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Skincare Science: Retinols/Retinoids

Retinol: The undisputed ingredient that is held as the golden standard of skincare in the world of beauty. These magic creams can do so much for your skin, including shrinking your pores, fighting acne, reducing wrinkles and fine lines, and reversing sun damage. The ins and outs of these chemical derivatives can be a little confusing, but the benefits are worth looking into. Read on to find out what Retinoids can do for your skin.

Retinol vs. Retinoid: Are they the Same Thing?

Both chemical derivatives of Vitamin A, retinols and retinoids can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve collagen production, and treat acne, among other things. The difference between these two is that retinoids are more potent, and therefore classified as a pharmaceutical - meaning you need a prescription for retinoid creams.

Retinols, the less potent of the two, are very accessible and can be purchased over the counter. These creams can still be effective, but results wont be as blunt and may take longer to appear. This is a good place to start for people who have never used a Vitamin A derivative, as you have to be pretty cautious with your skin and For a new patient, we usually recommend starting with a retinol and building up to a prescription strength retinoid.

The Science Behind Retinoids/Retinols

Ever wonder why almost every dermatologist recommends a retinoid/retinol? It's because there is so much science behind it! These two products work by changing how a cell functions, specifically the speed at which a cell turns over, or divides, to create new cells. (1) As we age, our body produces less and less collagen and elastin fibers that give your skin lift and bounce. This makes our skin more thin and frail, leading to wrinkles, sagging skin, sun spots, and more fun things we get to look forward to as we age!

'Retinoids help mitigate those issues in a variety of ways. They thicken the epidermis through increased cell proliferation at the top level. They increase the production of natural chemicals (such as hyaluronic acid) in your skin that keep it plump and moist. They stimulate collagen production and inhibit the breakdown of collagen that already exists. They also block several inflammatory pathways that exacerbate pimples and acne.' (1)

Retinols and Retinoids were introduced in the 1970's as an acne-fighting drug, but since then, these creams have been used to reduce wrinkles, reverse sun damage, shrink pores, thicken thin skin, treat psoriasis and warts, and of course battle acne. (1)(2)

What are the Downsides to Retinols/Retinoids?

Like any aesthetic treatment or medicine, there are potential side effects. The most common side effects of retinoids/retinols, which we want to express are very temporary, are dry and flaking skin, redness, itching and burning, irritation, and discoloration of the skin. In extreme cases, usually seen with people who already have dry skin, nosebleeds and cracking at the sides of the mouth can occur. (1)

Retinols also increase your skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet light, but this only happens in the first few months of use. After a while, your skin's sensitivity to the sun will diminish. It is important that you wear sunscreen everyday, but especially when starting a retinoid treatment, as to avoid sun damage.

These side effects may last 3-4 weeks, but there are some tricks to combat them. When first starting your retinol or retinoid journey, it's good to use a low dose and start with applying it once a week, then slowly work your way up to twice a week and so on. Using a good moisturizer before the application of a retinol/retinoid can help avoid extremely dry skin. In a few weeks, the dryness and peeling will go away, but the benefits will remain.

When Will I See a Change in My Skin?

While some prescription-strength retinoids can have an effect in a matter of weeks, it may take up to 6 months of constant use for OTC retinols to deliver the same results. (3) For acne, your breakouts may get worse before they get better, aka "purging". Noticeable difference in acne can be seen around the 3 month mark, if using consistently. When used longer than 6 months, you may start to benefit from increased collagen and elastin production - or a noticeable difference in your fine lines, wrinkles and age spots. (3) But this doesn't mean you won't see immediate results. In the short term, your skin will be exfoliated and your pores unclogged making them look smaller.

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(1) Armitage, H. (2020, August 7). Does retinol deserve the hype? A Stanford dermatologist weighs in. Scope. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from

(2) Edgar, J. (2012, June 1). Retinoids for Wrinkles, Anti-Aging, Brown Spots. WebMD. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from

(3) Metrus, L. (2022, March 20). Dermatologists Answer All Your Retinol Questions. Byrdie. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from


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