Ask a roomful of dermatologists what they recommend (and use) to slow signs of aging, and we guarantee the sweeping majority will tell you to use retinol—STAT. But life isn’t simple, and neither is retinol. There are a few key points you need to know if you want to Benjamin Button your way to younger-looking skin. Here’s the dl on retinol - the wunderkind of the ingredient world.
You’re probably using the term incorrectly – it’s cool though
Like saying “Band-Aid” instead of “bandage,” retinol is typically used as an umbrella term, when in reality, it’s only one form of Vitamin A that you might encounter in skincare.
In order of least potent to most potent, the four kinds of Vitamin A are:
- Retinyl esters (e.g., retinyl palmitate)
- Retinal (e.g., retinaldehyde)
- Retinoic Acid (available by prescription only, the product is called tretinoin, the generic name for Retin-A)
All forms of Vitamin A end up converting into retinoic acid.
Think of it like a pyramid 👇 Retinyl has to break down into retinol, which breaks down into retinal and ultimately into retinoic acid.
Fun Fact: These four forms of Vitamin A exist in the body naturally, and retinyls/retinols/retinals come from plants and animals. Humans eat these forms of Vitamin A, and they can be converted back and forth between each other until they are oxidized and ultimately changed into retinoic acid.
All the benefits that come from Vitamin A come from its active form, retinoic acid.
Stop asking “What percentage retinol does this have?”
Each of the four types of Vitamin A has its own degree of potency, side effects and efficacy. For example, retinol is considered 20 times less potent than retinoic acid.
This is why you can’t compare a 1% retinol department-store product with a 1% retinoic acid (tretinoin) product your dermatologist prescribed. 1% tretinoin is far too intense for the skin while 1% retinol barely moves the needle for some skin types. Why? 0.05% tretinoin is more powerful than 1.0% retinol.
A good dermatologist will slowly graduate the concentration of tretinoin you’re using, taking you from a low concentration and slowly increasing it as your tolerance grows to provide maximum results.
What’s the difference between what I buy over the counter and prescription retinol?
Simply put, any “retinol” product that is NOT a prescribed drug (tretinoin/Retin-A) falls into the retinol/retinyl/retinal category. You can’t buy retinoic acid OTC (over the counter).
Retinoic acid is the purest, most potent form. It does not need to be converted; it’s already active and ready to work its magic in your skin.
On the other hand, OTC retinols do need to go through the conversion process, and they are less potent and take longer to work.
This is exactly why it’s inaccurate to compare all retinols equally while only considering the percentage. Instead, think about what form of Vitamin A a product contains, then work through ideal concentration for your unique concerns, age, and skin type.