A guide to the different types of retinoids and your skin

Retinol, Tazarotene, Retinoic Acid, Adapalene, Pure Retinol… If you’ve ever searched for the much-vaunted holy grail skin care ingredient, you’ve probably come across a number of these similar terms. Even beauty editors need a booster to keep all of the different forms of retinoids straight, so if you’re feeling a little lost it’s 100% understandable. And if you’re trying to figure out which ingredient will encourage cell renewal, treat your acne, soften fine lines, promote collagen production, and / or make you look like someone who sleeps more than eight hours a night and drinks nothing but l water, minus the harsh side effects, you will find that this is a challenge. So, in the spirit of helping your skin look its best, let’s do a little retinoid refresher course, shall we?

The retinoid family tree

All retinoids all fall into the same category of vitamin A derivatives and can be classified (for the most part) into the four main categories: retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde and retinoic acid. Some are naturally present in the body, while others are pharmaceutical formulations. A few are only available with a doctor’s prescription, while others sit on the shelf at your local beauty supplier, waiting for you to purchase them. They vary in function and strength, which is great for consumers (as we can find the one that best suits our skin) but can cause brands to focus more on popular buzzwords rather than wording. ideal.

Tyler Gaul, one of the two founders of the skin care brand Protocol, says of Retinoid Function, “All of these forms of retinoids seek to activate all three retinoic acid receptors (alpha, beta, gamma), each of which plays a different role in vital skin processes and behaviors,” ranging from exfoliation to oil production. , cell renewal, pigmentation and collagen production. “

Read on for more information on the retinoid hierarchy.

Retinyl esters

You may have heard that all forms of retinoids are harsh on the skin, and although this largely depends on the potency and formulation of the product, some vitamin A derivatives are more potent than others. . The least irritating are retinyl esters, like the widely used retinyl propionate, which, as certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner explains, “are the most stable and gentle forms of retinol.”
However, all forms of retinol must be converted to retinoic acid on the skin in order to see results (like reduction of fine lines and acne, cell renewal, etc.). The more steps in this process, the weaker the topical ingredient and the lesser results you will see. Although, on the other hand, you will also experience less unwanted side effects like redness, peeling, and dry skin.
Compared to retinol and retinal (more on these coming soon), retinyl palmitate has two steps to convert to the required retinoic acid, which is why it is arguably the least efficient option on the market. (or at least takes the longest time to see the results. of the formula). But it also means, as Dr Zeichner explains, “it’s so gentle and can be used even if you have sensitive skin.”


Arguably the most visible retinoid on the market, retinol is also naturally present in the body and is the most studied topical option. Says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, “[Retinol] is also very unstable to UV light in most formulas ”, which is why the way your product has been formulated and packaged is crucial to ensure its effectiveness. The dispensing system once the bottle or jar is on your shelf will also determine its shelf life, meaning that if the formula is exposed to light and air, it will lose its effectiveness faster than a hermetic pump (depending on the types of preservatives it contains.). However, retinol can also be formulated as a cream, mousse, gel, or serum, among other options, which can affect how it interacts with your skin. Remember: It’s wise to only use one form of retinol at a time, rather than, say, washing your face with a cleanser loaded with retinol and following up with a retinol serum and cream.

Retinal, aka retinaldehyde

This is perhaps one of the trickiest terms to differentiate in the skin care market, because at first glance it looks like ‘retinol’ but with a misspelling. But, in fact, the retina is simply a brand new image of retinaldehyde. As Gaul explains, “Both retinol and retina must evolve into retinoic acid before they can activate all three retinoic acid receptors. The enzymes in your skin naturally act on these forms to initiate these changes and convert them into the next form. ”
Retinal is a step further in the process of converting retinoids on your skin (the end goal being retinoic acid), ahead of retinol and retinyl palmitate, which means it’s chemically more potent.
At this point, you might be wondering why not just use retinoic acid, aka the well known Accutane or Tretinoin? As we’ll see shortly, these retinoids are exceptionally strong, so if you want to avoid side effects like dryness and irritation while still seeing significant improvements in your skin, the retina might be the way to go. According to Gaul, “In head-to-head clinical trials, the retina shows almost identical clinical efficacy to retinoic acid in all areas that matter (wrinkle reduction, turnover rate, oil control). ) but without any of the side effects. Clinicians even struggled to convince people to complete retinoic acid studies, when 100% of retinal subjects finished without irritation. ”
However, the FDA still classifies this molecule as a non-pharmaceutical category, which means there is little to no regulatory oversight for it. “A company could legally put a single degraded molecule of it in a serum and call it retinal serum,” says Gaul, who formulates Protocol’s popular oxidized retinol (also known as retinol) serum in a lab without UV which is also used by NASA because the fragile ingredient deteriorates quickly when exposed to light or air.

Retinoic acid

Have you ever heard of Accutane? Well, that falls into that category of retinoids. In its prescription form, retinoic acid is known as tretinoin (or trans retinoic acid), which is “the biologically active form of retinol in the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl esters are all converted to retinoic acid on the skin.” If you are not seeing the acne removal or skin renewal results you expect from your over-the-counter products, it might be time to ask your dermatologist or plastic surgeon for this. more efficient option. But as Dr Zeichner explains, “Tretinoin is more potent than over-the-counter products because it doesn’t need to be converted to be active.” As such, you might also experience more dryness, flakiness, and irritation as your skin gets used to such a potent active ingredient.

Gaul also explains that since tretinoin is a pure retinoic acid, “it activates all three retinoic acid receptors and to a greater extent, generally making it the most potent therapeutic agent overall.” So whether you are targeting anti-aging issues or acne, you can consider this option as the most powerful (and sometimes poorly tolerated) available to you.


Are you not a fan of the harsh side effects of isotretinoin and its skin care cousins? Then it might be a good idea to try a synthetic retinoid derivative like adapalene. Said Gaul, “[This option] it is believed to only activate beta and gamma retinoic acid receptors and therefore [is] focused on key issues like psoriasis, keratosis pilaris and mild acne. [It’s] also more easily tolerated. There are also a few limited studies regarding the effectiveness of photodamage or wrinkle reduction, although this is usually not the primary focus. ”
Dr Zeichner cites adapalene’s better light stability and decreased skin irritation as the main reasons to explore the ingredient as opposed to retinoic acid – plus it’s available over the counter ( although we always recommend that you chat with your doctor to discuss its use most effectively).


Another synthetic form of vitamin A, tazarotene is a retinoid analogue “that binds to specific retinoid receptors found in the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It has long been considered one of the most potent retinoids, but also the most potentially irritating.” This is another prescription-only product that is often used to treat acne, fine lines, certain types of dark spots, and psoriasis. According to Gaul, tazarotene only activates beta and gamma retinoic acid receptors (similar to adapalene), which means it may not be as effective in treating severe acne (compared to tretinoin), but for mild to moderate acne, keratosis pilaris, and psoriasis, this can be a useful option to have in your skin care arsenal.


This plant-based vegan ingredient is everywhere right now, and while it’s not chemically related to retinol (or derived from vitamin A), it gives similar results for your skin. “Bakuchiol is a meroterpene phenol, which is chemically unlike retinol, but works the same in the skin,” says Sandy Skotnicki, board-certified dermatologist. “Essentially, it binds to retinol receptors in the skin and has similar effects.”
Bakuchiol also has potent antibacterial properties, useful in treating acne breakouts, and also helps regulate your cells’ mitochondria and prevent oxidative stress, which can lead to signs of aging. If you’re looking for a much gentler product to treat and repair your skin, this might be one of your best options.

About Sally Dominguez

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