingredients not to mix with Retinols

If you are using an active ingredient like The Ordinary Retinols, their formulations do not allow you to mix your retinol and retinoids with Buffet and Copper Peptides. Although you will find many other products that do have Vitamin A and Peptides in them, they recommend not to use it together as their formulation might be made as such that these two ingredients don't work well together. 


Also,it is not recommended to use two different retinol products together as it can be a bit too much and irritate your skin.

What else to use with Retinols​​​​​​​

A great combination in your skincare routine for anti-aging and anti-pigmentation would be Vitamin C. Any other anti-oxidants work well with your Vitamin A. Here is a list of actives and ingredients that go well with Vitamin A:

  • Vitamin C
  • Humectants (like Hyaluronic Acid, Urea etc.)
  • Emollients (like ceramides)

Top 3 Retinoid Product Recommendations

  1. The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane ($8 | 30ml)

The Ordinary Retinol 2% in Squalane for Acne Scar Treatment

This is a good start to including Retinol in your skin care routine even if you don’t have sensitive skin. You can go up to 1% and 2% Retinol as your skin gets used to Vitamin A.

  1. The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane ($16 | 30ml)

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane for Skin Aging

5% may sound like a high percentage of Retinol but this is actually an ester of retinoic acid which is absolutely non-irritating. 

  1. Differin® Gel Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment ($12 | 15g)

Differin Gel Retinoid for Acne

Dermatologists recommend Differin® Gel for acne treatment which used to be available only with medical prescription but is now readily available over-the-counter. This retinoid is specially for treating acne. Use a 0.1 to 0.37% Benzoyl Peroxide with it to make it even more effective.


  1. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol ($80 | 30ml)

A Passioni Drunk Elephant 1% Retinol for Acne Scare Treatment



Incorporating Retinoid in your skincare routine can be one of the most rewarding for your skin. It can be used to treat acne, remove sun damaged skin cells, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve the overall health of the skin. In order to achieve these benefits, only Retinols and Retin Aldehydes are available over-the-counter apart from Adapalene which is the only form of Retinoid for acne treatments that is recently made available over-the-counter. Retin Aldehydes are more effective than Retinols as they work much faster on our skin and give quicker results. However, using potent forms of Retinoids like Retinoic Acid and Retinaldehyde also means that they will be more irritating and flaking the skin. The best approach for first time users of Retinoids would be to start off with the lowest available concentration of Retinols and use them for a few months, before graduating to Retinaldehyde.

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