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How Retinoids Work – Benefits, Uses, Side Effects and more!

Retinoids are a family of compounds derived from Vitamin A. There are several forms of Retinoids from over-the-counter to prescription strength in topical and oral medication form.


Over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids are most often found in serums, eye creams, and night moisturizers.

They include:

  • Retinol
  • Retinoid esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate)
  • Adapalene (better known as Differin)

Prescription-only retinoids

These require a prescription from a dermatologist before they ca be purchased.

  • Retin-A or tretinoin
  • Isotretinoin better known as Accutane

Let’s now discuss how to safely use topical retinoids and minimize irritation.

Functions of retinoids

Retinoids reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen.

They also stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin, which improves skin color.

Additional benefits include fading age spots and softening rough patches of skin.


Should I get cream or gel?

Cream forms are ideal for people that a bit more hydration since they are creamy and emollient.

Gels on the other hand are preferred for oilier skin types. Since they are also thinner than a cream, they penetrate faster making them more effective and stronger. But this can also mean more side effects.

This is really trial and error, depending on the individual and per your doctor’s advice.

How to safely use Retinoids and minimize irritation to the skin

  1. Start with a lower strength concentration of retinoid and increase gradually.
  2. Use a gentler formulation: it could either encapsulated or gel microsphere for slow release over time, Cerave Retinol serums are encapsulated.
  3. Slowly introduce it into your routine. You could start two times a week, then increase to three times a week, then every other day, then daily.
  4. Use Hyaluronic Acid serum or Niacinamide serum before applying the retinoid.
  5. Limit overuse of other irritating compounds like exfoliations e.g. glycolic, benzoyl peroxide, etc. especially when you start using retinoids.
  6. If it is to irritating then take a break.

Please note that irritation does not necessarily mean you are allergic to the product or it is not working, it just means you need to change how you are using it and build a tolerance.


So, should you start using retinoids?

If you’re interested in treating or taking preventive measures for wrinkles, fine lines, pigmentation, scarring, and more, then your late 20s or early 30s is a great age to start with over-the-counter retinol or even prescription-strength tretinoin.

It’s around this time when the body starts to produce less collagen, less rapidly than our earlier years. Of course, the also depends on your lifestyle and how much sun damage you have accumulated in those years.


If you use retinoids during the day then make sure you use sunscreen and limit direct sun exposure. This is because retinoids are sensitive to sunlight, so if you applied a retinol product and exposed your skin to the sun immediately, the retinol would be less effective. In other words, using a sunscreen of SPF 30 and above daily is a must.


Cerave Resurfacing Retinol Serum

Cerave Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

Neutrogena Ageless Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% In Squalane