A go-to guide on Retinoids, how they work and how to use them
Retinoids are variations of Vitamin A, which is a vital skin and body nutrient to boosts cell creation, and immunity and promotes healthy skin.
In skincare, we use Vitamin A derivatives called retinoids to decrease signs of acne, and ageing and improve the overall appearance of the skin. It does not remove dead skin cells, as many other products for mature skin do. Instead, the small molecules that make up retinol go deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) to your dermis (middle layer) and kick-start cellular regeneration.
Once in the deeper layers of the skin, retinoids help neutralise free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage the skin caused by things like air pollution and UV radiation. Retinoids help boost the production of elastin and collagen, which give our skin plumpness and firmness.
When shopping for retinoid skincare, the retinoids family can be broken down, in increasing order of potency and irritation, into four main types:
Only the first three retinoids are included in skincare products, while retinoic acid, the most potent and irritating retinoid, is only available via prescription.
It’s often the case that those interested in using retinoid skincare have seen both ‘Retinol’ and ‘Retinal’ advertised but didn't realise they meant different things.
Retinol and Retinal (short for retinaldehyde) are both derivatives of vitamin A, and can also be classed under the family of ‘retinoids’. Before any retinoid, including both retinol and retinal, can be used by the body, it must first be converted into the active, usable form of vitamin A, known as retinoic acid (aka. prescription tretinoin). This is where the difference starts.
Each conversion step essentially reduces the effectiveness of the ingredient, so the closer to retinoic acid the original molecule, the more powerful its effect on the skin will be. Retinal is just one conversion step away from retinoic acid, whereas retinol is two steps away, meaning that retinal can essentially deliver more active retinoic acid to the skin.
So, if there’s a choice between retinal or retinol-based skincare, you’re likely to see more efficacy from retinal.
Retinoids as a skincare ingredient family are fantastic multi-functional ingredients that can be used to target a range of common skin conditions: fine lines and wrinkles, pigmentation and uneven skin tone, texture, and acne.
Both retinol and retinal are both excellent options for delivering visible results to the skin. We would typically introduce a brand like Medik8, where there are a variety of strengths so we can gradually build this up in someone’s skincare routine over time (if required).
As a general rule, retinoids should be introduced to the skin slowly, by applying a pea-sized amount to cleansed skin twice per week for the first two weeks, then building up to every other night, then to every night if your skin can tolerate it.
Formulations can be applied directly onto dry skin if tolerated, or to damp or moisturised skin to alleviate any dryness or sensitivity. If skin becomes irritated, decrease but continue use until the skin has built up a tolerance to retinoids. Read our retinol sandwiching blog if your skin is irritated by retinoids or retinol!
Retinoids should generally be paired with barrier-supporting skincare ingredients such as ceramides, omega fatty acids and niacinamide, which work to support the natural lipid barrier and alleviate any of the drying symptoms commonly associated.
It depends if you’re a seasoned retinoid user, or completely new to the ingredient. If there is a series of strengths, and you’re new to the ingredient, start low. With all retinoids it's definitely a marathon, not a sprint, so start slow and build up over time as your skin gets used to the ingredient.
Retinyl esters: 0.5 - 1%
Retinol: 0.025 - 0.03%
Retinaldehyde (Retinal): 0.05%
Retinoic acid (prescription) usually starts at 0.025%.
Yes, so it’s still best to introduce the ingredient at low concentrations and build up as your skin adjusts, rather than going for the maximum strength.
We’d always recommend keeping any retinoid products for nighttime use only as they often degrade in UV light. Topical retinoids are often formulated into serums, eye creams and night creams. Although photostable retinoids can be used any time of the day, non-photostable retinoids should only be used at night and we would usually recommend a retinoid in your PM routine.
Many brands aren’t very forthcoming with UV stability so do speak with one of our aestheticians to find out which retinol skincare would be best for you.
Retinoids function at a cellular level so significant changes often take upwards of 3-6 months. Results are cumulative so will continue to improve your skin over time. You should start to notice a visible difference in the skin within 6-8 weeks as the epidermis renews itself. It is also important to note that you may not see equal benefits from vitamin A. You may see a marked improvement in acne and pigmentation but less improvement in wrinkles, for example.
Vitamin A is suitable for all ages and skin types as part of a nighttime routine. Sensitive skin types should use more mild retinoids, while dry skin should follow use with intensively moisturising creams. Vitamin A is not recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Retinoids can cause irritation based on their strength and frequency of usage. They can increase the photosensitivity of the skin, so it is vital to wear SPF30 or above every single day to protect against sun damage. Other side effects of retinoids include skin dryness, peeling, redness, or a temporary worsening of acne (known as purging).
These effects are seen during the acclimatisation period of retinoids and can be minimised by decreasing the strength of retinoids or frequency of application, or by supplementing the skin with hydrating agents. It is important to push through these side effects and allow your skin time to adjust and experience the full skin benefits of retinoids.
Formulation-wise, retinal in particular is generally harder to stabilise. Retinal formulations will also typically be more expensive than other retinoids, and you can still get fantastic and effective retinol products for a very reasonable price, so if you’re looking for more affordable skincare, retinol might be the better choice.
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