Intro to Retinoids

Retinoid is a blanket term for the family of Vitamin A derivatives…The ingredients reigning supreme over all the rest.  Retinoids are considered the gold standard for reducing the appearance of wrinkles as well as being powerhouses for treating acne, sun damage, enlarged pores and overall dull complexions. 


Retinoids have been around for decades and have extensive bodies of safety data and research backing them up.  They work by boosting collagen synthesis, increasing elasticity, and speeding cellular turnover, a natural process that slows as we age.  With consistent use, they are capable of significant changes over time. 

Benefits Include:

Slowing down the process of aging by increasing the production of collagen and thickening the deeper layer of skin resulting in a noticeable reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.

Treating acne by helping to treat and prevent clogged pores, reducing sebum production by binding to sebocyte receptors while having anti-inflammatory effects that aid in acne reduction. 

Refining skin texture and treating enlarged pores by boosting collagen synthesis and speeding cellular turnover which paves the way for smoother skin.  Additionally, by clearing clogged pores of excess oil and dead skin cells, pores appear smaller and more refined. 

Brightening skin and reducing hyperpigmentation by encouraging skin cell turnover, when new skin cells are formed they will be more evenly pigmented.  Retinoids also inhibit the activity of tyrosinase, an enzyme that stimulates melanin production. 



There are a multitude of retinoid products, from gentler over the counter products to more powerful products that require a prescription. 

Vitamin A derivatives require being converted to retinoic acid to be able to be used by the skin.  The more conversions needed to convert into retnoic acid, the less effective the product is but also the more gentle it is. 


Types of retinoids in order by strength (lowest to highest):

Retinol Esters: Include Retinyl proprionate, Retinyl linoleate, Retinyl acetate, Retinyl palmitate.  These are the mildest forms of retinol.  They require multiple conversions so these are less effective than the forms following. 

Retinol: The most popular retinoid on the market.  About 10-20 times less potent than retinoic acid but still very effective and still has the potential for irritation if used too frequently.      

Retinaldehyde/Retinal:  Only one conversion from retinoic acid.  This is a great alternative if you want strength without moving up to a prescription retinoid.   

Retinoic Acid Esters: Include Retinyl retinoate and Hydroxypinacolone retinoate also known as “Granactive retinoid.”  These are new generation retinoids that show effectiveness with less of the irritation.  Though data is limited, with most coming from the manufacturer.  Keep in mind that because Granactive retinoid is 90% dimethyl isosorbide and 10% Hydroxypinacolone retinoate, products claiming to have 5% Granactive Retinoid actually only have .5% Hydroxypinacolone retinoate. 

Adapalene/Differin: A synthetic retinoid derivative previously only available by Rx but .1% is now available over the counter.  Stronger formulas require a prescription.  Adapalene targets certain receptors, is geared more towards moderate acne treatment and is better tolerated than tretinoin.    

Tretinoin: Available by Rx only.  Tretinoin is pure retinoic acid and approximately 10-20 times more potent than retinol.  It has demonstrated powerful results but also has a lot of potential for irritation.  Great for slowing down the signs of aging as well as for treating moderate to severe acne.        

Tazarotene: Available by Rx only.  Like Adapalene, it also targets specific receptors.  It is geared more towards treating moderate acne and psoriasis but with higher potential for irritation than Adapalene.  Considered to be one of the most powerful retinoids.     

Trifarotene: Available by Rx only.  A new generation retinoid that binds to less receptors than other retinoids, making it more tolerable and less irritating.  Good for those with sensitive skin that still want a prescription treatment. 



Retinoids can have a reputation for being irritating and causing dryness, flaking, and possible sensitization.  This can be avoided by going low and slow and using the right products alongside retinoids. 

Start with an over the counter retinoid, they go as low as .01%.  Brands like Medik8 have encapsulated forms that can help prevent irritation.  Start with 1-2 times per week and gradually work your way up in frequency and %, paying close attention to how your skin looks and feels in between uses.  If you experience flaking, dryness or irritation, pause and focus on moisturizing and barrier replenishing products. Move up incrementally, over a long period of time and when your skin feels adjusted to higher percentages of over the counter retinol you can upgrade to prescription strength if you desire more powerful results.

Until your skin is used to retinol it is advisable to minimize use of additional exfoliating products and other harsh actives.  Practically speaking, you shouldn’t need any additional exfoliating products.  It is especially important to not use them in the same routine.  If you do feel the need to use exfoliating products or other intense actives, make sure to alternate nights.   

Remember that retinoid results build over time with consistent use.  You may not see noticeable results with lower percentage products but it’s good to consider them as “training wheels” for getting your skin used to retinoids so you can build up to more potent products without having serious irritation.    

Products we have personally used:

*Medki8 Crystal Retinal 1 .01%
*Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 .03%
*Medik8 Crustal Retinal 6 .06%
*Paula’s Choice Intensive Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum (.1%)
Paula’s Choice .3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment
Paula’s Choice CBD Oil + Retinol (.5%)
Skinmedica Age Defense Retinol Complex 1.0 (1%)
*Tretinoin cream Obagi .025%
*Currently on Tretinoin gel Obagi .05%

 *Denotes products we really liked



Make sure skin is dry before applying retinoids as damp skin is more permeable and can increase absorption and thus irritation.  A preferable routine would be to start with a gentle creamy cleanser, then on damp skin apply humectants, then apply a moisturizer.  Let skin dry and apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid product and then apply another layer of moisturizer to minimize irritation.  This is a tried and true method we picked up from aesthetician Devan Jesmer (@devsday) called “The Moisture Sandwich.”    

The Clarity Oil works beautifully to mitigate irritation from retinoids and we personally use it after every application of Tretinoin.  We have absolutely loved the combined results of The Clarity Oil and Tretinoin.  Our skin feels brighter, clearer and smoother already after just a short time of use so far.      

How can I get an Rx if I don’t have access to a dermatologist?

There are a myriad of online sites that offer tretinoin either through their own branded formulas containing tretinoin or the typical tretinoin in tubes from Obagi, Alpharma, Perrigo, etc.  For a modest additional fee, you can fill out medical forms, get a quick consult from a doctor and get a prescription all with the convenience of not having to leave your home.

Here are a handful of them:

Mint Rx Pharmacy
Obagi Tretinoin & Generic Tretinoin
*This is where we ordered ours.  Obagi .025% was $84 and included the prescription.  We received quickly, 5 days after ordering.   

Curology branded and personalized formulas

Hers branded and personalized formulas

Apostrophe branded and personalized formulas

*Disclaimer: Wherever you order from, make sure that it is a reputable seller by reading reviews before you purchase.  We are not in anyway affiliated with the above companies.     



-Do not use any Vitamin A derivatives if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
-As retinoids increase photosensitivity, it is important to wear SPF daily and reapply as necessary.   
-Benzoyl peroxide and retinol should not be used in the same routine.