What is retinol, and why are retinoids against the aging ‘gold standard’ for skin care?

Skin care can be a complicated puzzle.

There is a lot to think about between the countless ingredients, the marketing and the choice volume.

But if it is anti-aging treatments you are looking for, there is an ingredient that many dermatologists call the “gold standard”: retinoids.

“The way I personally think about it is that it’s like a hierarchy,” says beautician Michelle Wong. from Lab Muffin Beauty Science says.

“You have a sunscreen as a preventative, and then you have a retinol, and if you still want more, you work your way down. Vitamin C is probably next on my list. “

Known for its influence on acne and collagen production, there is “strong scientific evidence” behind retinoids and their effect on the skin.

But if skin care labels aren’t already confusing enough, you’ve probably seen many iterations of retinoids listed on them – perhaps without even realizing it.

So what do they all mean?

Retinol, tretinoin, retinaldehyde …

While retinol is probably the most well-known ingredient on the shelf, it belongs to a larger family of vitamin A-based ingredients.

“The group of ingredients is called retinoids, where the most bioactive form is retinoic acid,” says dermatologist Cara McDonald, director of Complete dermatologists, explaining.

“All retinoids affect the skin … but in the cell they must be converted to retinoic acid via oxidation to exert their effects,” says Dr. McDonald.

A close-up of a woman's skin and eyes.
Retinoids are the “gold standard” in anti-aging treatments.(

Unsplash: Rawpixel


The scientific studies that show the most significant changes in skin biology have been done with retinoic acid, also known as tretinoin.

Tretinoin is a prescription drug that is only prescription and has a strong influence on the skin.

“There is strong scientific evidence that tretinoin can reverse some signs of aging by slowing down the collagen in our skin and stimulating the production of new collagen,” says Dr. McDonald.

She points to a four-year study that showed an increase in collagen production in the experimental group with tretinoin.

“The control side actually lost collagen for four years,” she says.

“So we know it works.”

Together with the stimulation of collagen production, tretinoin accelerates cell turnover in the outermost layer of the skin – the epidermis – which gives us brightness and brightness.

There is also strong evidence that tretinoin is useful in treating acne and whitening dark spots.

“It’s the one ingredient we have the most science behind for all aging factors. It’s the gold standard for aging cosmic ingredients,” says Dr. McDonald.

Because tretinoin, and in fact all retinoids, have such a strong effect on the skin, side effects such as redness and peeling can be experienced.

So does that mean tretinoin is the only way?

Not necessarily.

Prescription tretinoin may be the most effective, but its derivatives are still powerful — only slightly weaker in concentration.

“Retinaldehyde and retinol are one and two steps back from tretinoin,” explains Dr. McDonald.

“You will not get as direct an effect and as much reaction as you do from tretinoin, but it is less irritating, and depending on the concentration and quality, you will get the same end result when it has been converted to retinoic acid.”

A dark-skinned woman puts moisturizer on her face and smiles
A creamy retinol is a good place to start.(

Unsplash: Audrey Fretz


Dr Wong says that “if there is an alternative on the table, then the recipe version will probably be more reliable”.

“Otherwise, I usually recommend a product that has received many reviews, or they have before and after, or that is from a reputable brand [that] probably investing in research, she says.

“A boring brand that has a good reputation is best.”

How to use retinoids?

Retinoids are a powerful product and may not be tolerated every day in all people.

When you start using a retinoid, you can expect dryness or irritation for the first few weeks as your skin begins to get used to it.

But that does not mean that it is bad for your skin – it just means that you may need to build up the concentration, amount and contact time slowly.

“All retinoids have these positive effects on the skin, and it is typical to get side effects when you start using them. But your skin will get used to it over time.”

She suggests that you start using retinoid with a short contact application – this means that you put the product on the skin like a mask for a few minutes before you wash it off.

“Maybe start every other night, so your skin changes will happen more gradually,” she says.

Dr. Wong suggests starting with a lower concentration of retinol or a cream formulation.

“It is important to note that retinoids are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women,” she adds.

And if you have specific skin problems or are unsure if retinoid is right for you, you should contact your doctor.

Although retinoids are by all accounts a “gold standard” ingredient, There are also a lot of other active ingredients.

Can any of them be used in targeted skin care treatments? We will cover that in our next skincare story on Monday.


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