Your Guide to Retinol – The Connector

Every skincare expert has heard of retinol, the chemical fountain of youth.

Graphic courtesy of Maya Sugar.

For years, beauty houses and brands have been claiming that their products hold the secret to a youthful glow.

However, some products that claim to have anti-aging power actually rely on circumstantial or refuted evidence.

On the other hand (and probably milder), the compounds that make up retinol have been used by board-certified dermatologists to improve skin for decades.

The catapult of retinols into mainstream skincare can be attributed to the fact that its usefulness has been scientifically proven. For example, tretinoin, the main active ingredient in Accutane, is a derivative of the same vitamin found in vitamin A.

IAMKARENO, photo on the right and Hyram, photo on the left. Graphic courtesy of Maya Sugar.

It seems like everyone is ready to jump into the world of retinol these days.

Even YouTube and Tiktok skincare giants like IAMKARENO and Hyram advocate its use.

Sometimes choosing the right skincare product can be as simple as knowing which ingredients nourish your skin the most.

First, how do you find the right product for your skin?

How to read an ingredient list

Most skincare addicts already have a list of “red flag” and “green flag” ingredients they look for in their next nighttime routine. However, it gets trickier when a product just doesn’t work for you. Knowing how to read a list of makeup or skincare ingredients makes the journey of finding your skin’s third bowl of mush that much more manageable.

If you find that you like retinol, but need to use multiple retinol products in one routine to see results, you may just need a higher concentration of product. The product with the highest concentration on an ingredient list will be listed first. The lowest will be displayed last. If an ingredient is at the bottom of the list, it may not be as present as you originally expected. If a product that works normally for you has suddenly become very aggressive, its concentration may be high.


Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, is one of the newest additions to the growing collection of over-the-counter retinol. The beauty of retinaldehyde, as well as its defining characteristic, is that it penetrates the skin almost eleven times faster than retinol. Due to its high absorption rate, retinaldehyde is known to be less irritating to the skin, especially for those who suffer from photosensitivity. Although still known to cause irritation, retinal can be a favorable alternative for hyper-reactive or sensitive skin.

Prescription based retinols

Tretinoin, a prescription-based retinaldehyde, can only be obtained with a prescription from a dermatologist. Although getting a prescription may seem like a daunting task to some, it may be worth it in the end. This is due to the multifunctional use of tretinoin. Retinaldehyde (or retin-A) is most commonly used to treat cystic and hormonal acne.

These forms of acne, unlike the occasional outbreak, cannot be treated with face masks and pimple patches. This is because they tend to persist without the intervention of a licensed dermatologist. In addition to the pain and discomfort associated with hormonal outbreaks, people with persistent acne may find that draining a cyst can make them worse or leave a dark mark. Tretinoin increases the rate of skin cell turnover, chemically exfoliating the skin and causing purging and resulting in a fresh, clean layer of skin. So, retinaldehydes work by thinning sebaceous filaments that can cause clogged pores in the first place, rather than manually scrubbing dirt away.

Graphic courtesy of Maya Sugar.

(Note: If you are interested in prescription tretinoin, please contact your dermatologist.)


If you’ve seen a dermatologist, but don’t want to try a prescription retinoid, then adapalene may be right for you. It was recently approved for over-the-counter use and is renowned for its effectiveness for sensitive skin. It is a 0.1% topical gel that has a slow absorption rate and is intended to treat both acne and skin texture issues.

Plant-Based “Retinols”

Plant-based “retinol” is an important addition to the list for those of us who don’t want animal derivatives in our makeup bags. Bakuchiol is a vegan botanical extract that closely mimics the effects of retinoids by boosting the collagen in our skin. Unlike retinol, rather than being a vitamin A derivative, bakuchiol contains its own set of medicinal properties unrelated to the compounds found in human skin.

The powerful plant claims to reduce the appearance of fine lines and help brighten skin. Those who are sensitive to vitamin A or who have found regular use of retinols too harsh may have more success using bakuchiol instead. This is because bakuchiol is much milder in comparison, resulting in less redness and irritation. Although adding bakuchiol to traditional skincare is new, recent studies have found the results of the botanical to be quite promising.

With this handy guide to retinol, any skincare enthusiast (knowledgeable or new) can erase fine lines like a MUA and discover their inner glow! Good scrubbing.

About Sally Dominguez

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