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What are retinoids?

While ageing is a natural process of life, it’s still a very common fact that we want to delay the ageing process as much as we can, especially if we are talking about skin ageing. When we are talking about skincare and anti-ageing, you must have heard about retinoid as part of the discussion. As one of the most well-studied ingredients throughout history, retinoids have been known as the “royal family” of anti-ageing because they are undeniably one of the strongest actives in the anti-ageing game. However, with great power comes great responsibility or so-called side effects. The same goes for retinoids because due to its’ powerful impact on our skin, we have to use them mindfully to avoid some of their side effects. If you want to get to know the “royal family” better, read through the whole article and be ready to dive into the world of anti-ageing.

What are retinoids? Retinoids vs Retinol?


Retinoids are an umbrella term for vitamin A derivatives. It is composed of both skincare products you can get from doctor’s prescription and those you can get over the counter from drugstore or skincare products. Tretinoin is one of the most commonly known active forms of vitamin A which are only available through a doctor's prescription, while the rest of the derivatives are found in over the counter products. The other derivatives name is Retinol-esters, Retinaldehyde, Retinol, Retinoic acid-esters. When you hear the word retinoids, the name might be a little overwhelming at first because they can be confusing at times. What are their differences and which one is best for me? We got you covered, we will simplify it all so you can understand it better.

How do retinoids work?


Source: @Funskincare on Instagram

Retinoid works on the cellular level in their final active form of retinoic acid. It is recognized by the cell receptor and “wakes them up” to do the work on rejuvenating by reversing the signs of ageing. Different derivatives of retinoid require different numbers of conversion in order to work their magic. Tretinoin which is ready in their active form of retinoic acid doesn’t require any conversion to work, however the other form such as retinol requires a two-step conversion before transforming to retinoic acid. You can think of the conversion as an obstacle for vitamin A to work. Therefore, the more conversion that the retinoid derivatives need, the lesser amount of actives available on the final step.

In the US, some form of active retinoic acid is readily available in OTC and usually known as the brand “Adapalene”. However, in European countries, this medication is still physician-prescribed only. If you are still contemplating on trying out this advanced version, you can also try out their other derivatives to test on the water of anti-ageing from retinol and their other forms. So far, retinol is the most commonly well-known and widely-used retinoid derivative in anti-ageing skincare products.

Benefits of Retinoid


Now let’s talk about all the benefits of retinoid. The anti-ageing benefit of retinoids is not an overnight thing and requires dedication and persistence. Generally, their effect can be seen after at least  12 weeks of consistent use and progressively increases until up to 6 months (the longer the better).Here are some of the advantages that you can benefit from retinoid products:

  1. Regulate skin cell’s turnover

Our skin’s normal turnover rate is around 28 days. However, it slows down as we age. That is why you will experience duller or tired-looking skin a lot easier compared to your “youthful” years. Retinoid can definitely help with reviving our skin cell’s turnover back to its normal rate.


  1. Acne treatment

Do you remember that one of the major causes of acne is clogged pores where the top layer of the skin can not properly detach and disrupts the flow of sebum? Retinoid, with one of their ability being able to regulate skin cell turnover and control inflammation, has been shown to reduce acne lesions. It can reduce both comedones as well as inflamed acne. It is like killing two birds with one stone.


  1. Improve the appearance of fine lines and reverse the sign of premature ageing

Fine lines are one of the earliest signs of ageing. You can pair retinoid with your favorite hydrating products to plump up your skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines on your skin. Wave goodbye to signs of ageing.


  1. Fade hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is due to the activation of our skin pigment cell. It can be activated by so many external and internal stressors. The most common external factor of ageing and hyperpigmentation is excessive sun exposure. Inflammation from acne can also activate the pigment cells, therefore, causing the after-effect pigmentation. But you do not have to worry because retinoids have been shown to be able to fade hyperpigmentation from either acne scarring or even sunspots.


  1. Increase collagen production and skin’s elasticity

Collagen is the building block of our skin. It gives that plump and elastic look on our skin. In our mid-20s our skin collagen production starts to decline causing the loss of bounciness on our skin thus the ageing. Retinoid can work on the cellular level and signal them to produce more collagen to compensate with the progressive decline.


The side effects of Retinoids


Sounds like the dream ingredient especially for ageing skin, right? However, with great power comes great responsibility. Yes, it is a side effect that you will likely experience especially when it’s your first time using them. Their side effects are commonly called as the “Retinoid Reaction” which include signs such as redness, stinging, scaling, itchiness as well as purging. The most common mistake that people mostly do is that they give up on their retinoid journey right after they experience purging. Purging is a common condition where your acne exacerbates on the first few weeks due to increased skin cell turnover rate. This is the time when all the microcomedone on the bottom layer of your skin resurface and cause temporary exacerbation of your condition. Keep going for at least two weeks and your skin texture will be better for good. However, this side effect is not absolute for every skin since everyone has different tolerance to this based on the formulation and concentration of the retinoid. Another great news is that the side effect tends to subside over time.


How to start your anti-ageing routine with retinol? 


  1. Be patient and know your limit.

Always start with the lower concentration with a lower frequency and build up your skin tolerance to this ingredient.

  1. Step up your moisturising game.

Since using retinoid might actually dry out your skin, keeping the water level inside your skin at its’ maximum can help you prevent the drying effect. Look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and panthenol that could help add and maintain your skin water content. Ingredients with anti-inflammatory or calming properties: centella asiatica, calendula, or niacinamide.

  1. Do not forget your sunscreen!

Retinoid may increase your skin photosensitivity. You only want the best out of retinoids and let’s all dodge their side effects.

If you have checked all these lists above, good for your advance anti-ageing game!

The perfect pairing

If you’re looking for products to be paired with retinoids, we have curated our most favorite soothing and hydrating products to control the retinoid side effects:

CosRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence




A soothing and anti-ageing ingredients in a bottle. This will boost the anti-ageing effect as well as reduce the side effect of your other retinoid products.

Keep Cool Bamboo Soothe Serum




Their blend of 66% bamboo water, centella asiatica and hyaluronic acid can help you conquer the irritating and dryness side effect of your retinoid.

Benton Aloe Soothing Mask




Say no more to irritation, dry and red skin with this tencel sheet mask soaked with 42% aloe extract.

Retinoids and Sensitive Skin


Retinoid can be in the form of various products from serum, cream, and moisturiser as topical retinoids. In terms of product there is actually no set of rules on where to begin. However, if you have sensitive skin, you might want to incorporate your retinoid slowly into your routine by first using a low concentration cream-based retinoid product. A retinoid cream can prevent irritation and side effects, especially for those of you with sensitive skin.

No matter which steps you prefer to corporate your retinoid in your anti-ageing skincare routine, there are other ingredients that you would want to avoid mixing together. Chemical exfoliators ingredients such as AHA / BHA can increase more transient transepidermal water loss and therefore can increase the chance of dryness and sensitivity. Therefore, try to switch them out every other day with your retinoids.


Librarian tip: Retinoids should be avoided during pregnancy. Alter with other safe for pregnancy anti-ageing ingredients such as Alpha-hydroxy acid (glycolic acid, lactic acid) and hyaluronic acid to keep up with that pregnancy glow!


Takeaway: Retinoid is that one dream ingredients for anti-ageing in your skincare product. However, their side effects can be a drawback for some people. Although with the right placement and care, you can totally avoid the side effects. If you have a concern on ageing, acne, and loss of elasticity on your skin, this is one ingredient that you would want to be in your vanity. This ingredient actually won’t only reverse the signs of ageing, but also prevent them.


Claudia Christin

- By Claudia Christin (@funskincare)

Seoul based Dermatology Post Graduate



Reversal of skin aging with topical retinoids.Plast Reconstr Surg.2014 Apr;133(4):481e-90e.

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