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Retinols vs Retinoids - What does it all mean?

The term retinoids is often the cause of a lot of confusion on social media and in skin clinics.

After sunscreen and rigorous sun avoidance, everyone’s skincare should ideally, include a retinoid. 

Retinoids are clinically proven to treat and improve acne, fine lines and wrinkles, even out pigmentation (eg pigmentation/ sunspots)  and a host of other skin concerns over time (3-12 months) in large part due to their ability to stimulate collagen and elastin, increase the rate at which skin cells renew themselves and decrease inflammation (eg rosacea and psoriasis) 

The most powerful retinoids are available by prescription only, with one exception: Differin (adapalene). Differin is an amazingly potent but well-tolerated acne treatment and the only prescription-strength retinoid to be sold over the counter.

People often use the terms retinols and retinoids interchangeably but the two terms are not the same. They are related, but different.

So what is a retinoid?

A retinoid refers to all derivatives of Vitamin A converted into the active ingredient retinoic acid for use in skincare. Retinoid is also the term used interchangeably to refer to both over-the-counter (OTC) retinols as well as prescription retinoids. They’re available in pharmacies, beauty stores and salons as well as supermarkets and may be as cheap as $10 or cost hundreds depending on formulation and other base ingredients used. 

Most retinoids are used topically ie applied to the skin, but some are taken orally eg isotretinoin aka Roaccutane for severe cystic acne, among other things.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid available OTC and while still effective, it differs from prescription retinoids such that it needs more steps for retinols to be converted to retinoic acid than for retinoids.

More steps for conversion to retinoic acid = weaker retinoid. As such, OTC retinols work more gradually and can be less irritating especially for those with sensitive skin.

Can everyone use retinoids?

I believe that with adequate preparation and sensible onboarding, almost everyone can tolerate a retinol/ retinoid and reap the benefits, but the secret is in the onboarding. 

Some of my top tips when starting out: 

  • start with an OTC retinol and acclimate to using that nightly before considering if you’d benefit from prescription retinoid from a doctor (a minority will not tolerate prescription retinoids )
  • I generally recommend starting with using it 1-2 times a week then stepping upto 2-3 times a week the following week and then upto nightly if all goes to plan. 
  • keep the rest of your skincare super simple - cut out all other active ingredients such as acids, scrubs and more. 
  • common side effects of onboarding retinoids are dryness, temporary irritation, peeling and flaking - so prepare for them and extra serums and moisturiser will help calm skin down as it acclimates. 
  • less is more when it comes to active ingredients - the lowest concentration of the drug that gives you results is the right dose for you. Higher strengths may cause more irritation causing you to use it less often or worse, abandon your regimen. 
  • rigorous sun avoidance is non negotiable - you are more likely to burn if you are not careful, so daily SPF and sun protection should be an established habit by the time you onboard retinoids. 

If you're not sure which one is best for you or want a tailored skin regimen specifically for you, make an appointment and we’d be happy to talk you through it all.

 These drugs are not suitable if you're pregnant or breastfeeding; avoid using retinoids altogether once pregnant until after you’ve given birth. 

Key take-home tips: 

  • like all skincare, remember that retinoids are a longterm commitment to healthy and beautiful skin. If you stop using them, over time, your skin will return to its pre-retinoid state. 
  • retinoids take around 3 months minimum for you to begin to see results, and as long as upto 12 months if you have significant skin concerns eg acne, pigmentation, rosacea 
  • do not stop-start your prescription retinoids without medical advice. Make an appointment to see your doctor annually to obtain your prescription and to check all remains well with your skin. Being erratic with your prescription may do more harm than good. 


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