Retinoids. I’m not sure how we arrived at a place where they’re one of the most talked about skincare ingredients but one of the most misunderstood as well, but here we are. It seems like every dermatologist, aesthetician, and skincare influencer has some type of retinoid on their “must have list,” and it seems like they can do everything you could ever dream of for your skin. But when you start trying to figure out what form of retinoid is best for you, things can start to feel a lot less upbeat and optimistic and a lot more confusing and potentially frustrating.
Just to make sure that we’re on the same page, when I say retinoids, I’m referring to the entire branch of vitamin A derivatives in skincare, so that includes everything from retinol to tretinoin and all the derivatives in between. You also must use a sunscreen daily when using any form of retinoid with no exceptions. I’m serious y’all, do not skip the sunscreen.
We’d be here all week if I were to deep dive into every type of retinoid that’s available on the market, so I thought I’d give a bit of a “roadmap of retinoids” that I frequently go over with clients who are new to the retinoid game. You can think of it as my greatest hits album of retinoids and where I’d recommend starting depending on your particular situation.
When you’re trying to figure out which retinoid is best for you, it can feel frustrating. So here are my greatest hits album of retinoids and where I’d recommend starting.
Retinyl Palmitate: Sensitive Skin
If you have skin that isn’t the biggest fan of super strong treatments but you also want to give retinoids a try with minimal risk of irritation, retinyl palmitate could be a great starting place for you. While it may not be the most potent of its retinoid siblings, it is much gentler. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that something won’t irritate your skin, but retinyl palmitate will be much less likely to result in the red, flaky, irritated skin that people commonly associate with retinoids. You may not see results as quickly or to the same degree as other retinoids, but the reduced risk of irritation is well worth the trade off.
Retinol: For the Newbies
If you don’t feel that your skin is particularly sensitive or reactive and are new to retinoids, I think a lower percentage retinol is a great place to start and gauge how your skin reacts to retinoids. I don’t feel like retinol is talked about a ton anymore due to new, “fancier” retinoids coming to the market over the last few years, but you cannot argue with the long history retinol has proving how effective it can be.
Because It’s been around for so long, there are also a variety of formats that retinol comes in, making it easier to slot into your routine. Whether you need a moisturizer, serum, or a facial oil, you can find varying strengths of retinol in them to find something that works for you.
Retinal (With an “A”): The New Kid on the Block
If you’ve seen retinal with an “a” instead of an “o”, it’s not a typo like I first thought when I saw it. Retinal, short for retinaldehyde, has been gaining traction over the last couple of years, and it joins HPR (aka hydroxypinacolone retinoate or granactive retinoid) as the new generation of retinoids that promise to deliver all the results that we want from retinoids without the drawbacks of irritation, peeling, and redness. There isn’t as much data to back up the efficacy of these retinoids, but that’s largely due to the fact that they are, well, new—you can’t have decades of research for something that hasn’t been around that long.
If you’re feeling experimental or like trying out newer innovations in the skincare market, a retinal or HPR product are definitely worth checking out, especially if you’ve used other retinoids and want to spice things up. Just be aware that switching to a newer retinoid from something tried-and-true like retinol or tretinoin is technically a bit of a gamble as you may or may not be able to maintain or improve the results you’re used to seeing.
Tretinoin: Call in the Cavalry
I feel like there’s a certain weight when you crossover into the world of prescription skin treatments—it just feels more serious, and that’s because it truly is. Tretinoin, which you may have heard referred to by the brand name Retin-A, is the be-all, end-all of retinoids that’s the most high powered. It’ll deliver the most dramatic results the quickest and also holds the potential for the most irritation and peeling.
You will need some type of medical consultation as you cannot buy tret over the counter (in the name of all that is dewy and calm, do not buy random tubes of tret from the internet), so the strength and format of tret will be determined by you and the medical professional giving you the prescription. Just take things slow and ease into your tret usage—I have many a horror story to share about being too daring with tretinoin and none of them end well, trust me.
Adapalene: Honorable Mention
I couldn’t finish this article without throwing in an honorable mention for adapalene. It’s a retinoid that used to be prescription-only but is now available over the counter at the drugstore. It’s used primarily to treat acne, and research is still a little shaky on how effective it is in terms of achieving other results associated with retinoids, like evening out skin tone or helping stimulate collagen production, but if you’re someone who is dealing with acne and are looking for something to help clear it up and calm it down, adapalene could be a great option for you.
That rounds out my rough roadmap of retinoids. I know it can feel like a bit of a minefield to navigate through, but hopefully I’ve given a little guidance as to where to start off this whole journey should you choose to take it. Remember, just start slow, remain consistent, and do not get impatient. These are long-term goals we’re trying to achieve, and there’s nothing to be gained by rushing. I hope you all have a great week out there!