A Guide to the Best Retinoids for Your Skin

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Classification of Ingredient: Vitamin, Antioxidant

Retinoids are considered to be among the most powerful and most effective anti-aging active compounds available. 

What are Retinoids?

Retinol is an active form of vitamin A. As we age, our bodies naturally decrease the amount of Vitamin A it can produce from carotenoids. This results in the visible signs of aging such as wrinkles and a dull complexion. Topical retinol use can replenish the levels of Vitamin A within the cells and reverse these signs of aging. Retinol increases the rate of cell turnover to reveal younger-looking skin.  It also helps to build collagen and decrease the activity of enzymes that degrade collagen. It works to improve the appearance of pigmentation, helps unclog pores, exfoliate and smooth skin, decrease fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin hydration and treat acne.

Dermatologists generally recommend starting to incorporate retinol into your routine when you reach your thirties, as that is when collagen levels in the skin start decreasing.

How to incorporate retinoids into your routine:

Because retinoids can cause dryness, and irritation, it is recommended to start with a ‘low and slow’ approach when incorporating any form of Vitamin A into your routine if you have not previously used it before. Start with a very small, pea-sized amount on one night, and then wait a few days to evaluate your skins ability to tolerate the ingredient.   If the product makes your skin red and flaky, reduce the frequency until the skin is better able to tolerate regular use. Use retinol once or twice a week at first to see if your skin is likely to react, and gradually work up to every second day or three times a week.

Skincare Benefits:

  • Fights the signs of aging
  • Can prevent and clear acne
  • Decreases pigmentation and evens skin tone
  • Minimizes the appearance of pores
  • Reduces oil production
  • Increases cellular turnover
  • Increases collagen production
  • Diminishes fine lines and wrinkles
  • Brightens skin
  • Improves skin texture

How Retinoids work:

To be useful as an antiaging ingredient, retinoids need to interact with retinoid receptors.  They do this when retinol is metabolized to more active forms, such as retinaldehyde and retinoic acid using several enzymatic steps. 

The binding of topically applied Vitamin A to retinoid receptors can enhance gene expression, which effectively turns specific cellular functions on and off. When skin cell retinoid receptors bind to retinoids, a cascade of skin-benefiting mechanisms occur. This can result in an enhancement of cell proliferation, biosynthesis of extracellular proteins and glycans, and faster cellular turnover. By stimulating these age-defying processes in the skin, the appearance of the signs of ageing can be improved.  They also stimulate the production of new blood vessels within the skin, which improves skin colour and appearance.

Tretinoin, also known as Retin-A, was the first retinoid available. It was prescribed as an acne treatment in the 1960s, but researchers later discovered that it reduced pigmentation, and increased the rate of turnover of superficial skin cells.  It is the most popular and well-studied topical retinoid used currently, but its skin irritancy and propensity to oxidize make it difficult to formulate in skincare products. The potential for skin irritation is the reason retinoic acid is only available via prescription.  For this reason, more gentle synthetic and natural derivatives have become popular alternatives to retinoic acid.  These derivatives, known as retinol esters and include retinol palmitate, retinal acetate and retinal linoleate, are often used to lower the irritation potential and increase stability, but this results in a tradeoff as these derivatives have decreased retinoid activity and benefits. 

What scientific evidence is there?

This trial studied the effect of 0.05% tretinoin applied daily for 12 months. Tretinoin treatment showed significant improvement in the clinical signs of photoaging.  With the major degree of changes occurring after the six-month mark.  

This trial looked at the daily application of 0.05% tretinoin cream for a period of 12 months.  After 12 months, the formation of new collagen fibres was seen in the tretinoin-treated group. This study indicated that for dermal level improvement, more than six months of tretinoin therapy is required.

This trial found thrice-weekly tretinoin treatment appeared to be more effective in improving the fine wrinkles than once weekly application,  whereas discontinuation of tretinoin use resulted in the reversal of beneficial effects to some extent.

What form of retinol should I use?

There are many types of retinoids available. Anyone who has particularly sensitive skin may want to consider starting with retinoid esters (e.g. retinal palmitate), the most stable and gentle forms of retinol, before working their way up to a stronger version. Differin or Adapalene is an over-the-counter product that is recommended for those with acne, as it works to reduce breakouts and decrease inflammation in the skin.  It may have some anti-aging effects, but these have not been the focus of research as they are primarily intended for skin issues like acne, keratosis pilaris and psoriasis.   Mature skin that needs anti-aging benefits will do best with prescription-strength products, such as tretinoin and retinoic acid. These can be up to 100 times more potent than over-the-counter retinol products are legally allowed to be. However, those seeking to prevent aging are advised to start with gentler, encapsulated and time-release formulas before working their way up to the prescription-strength forms. Bakuchiol is a plant-based, vegan alternative that is not technically related to Vitamin A chemically but does function in a similar way within the skin and binds to the retinol receptors on the cell surface.  It is also antibacterial, so is effective against breakouts, but has limited clinical results showing its efficacy long-term.

My Favorite Retinol Containing Products Include:

Jeuneora Renewing Booster 

pH: 5.1

Skincare Concerns: Acne-prone, aging, fine lines and wrinkles

Suitable for: All skin types including sensitive and those not accustomed to retinol

Key Ingredients: Granactive retinoid, Aloe vera extract, Squalene

Made for sensitive skin and as a beginner’s Retinol, the Jeuneora Retinol Booster is a gentle formula that combines granactive retinoid with a lipid complex and soothing aloe vera extract to help deliver the benefits of retinol with minimal irritation. This is a great retinol serum for beginners as well as those with sensitive or easily irritated skin. Its hydrating formula minimizes the risk of dryness, and there are zero irritating ingredients added.

You can read my full review here 

Some By Mi Retinol Intense Advanced Triple Action Eye Cream

pH: 5.2

Skincare Concerns: Aging, Fine lines and wrinkles, dark under eyes

Suitable for: All skin types

Key Ingredients: Retinol, Retinal, Niacinamide, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acetyl Hexapeptide-8

This anti-aging eye cream is formulated with Retinol and Niacinamide to improve the appearance of dark circles and fine lines. In addition, Panthenol and hyaluronic acid offer hydration to the under-eye area and peptides help boost collagen production.  The formula is hypoallergenic, so it is safe to use on sensitive skin around the eye area. Even though this product does contain tea tree extract and fragrance, it is still gentle around my eye area and is a thin light-weight texture that does not feel heavy or cause milia.  In addition to the eye area, this can also be used on nasolabial folds, glabellar lines and on lips.

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane

pH: N/A (due to its anhydrous formula)

Skincare Concerns: Acne-prone, aging, fine lines and wrinkles

Suitable for: All skin types previously accustomed to retinol

Key Ingredients: Retinol, Squalane, Jojoba Seed Oil, Tomato Fruit Extract

The Ordinary’s 0.5% retinol is a medium-strength retinol product, while it’s not for those just starting out, it is a good supplement to a skincare routine, and contains soothing and moisturizing ingredients to reduce the risk of irritation. It is a water-free formula in a base of squalane, so feels and applies like an oil. While retinol palmitate can be used during the day, this formulation can not be applied to the skin before sun exposure and is therefore recommended for evening use only.

Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Overnight Serum

pH: 6.2

Skincare Concerns: Acne-prone, aging, fine lines and wrinkles

Suitable for: All skin types previously accustomed to retinol

Key Ingredients: Retinol, Glycolic acid, Lactic acid, Ferulic acid, Niacinamide, Gallic acid

This serum contains a time-release version of retinol, ferulic acid for antioxidant protection and niacinamide for brightening and ellagic acid and gallic acid, two antioxidants that are found in many plants that protect the skin from free radicals.  The formula does contain essential oils but is non-irritating, absorbs quickly and provides hydration.  The chemical exfoliants (mantellic, lactic and glycolic acid) help with radiance and cell turnover but are not at a concentration high enough to be irritating.

In Conclusion:

Retinol (also known as Vitamin A), is the most well-researched anti-aging and acne preventing skincare ingredient with many results backing up its effectiveness. It is clinically proven to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin tone, and firmness, and reduce the appearance of pores. However, there are downsides and It is important to remember that irritation may occur when using retinoids and diligent SPF use is a must.


  • Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 2006
  • Sustained improvement in photodamaged skin with reduced tretinoin emollient cream treatment regimen: effect of once-weekly and three-times-weekly applications. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 1997
  • Effects of tretinoin on photodamaged skin. A histologic study. Archives of Dermatology, 1991
  • Photoaging and the skin. The effects of tretinoin. Dermatologic Clinics,1993
  • Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 2006