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Everything you need to know about Retinol in skincare

Updated: February 01, 2024

Retinol is one of the most famous skincare ingredient these days. It rose to fame for its science-backed anti-aging benefits.

Retinol and retinoids have been used for many decades. Tretinoin, a type of retinoid, was first approved by the FDA in 1971 as an acne-treatment.

Since then, science has discovered that retinoids have another amazing benefit: anti-aging.

Before you go purchase a retinol product, read through this guide for a detailed understanding of how it works. We'll cover everything you need to know about retinol and retinoids.

  • What retinoids are
  • How retinoids work
  • Retinol vs retinoids
  • How to best use retinol
  • Retinol vs bakuchiol
  • How to pick a retinoid

What are retinoids?

Retinoids are compounds either derived from Vitamin A or closely-related. There are many types of retinoids, such as retinol, tretinoin and adapalene.

Topical retinoids can be broken down into four generations by their molecular structure and receptor selectivity.

  • First generation: tretinoin, retinol, retinal
  • Second generation: etretinate and its metabolite acitretin. There are no second generation retinoids that are available to us.
  • Third generation: tazarotene, bexarotene and adapalene
  • Fourth generation: trifarotene

Receptor selectivity refers to where the retinoid starts to work in our skin. There are three main types of retinoid receptors. These include retinoic acid receptors (RAR), retinoid X receptors (RXR), and RAR-related orphan receptors (ROR).

You can think of receptors as a landing dock. Prior to reaching this dock, retinoids have to be converted to retinoic acid. Some retinoids take more steps to convert than others.

First and second generation retinoids are flexible and interact with more types of retinoid receptors. They are able to dock to the most types of receptors.

Third generation retinoids are less flexible and dock with fewer receptor types.

Fourth generation retinoids only bind to a specific receptor (the RAR-y receptor). Trifarotene, the only fourth generation retinoid, was only approved for use in 2019. We'll dive more into the different types of retinoids further down this post.

Our bodies obtain vitamin A from diet. Foods rich in vitamin A include carrots, sweet potato, cantaloupe melon, and grapefruit.

Most retinoids in cosmetics are synthetically created.

How do retinoids work?

Our skin is made up of a three major components:

  • Fibroblasts, or connective tissue
  • Collagen fiber, a protein that gives structure to skin
  • Elastin, a protein that provides stretch and recoil to skin

Collagen and elastin are naturally produced by the body. They play a big role in keeping your skin youthful. As we age, cell regeneration begins to slow. We start producing less collagen and our elastin begins to naturally degrade. This decrease in collagen and elastin leads to wrinkles and sagging skin.

Retinoids tell your skin to start regenerating collagen and create new skin cells. This process begins when retinoids bind to the retinoic acid receptors in our skin.

Retinoids simulate the old fibroblasts in our skin to create more collagen. They also help remove degraded elastin from our skin and protect cells from oxidative damage.

Free radicals are molecules that may cause harmful chemical reactions in your body. They also break down collagen in the skin.

To combat this, antioxidants are able to donate an electron to free radicals. This helps to stabilize free radicals and lessen skin damage. Luckily, retinoids are a natural antioxidant that fights free radicals.

Another perk? angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is the formation of new blood vessels.

Blood vessels supply our skin with nutrients and oxygen. They also support our skin's natural barrier to keep bad things out.

To recap, retinoids are a gold-standard for anti-aging because:

  • They tell fibroblasts to create more collagen
  • They remove old elastin
  • They protect cells from oxidative stress
  • They form new blood vessels

What is retinol?

Retinol is a first-generation retinoid, meaning it can bind with more receptors. It is more mild than other types of retinoids.

Retinol can be purchased over the counter without a prescription. It provides the same anti-aging benefits as other retinoids

Best use for retinoids?

Retinoids work in the deeper layers of skin to provide anti-aging benefits.

Retinoids are best used to:

  • improve sun damage
  • reduce signs of aging
  • decrease age and sun spots
  • reduce pigmentation
  • smooth fine-lines and wrinkles
  • even out skin tone
  • help treat acne

All retinoids have to be used continuously before seeing results. Most people report first seeing results after a couple of months of use.

Important things to note

If you are using retinoids, please wear SPF! Starting retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun. This increases the chance of further damage and burning.

Studies show prolonged use of retinoids increase your skin's natural sun protection. However, it is best to continue to use sunscreen and sun protection. Not doing so will negate the effects of your skincare.

Retinoids can be sensitizing and irritating. It is best to patch-test prior to using. Dermatologists recommend starting slow. Start by using retinol once a week and slowly ramp up to daily use.

If you're still experiencing irritation after prolonged use, you could have hypersensitivity to retinoids. We recommend speaking to a professional about how to best incorporate retinoids or alternatives into your skincare routine.

Retinoids are not recommended for use during pregnancy.

How to use Retinol

Retinol is non-prescription, meaning you can buy it at the store. Common products containing retinol include treatments, serums, and moisturizers. In each case, it is best to follow the instructions on the packaging.

Retinol is not as strong as prescription retinoids, such as tretinoin. This makes it a great alternative to those who experience irritation from prescription retinoids.

Retinol has to be used continuously used to yield results. It is also best to ramp up: start by using retinol once a week. This gives your skin time to adjust and decrease irritation. Once you feel ready, you can slowly increase retinol use to nightly.

Be sure to wear sunscreen when using retinol or any retinoids. They cause skin to be more sensitive to the sun.

How is it different from bakuchiol?

Bakuchiol is marketed as a retinol-alternative. The two are actually from different families.

Bakuchiol is an antioxidant that has similar benefits as retinol. Both are anti-aging, texture smoothing, and sun-damage correctors. However, bakuchiol has some differences.

Bakuchiol is less likely to cause irritation than retinol. This makes it a great alternative for those with sensitivity towards retinoids. Another perk: bakuchiol does not make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Combining retinol and bakuchiol may boost the anti-aging benefits. However, this can also cause irritation for sensitive skin. Be sure to speak to a professional about using new ingredients.

Types of Retinoids:

Here is a breakdown of the most popular types of retinoids.

  • Retinol is available over the counter and without a prescription. It is more mild than prescription retinoids.

  • Retinal is a first-generation retinoid. It's structure makes it work faster. This is because it does not need to be converted several times to retinoic acid before binding to a receptor.

  • Tretinoin was the first retinoid to be developed. It can be more irritating due to its strength. This ingredient is prescription only in many countries.

  • Tazarotene is another prescription retinoid.

  • Adapalene is a common acne treatment. It has been found to be as effective as other retinoids while causing less irritation. You can buy adapalene over the counter, or in-store, in concentrations of 0.1% in gel form. 0.1% lotion or cream and 0.3% gel are only availably with a prescription.

Find a product

Finding a product with retinol is easy on SkinSort. Click here to view the most popular products containing retinol. 😊

Save time when looking for your next holy grail when you set your liked/disliked ingredients with a SkinSort account.

Ingredients list with bakuchiol and retinol highlighted

Further Learning

Learn more about bakuchiol.

Want to become a pro at reading ingredients lists? We wrote a comprehensive guide to reading and understanding an ingredients list.

While retinoids work in the deeper layers of skin, AHAs work on the surface. Incorporating these ingredients can give your skin the best anti-aging benefits. Learn all about AHAs in our guide here.