Retinol, Retinal, Retinoid - confused? We don't blame you. Here's our guide to all things Vitamin A
This miracle ingredient is still the most important molecule in the quest for your best skin! However, what I notice, when I hear people talk about vitamin A or retinoids, is confusion. I think a lot of that comes from the different terminology used. And with that in mind, the best place to start our chat about vitamin A, is to first help you to understand the terminology, decode some of the marketing fluff and ultimately help you to make the best choice for introducing this ingredient into your routine.
What is a Retinoid?
First of all, retinoid is the collective term for a group or family of Vitamin A based ingredients. Are all retinoids created equally? The short answer is no. In the same way that a red grape can be a grape, a wine or a fruit juice; vitamin A also has many different forms with varying characteristics.
Retinoic Acid is the active form of vitamin A. It is right at the top of the retinoid ladder (see image). Tretinoin is a synthetic (man-made) version of retinoic acid. It is a prescription-only form of vitamin A and is the most studied and best evidenced form of vitamin A. There are pros and cons to using pure prescription retinoic acid. On the one hand because it is particularly potent, it is an excellent anti ageing and acne treatment. In fact, there is no other topical product that has more evidence to support its ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines than tretinoin! However, on the other hand, you will also get more retinoid reactions or side effects with this form. More on this later!
Retinol is the type of vitamin A that you have probably heard the most about. This form of retinoid must be converted by your body to retinoic acid by way of a series of steps before it is active in your skin. There are fewer retinol reactions or side effects with this form but results take longer to achieve.
Retinyl esters (palmitate and retinoate), are gentler retinoids and at the bottom of the ladder. They are believed to be less sensitising than retinol because it takes longer for them to convert to retinoic acid. The good news is that they are less likely to be irritating to skin (making it a better choice for more redness-prone skin types) but results will be much slower and are not as well evidenced.
How to incorporate a Retinoid into your routine?
Now that we have the terminology down, what’s my advice in terms of starting to use a retinoid? Firstly, no matter where on the ladder you are starting, I always recommend using your product sparingly and intermittently eg: twice per week initially. I have attached the handy ORA retinoid planner here. Over time you will be able to use it more frequently and hopefully move up the ladder.
We would also recommend that you do not rush starting. If your skin is dehydrated, sensitive or in any way compromised, it is best to firstly work on repairing the skin barrier. We can help guide you on how best to do this by booking in with us for a consultation or a review consultation for a tailored plan of action for your skin. with either my colleagues or I. Remember progressive rather than aggressive results is the ORA mantra and it has stood to us in our quest to help clients achieve glowing, radiant, youthful skin.
Is there any downtime?
One of the most common concerns our clients have is about the downtime associated with starting a retinoid. What’s normal and what’s not? Skin irritation including redness, flaking and itching is often seen when clients commence a retinoid journey. This can be a big limitation for some clients and in some cases results in clients giving up on the product. Other clients worry if they don’t get the irritation that their product isn’t working but what's the truth?
A study in 1995 showed that 0.1% tretinoin was more irritating than 0.025% but that the overall improvement in fine lines and wrinkling was comparable. What does this mean? Don’t worry if you don’t get skin irritation! Equally if you do, please don’t worry either. We still don’t fully understand the mechanism for the irritation but there are ways to manage it such as applying a light moisturiser before applying your retinoid or sandwiching your retinoid between two layers of your moisturiser. Studies have shown that this does not reduce the efficacy but does improve the tolerability.
So if you are looking to target large pores, fine lines, pigmentation or just want that youthful glow back, speak to us about introducing the gold standard of ingredients into your routine and we will help you choose the best retinoid for your skin.
Shop our top choices for sensitive skin for retinoid newbies here:
Looking for a heavy hitter & okay with downtime. Shop our bestselling 1% retinoid here: Obagi Retinol
Make your retinoid journey that little bit easier by incorporating this supercharged moisture booster into your routine: Obagi Hydrate