Retinol vs Retinoid?

Retinol is a retinoid but not each retinoid is retinol.
Did I lose you already? Please keep on reading, it does get easier…

Retinoids is an umbrella term for the entire family of Vitamin A derivates, which includes both prescription and over-the-counter products.

Retinol is probably the most famous one in this group of active ‘skin-improving’ ingredients and is available in over-the-counter products.

Retinoids are considered the ‘holy grail of actives in skincare’. They are multifunctional:
reduce oiliness and help with blemishes,
quieten down the production of excess pigmentation which will help to even out tone and pigmentation issues
stimulate collagen production and prevent collagen breakdown which will result in improving and preventing fine lines.

You can find below all the members of the retinoid family, ranged FROM THE STRONGEST TO WEAKEST members of the family:

1. Retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin) is the most effective one but is only available on prescription.
2. Retinoid acid esters such as hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR, also known as granactive retinoid) and retinyl retinoate.
3. Retinol, the most famous one
4. Retinaldehyde (also known as retinal)
5. Retinol esthers such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl proprionate. The very mildest ones, unlikely to cause any irritation but also not very effective.

The strongest ones will be the most effective ones, but are often less well tolerated, especially in ‘retinoid newbies’ .

What do you need to know before adding a retinoid to your skin care routine?

Important tips for those who want to add a retinol to their skincare:

Do not expect results from retinoids overnight! Retinoids are used at night and should be used at least 12 weeks before you can start to see results.

Always start slow and build up. You might wonder what it means to start slow: start the product with a low frequency and a small amount and increase the frequency and amount over the next weeks. For a retinoid newbie, this would mean to start twice a week with less than a pea-size amount and slowly build up to daily use of a pea-size amount (or instructed otherwise by the specific product). Some people can increase faster than others, everyone’s skin is unique!

Always use a sunscreen in the morning, always! but especially when you are using a retinoid as your skin will burn more easily.

Moisturise your eyes before applying your retinoid and avoid going with your retinoid close to your eyes unless it is a product specially developed for the eye area.

If you use more retinoid than is good for you, your skin will become red and flakey. It does not mean you are allergic to it, it means you cannot tolerate it. Stop, rest and try again if you’re brave enough, but at a lower pace.

Always introduce only one new product at a time.

Oily skin tends to tolerate retinoids better than dry skin.

If you have sensitive skin, you might want to work on the skin barrier first before adding in a retinoid.

Discuss with your practitioner if in doubt of how/when to use retinoids or if you suffer from irritation with the mildest retinoids.

One alternative for those who cannot tolerate any retinoids, is Bakuchiol.

What exactly is Bakuchiol?

Bakuchiol does not belong to the family of the retinoids. It is structurally different but induces similar gene expression which means that they similarly affect cell pathways. Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds of the Babchi plant and hence is often portrayed in the media as ‘the natural alternative to retinol’ or ‘a plant based retinol’. It is important to add that the Babchi plant is an endangered species and as such you should only buy products with bakuchiol if the brand is transparent and uses a sustainable source of bakuchiol in the product.

The ADVANTAGE of bakuchiol is that it is generally better tolerated than retinoids whilst doing the same job. The DISADVANTAGE is that bakuchiol is a more recent discovery in skincare and hence less scientific evidence is available at the moment, which will hopefully change in the near future. One recent study compared the use of retinol to bakuchiol as a treatment of skin ageing and showed that the effects of twice daily bakuchiol are similar to the effects of once daily retinol with less irritation seen in participants treated with bakuchiol. In summary, there is still quite a lot of unknowns with bakuchiol so if you can tolerate retinol or another retinoid, maybe it is best to stick to the product with the most evidence.

Written by:  
Dr Amélie Seghers
Consultant dermatologist

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