Demystifying Retinoids Once And For All

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We constantly hear that vitamin A is the go-to ingredient for fighting fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots and clearing up skin. Ask almost any dermatologist and they’ll tell you. But with all the products containing variations of vitamin A, prescription and non-prescription, it’s easy to get confused about which is right for you. Retinoids, retinol, retinoic acid, Retin-A, Renova, and Tazorac (and the list goes on) are all forms of vitamin A or contain derivatives of this nutrient found naturally in the skin, but what’s the difference between them all? We got a crash course from dermatologists and aestheticians to clear up this common confusion.

First, lets start with retinoids, which is the general, all-encompassing term for a class of chemical compounds related to vitamin A, says San Francisco dermatologist Marie Jhin, MD. Retinoids can be used in various health and beauty related treatments from vision problems and bone tissue deterioration to acne and wrinkles.

Now on to retinol, which is a type of retinoid that is usually found in non-prescription wrinkle creams. It is the actual form of vitamin A found in animals and is a soluble compound that can be absorbed by the skin, says New York dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD. Retinol, under certain circumstances combined with certain enzymes can be converted into tretinoin, the acid form of vitamin A also known as retinoic acid. Retinoic acid, which is the main active ingredient of the prescription drugs Retin-A, Renova and Tazorac, is the real hero when it comes to treating acne and aging skin. In fact, “retinoic acid is the only FDA-approved ingredient for visibly reducing the appearance of wrinkles,” says Dr. Jhin.

Non-prescription retinol found in many skin-care products can convert to tretinoin or retinoic acid, but the operative word is can. “The conversion is not predictable, so just because a product contains retinol, it doesn’t mean that it can or will do what tretinoin can do in terms of acne or as a wrinkle treatment,” says Dr. Schultz.

So which retinoid is the best for you? It depends on your concerns and your type of skin, says Dr. Jhin. “The skin’s reaction is determined by the chemical variations and molecular structure of the retinoid product,” says aesthetician Nerida Joy. So consult a qualified doctor who has extensive knowledge and experience with retinoids to discuss the best treatment option for your condition,” adds aesthetician Veronica Barton Schwartz.

No matter which variation you choose, you should apply your retinoids in the evenings. “If your skin becomes red and flaky, the product may be too aggressive for everyday use. If this is the case, you can cut back to only a few times a week or you can mix it with your nighttime moisturizer. Be careful with these products and pay attention to the results. More is not always better. Too strong of a product can chemically burn the outer layer of your skin, which will leave you with a slight reddish brown coloration and skin that feels rough to the touch,” says Joy.

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