Discover why some skincare products with retinoids are more reliable and yield higher skin benefits than others. Learn the proper approach to introduce a topical retinoid confidently and painlessly into your routine, even if you have sensitive skin. Enjoy mastering retinoids and their skin health & youth-boosting properties!


Last updated: September 12, 2022

Hello again and welcome! After my latest post about the mechanisms of action of retinoids in the skin and why they are particularly beneficial in the summer (you can read it here), I guess you might be eager to soak up the essentials of topical retinoids usage. So let’s get into it!

Why opt for a topical retinoid instead of oral vitamin A supplements?

Because topical retinoids metabolize within the skin – they convert into all-trans-retinoic acid, the biologically active form of vitamin A – and excess retinoid acid breaks down through enzymatic processing. That is, the amount of topical vitamin A that may get into the bloodstream (and thus have the potential to cause any systemic secondary effects) is small. Yet, to be in complete peace of mind, avoid applying retinoids to your skin when you are pregnant or breastfeeding (learn the why on my previous post on retinoids).

On the contrary, over-the-counter vitamin A supplements or other oral retinoids (such as isotretinoin, prescribed by your dermatologist) enter the systemic circulation. Thus, the uptake of oral retinoids must be under the supervision of a medical doctor. In my opinion, over-the-counter oral vitamin A supplements should be too. You don’t want to ingest too much vitamin A and increase your odds of suffering, for instance, hypervitaminosis A. It’s better to cover the oral requirements of this vitamin with your foods.

Choose a quality retinoid

Retinoids stimulate epidermal renewal and the cutaneous immune system.

That helps remove sun-damaged cells (such as cells with ultraviolet light-induced DNA mutations). Why? Those cells die before they get a chance to get cancerous (due to the retinoid-enhanced cellular turnover). Or they get removed by immune system cells before getting the chance of causing trouble.

Those mechanisms also foster the removal of inappropriate pigmentation (such as in dark spots) and the restoration of adequate melanin production.

Moreover, retinoids stop collagen destruction upon sun exposure and favor the synthesis of quality collagen (thus keep wrinkles away). So, without a doubt, they can competently assist in limiting cutaneous sun damage.

In addition, retinoids regulate sebum production and hence are adequate to reduce blackheads and for those with oily and acne-prone skin.

Retinoids improve how our skin works: summary of the actions of retinoids on the skin.

Overall, retinoids improve how our skin works. However, it is crucial to choose reliable retinoid-containing skincare products.

Retinoid ingredients and formulations

There are several types of retinoid ingredients on the skincare market. Included in non-prescription products you may find retinyl esters, retinol, or retinaldehyde (retinal). Anything more powerful than that (for instance, retinoic acid in the form of tretinoin) usually requires a medical prescription.

If you are just curious to try retinoid-based products for your skin (thus are not seeing a dermatologist and getting a prescription retinoid), you should be aware that not all products with retinol or retinaldehyde are created equally.

First of all, many retinoids (including retinol) degrade upon contact with light/air or the interaction with other molecules in an unwanted manner and hence become inactive before they can even get to the live layers of the skin. Their stability depends on other components of the formula and the preservation of their molecular integrity with different systems (such as encapsulation techniques or, importantly, an opaque container).

Bearing retinol stability in mind, many skincare brands incorporate retinyl esters in the products that they market as retinol-containing. And that can be misleading. Let me explain that.

Retinyl esters are more stable than retinol (and might be cheaper as well). But they are weaker than all other retinoids in terms of activity within the skin.

As you might remember from my latest post (you can see it here), all-trans retinoic acid is the biologically active form of vitamin A. Within our cells, retinaldehyde has to go through one enzymatic reaction to convert into retinoic acid; retinol must undergo two reactions; retinyl esters should sustain three different steps (see the image below).

Retinyl esters must undergo three different enzymatic reactions to become biologically active.

Let’s picture the whole process since you apply your retinoid until it works inside the skin.

First, any retinoid must get into the inner, alive layers of the skin. Probably, only a fraction of the total retinoid will make it there.

Once there, only part of the cells will have the ability to convert any retinoid into retinoic acid. For instance, the innermost, highly proliferative cells situated in the basal layer of the epidermis will not do that.

Therefore, as you might have guessed, retinyl esters have the lowest probability of working. Additionally, the extra conversion step they must experience may be slow (as happens with the conversion step of retinol into retinaldehyde) and thus limit the whole process of conversion into retinoic acid..

Then do not be disappointed when you buy a retinol product that contains just retinyl esters (for example, retinyl palmitate) or a mix of retinyl esters with a (much) lower amount of retinol (thus, the latter will appear below on the ingredients list). That might not do much despite your consistent skincare efforts!

Some of those products might even claim to have a certain percentage of retinol yet count both retinyl esters and retinol as part of it. Some brands will probably not tell you that. And, indeed, you will believe that the product features a percentage of pure retinol.

Retinyl esters are not terrible ingredients at all. Only, they will not yield the same skin health-enhancing benefits that good topical retinol or retinal can offer. Yet, they can help maintain the stability of the skincare formulation as a whole.

Therefore pay close attention to the ingredient list (INCI) displayed on the products before purchasing them.

Of course, the ingredients list won’t tell you the whole story about a product. There are factors that you cannot guess from it. Such as how much the overall formulation favors the stability or cutaneous penetration of the retinoids. Or the purity and (right) molecular conformation of the retinoids included.

Also, the percentage of retinoid varies from one product to another. Some brands manufacture similar retinol/retinal products with different strengths (see an example below).

The Ordinary Retinol in Squalane 0.2%, 0.5%, and 1%.

Regardless of retinol percentage, formulation matters a lot. And whether that feels good on your skin or not. For example, those retinol products of the image above might not be the right choice for someone with oily skin since they consist of retinol inside an oil, squalane. You will have to pick a product and see how it works for you!

Guide to get your skin familiar with a topical retinoid (even for delicate skin)

Unless you visit your dermatologist to treat given concerns (such as acne or premature skin aging), better start with a good retinol product. Not a product with retinoic acid (RA), even if you can buy it over-the-counter – in the EU, for instance, you can find sanitary products (not cosmetics) with RA that do not require a medical prescription –.

Once you have it, start slow and apply it in the evening. I suggest you use it just once or twice a week initially (especially if you have sensitive skin).

It may sting or cause some mild skin irritation when you apply it for the first time. If that happens, put on a layer of facial moisturizer before the retinol and another on top of it. That is, you can make a retinoid sandwich – that will minimize skin irritability. I do that often.

Progressively refine your retinoid regimen

If you do not get much visible skin peeling or irritation, you can start upgrading your retinol routine and go ahead with it two or three times per week. Then work your way up (you can use it every day if you are ok with it). You can always go one step back if you notice, for instance, excessive skin dryness.

However, if you notice significant skin peeling or irritation, you may want to wait one or a few weeks more to upgrade your routine to the next level (that is, one more day per week). And so on.

You may similarly jump into retinal or retinoic acid. Yet bear in mind that those are stronger. Hence, to begin with, just once a week application seems reasonable in those cases.

What if my skin seems not to get accustomed to retinol or retinal?

Some people have difficulty getting past the mild irritation or peeling phase from the beginning (which usually lasts a few weeks). In that case, the first option might be to look for a product with a lower percentage of retinoid or a different vehicle, such as a more emollient product (for instance, a moisturizer instead of a serum).

Another option if you still want to incorporate a retinoid in your skincare routine would be to consult with a dermatologist. They will guide you through that.

Will I always get better results with a higher retinoid percentage?

Again, formulation matters. You will not always get the best skin aging prevention or reversion results with a higher-strength retinoid product.

Most importantly, if you upgrade your retinol percentage and you experience skin irritation, then stick to the lower retinol percentage. Consistency is the most relevant factor when it comes to getting skin benefits from retinoids. You can get great results from lower-strength retinol, retinal or retinoic acid over time. There is no need to go further.

That might be different if what you are trying to regulate are significant acne troubles. In that case, I would recommend that you consult with a dermatologist directly.

A few skincare products with retinoids

I leave here a few examples of topical retinoid products that might work for you. Most are for facial skin, but you can use them on the back of your hands or other body areas that you may also want to treat.

Skincare products with Retinol.

Medik8 3TR Vitamin A Serum

Medik8 6TR INTENSE Vitamin A Serum

The Inkey List Retinol

La Roche Posay Redermic R Retinol Bundle [creams for the eye contour (0.3%) and face (0.1%): you can buy them separately].

First Aid Beauty Retinol Serum

Retinol for the body (and face), from Advanced Clinicals.

Advanced Clinicals Retinol Firming Cream [I prefer this one for the body (hands, legs, etc.) It comes in a big pot and it’s not greasy at all (it spreads very well). Thus, you may want to apply a moisturizer afterwards if your skin is dry].

Skincare products with Retinal.

Avène Physiolift Smoothing Regenerating Night Balm

Avène Physiolift Smoothing Eye Cream



Retinal products from Geek & Gorgeous. They come in a convenient opaque and airless pump.
Retinal products from Geek & Gorgeous. They come in a convenient opaque and airless pump.

Geek & Gorgeous A-Game 5

Geek & Gorgeous A-Game 10

*None of the links contain affiliates.

How is your experience with topical retinoids? What products do you use? Share your thoughts on the comments section below! Also, feel free to ask me anything.

Now that the post is getting to an end, I have to acknowledge that I have used topical retinoids on myself only from a few months ago (since February, 2021).

I talked about my facial skin and skincare regimen on the post about rosacea on this blog (you can read it here). However, since my skincare routine has changed lately, I might create an upcoming blog post elaborating on the why

Stay tuned and please let me know whether you would like to discover the details of my updated, retinoid-containing skincare regimen!

I hope you liked this post.

Take care and see you soon!




5 responses to “Smoothly kickstart retinoids”

  1. […] Vitamin A and its natural and synthetic analogs (retinoids – learn how they work here) increase epidermal renewal and, hence, make the skin thicker and improve barrier function. That is why, contrary to popular belief, they can be incredibly beneficial even for sensitive skins. In that case, it is crucial to know how to incorporate them within your skincare routine (learn to do it here). […]


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