Dermatologist-Reviewed Articles

What Are Retinoids? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

woman applying skin care around her eyes

Retinoids are the reigning holy grail of the skincare world; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of this renowned ingredient. But with so many persistent myths, most people still don’t know how retinoids work. As one of the most powerful ingredients for reversing the signs of aging, retinoids are the group you should get to know.

What Are the Different Forms?

Retinol, retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid are all types of retinoids, but they are not all the same and vary in strength. Retinoic acid is the only one of the three that directly affects the skin, and it is only available by prescription. The other types of retinoids used in over-the-counter beauty products are still effective, but the process is slower. The skin has enzymes that naturally convert retinol and retinyl palmitate into retinoic acid.

What It Does

Retinoids, originally used to treat acne and clear blackheads, are still used for that purpose today. Somewhere along the lines, it was discovered that retinoids also had remarkable anti-aging effects. Retinoids not only reverse the signs of natural aging, but they can also repair sun damage on the skin. Retinoids have been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, smooth the skin and even the tone. Retinoic acid, specifically tretinoin, also fights teenage acne, but is used for acne in those of all ages and sexes.

How It Works

It does all this by helping the skin to produce collagen, the substance that gives skin its elasticity and youthful appearance. What makes retinoids so unique is that they stimulate cellular turnover in the deeper layers of the skin and actually communicate with living cells to make healthier, new cells. Thanks to this constant turnover, retinoids can treat both sun damage and wrinkles.

It’s Sensitive to Light

While it’s a highly effective anti-aging and acne-fighting ingredient, retinol is a rather unstable molecule that breaks down easily when exposed to light and oxygen. If you see the word “microencapsulated” on a product label, it means the formula contains retinol enclosed in tiny, invisible spheres that break open when applied to the skin. These capsules protect the retinol from light, heat and air so they don’t degrade as quickly as you’re opening the product. They also control its release and delivery and allow it to penetrate deeper into the skin. Because of its light-sensitivity, always wear sunscreen when using a retinoid.

Prescription vs. OTC

Because over-the-counter retinol products do not contain retinoic acid, they work more slowly than prescription-strength forms. However, this can be a good thing for some skin types, especially sensitive skin. The prescription retinoid is very powerful and can cause skin irritation, including redness and peeling. Whether you need the more powerful prescription formula or will benefit from OTC products depends on your goal. If you’re in your 20s or 30s and want to get ahead of aging, an OTC product is likely all you’ll need. But if you’re 40 or older, the prescription-strength formula may be your best bet for addressing fine lines and wrinkles.

How to Use It

At first, you should use any retinoid product sparingly to avoid irritation. Start by applying it every other day or night. Use a moisturizer along with retinol to prevent excessive drying. Take note that some people shouldn’t use retinoids, including those with rosacea or eczema.


This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.

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