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Retinoids Skincare Family: Retinol, Tretinoin & Others

There’s no denying that Retinoids are an incredibly popular skincare ingredient.
It’s common in skincare products targeting wrinkles and unhealthy skin.

But you might be wondering if Retinoids really work?
Perhaps you may be uncertain about Retinoids side effects.
Or, maybe you’re wondering which is better, Retinol or Retinoids!

Person touching shoudler

The importance of Retinoids were discovered around World War 1 and further studies showed how closely Retinoids and the skin are linked.[1]

Actually, Retinoids have a much larger role in the body than just in the skin.

Retinoids take part in important processes such as[1][2]:

  • developing embryos
  • organ development (ex: liver, heart, kidneys)
  • cell growth
  • cell modification

Lets find out what makes Retinoids such an excellent skincare ingredient.
(And some warnings when using Retinoids as well!)

Which is better for skincare: Retinol or Retinoid?

Retinoids are an incredibly popular skincare active ingredient.
But, you might have noticed some skincare products are labeled “Retinol” and others “Retinoid”.

Close enough so it must be the same thing, right?

Well, not really.

Retinol is actually Vitamin A and Retinoids are a group of molecules that are derived from Vitamin A.[1][2]
(Since Retinoids have a similar structure as Vitamin A, they can be labeled Vitamin A as well.)

Vitamin A is the first vitamin approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an anti-wrinkle agent that changes appearance of the skin surface and has anti-aging effects.

Zasada & Budzisz, 2019

Some members of the Retinoid family are:

  • Retinol
  • Tretinoin*
  • Tazarotene*
  • Adapalene*

*Prescription needed in the U.S.

  • Retinal
  • Retinoic Acid*
  • Retinyl Esters
  • Retinyl Palmitate

Skincare products labeled “Retinoid” use any combination of these Retinoids, and you won’t know which unless you read the ingredient list carefully!

It turns out, some Retinoids are better than other for skincare.

Does Retinoids actually work in skincare?

Retinoid’s anti-aging properties are widely promoted and praised.
But, these claims actually have a solid scientific backing.

For example, scientists found that Retinol (and Retinoids)[2][3]:

  • strengthens skin structure, causing less wrinkles.
  • reduce water loss, keeping the skin hydrated.
  • prevents Collagen damage and sagging skin.
  • increase skin protein and Keratin production.
  • causes dark pigments to spread out evenly.
  • decreases hyperpigmentation.
  • promotes smoother skin by increasing new skin production.
woman stretching her back

With more than two decades of experimentation, there is a vast amount of evidence that regular retinoid use over several months results in clinical improvement in skin texture, wrinkles, and pigmentation.

Levin & Momim, 2010

A part of why Retinoids are so effective is because of their ability to absorb deep into the skin and actually interact with skin cells![2][5]
(Unlike skincare products containing Collagen.)

Remember, not all Retinoids are equal

The anti-wrinkle, skin strengthening properties of Retinoids make this skincare ingredient an amazing addition to any skincare routine.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that different Retinoids have different effectiveness.

For example, Tretinoin (also called Retinoic Acid) is considered to be the most effective and active Retinoid.[1][2][5]

Typically, Tretinoin is prescribed to treat skin with severe acne conditions as well as acne scarring.[4]

Several research groups found that Retinyl Palmitate, Retinoid Esters and Retinal were not significantly effective in reducing wrinkles or improving the skin.[2][3][5]

A few warnings to consider when using Retinoids

If Retinoids are such great anti-aging skincare ingredients, why isn’t it used in all skincare products?
Well, it turns out, there’s a few things to be careful with when using Retinoids.

The most common side effects known as “Retinoid Reaction”[1] are:

  • Burning
  • Peeling
  • Dermatitis

  • Itching
  • Drying skin
  • Skin irritation

And just like AHA’s, Retinoids causes the skin to be sensitive to the Sun and UV radiation.
(It’s advised to avoid the Sun and apply plenty of sunblock[1] when using Retinoids.)

Also, Retinoids are quite unstable and loses effectiveness when it reacts with light and air.[1][2][3]

Finally, scientists advise pregnant women to avoid using Retinoids because Retinoids “are known to cause teratogenicity/embryotoxicity.”[1]

Woman holding pregnant belly

Future of Retinoids and skincare

In summary, Retinoids can be an amazing addition to any skincare routine.

If you’ve had irritability issues with Retinoids in the past, there’s some good news!
The next generation of Retinoids is currently being researched by scientists.

New nano-particle Retinoids that are just as effective while being smaller, more shelf stable and most importantly, less irritating to the skin.[1]

If successful, these new Retinoids may one day be as common as glycerin in skincare products.

In addition, scientists discovered that using Retinol with common skincare ingredients had synergistic results![1]

  • Retinol (0.07%) & Vitamin C (3.5%)
    • This mixture “could reverse, at least in part, skin changes induced by both chronological and photo-aging.”[1]
  • Retinol (0.3%) & Hydroquinone (4%)
    • Combination showed better results in treating fine lines and wrinkles within 16 weeks.
  • Retinol (0.1%) & Glycolic Acid (an AHA) (8%)

For now, Retinoids continue to be valuable and play an important role in skincare!

After sunscreens, many believe topical retinoids are the most important drug class to combat and reverse the signs of aging.

Levin & Momin, 2010


  1. Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H., Roeder, A., Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety.
  2. Zasada, M., Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments.
  3. Levin, J., Momin, S. (2010). How Much Do We Really Know About Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients?
  4. Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne.
  5. Tran, D., Townley, J., Barnes, T., Greive, K. (2015). An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin.