The Modern Guide to Retinoids

Retinoids are the longest studied anti-aging compound and have been used for decades due to their incredible ability to recondition the skin. If you want a product that can do it all in one – combat fine lines, fade discoloration, clear acne, and give the skin the rosy glow we all love – a retinoid is the answer. However, with so much greatness comes a sacrifice. As an esthetician, one of the most common things people tell me during a consultation is that they’ve tried a retinoid at some point, but gave up using it because the side effects were too irritating. They give up before the product can really show it’s effects. I’ve been motivated to write a blog and share what I know about retinoids and more importantly, how to use them while avoiding the initial side effects. Here’s your guide to understanding retinoids!

Retinoids are chemical compound derivatives of Vitamin A. The body requires it via diet to boost immunity, vision and cell growth. On the other hand, the skin benefits the most by vitamin A topically. Giana Angelo, Ph.D. states “the skin is a major retinoid-responsive tissue,” with proteins and vitamin A receptors that mediate cellular transactions. For any topical retinoid to be effective, it needs to be taken up by the cells in active retinoic acid form. Weaker retinoids will need to make several cellular conversions before becoming bio-available, or useful, to the skin whereas stronger ones are used immediately.

Check out the chart of retinoids listed below + their benefits:

Retinyl Palmitate OTC; Natural; Weakest (barely penetrates the skin)
Retinaldehyde, Retinal OTC; Natural
Retinol OTC; Natural
Vitamin A Propionate, Tretinoin (Retin-A) OTC/Rx; Natural
Tazorac Rx; Synthetic
Isotretinoin (Accutane) Rx; Synthetic; Strongest (oral medication)

Why we love retinoids… hearts.png

  • Powerful antioxidant
  • Speeds up cell turnover
  • Stimulates fibroblasts (cells in the dermis responsible for regenerating collagen & elastin)
  • Reconditions the skin on a cellular level
  • Diminishes fine lines/wrinkles
  • Lightens hyperpigmentation
  • Thickens and plumps the dermis, providing excellent structural support
  • Thins out the epidermis, ideal for retention hyperkeratosis (acne)
  • Reduces oil production
  • Peels away current breakouts & helps prevent future ones
  • Increases moisture retention

Depending on where you choose to buy your products; over-the-counter (OTC), from an esthetician or a dermatologist, this will likely affect the results you’ll get due to the differences in strength, molecular size, and formulation.

Drugstore (OTC) products usually contain retinyl palmitate, retinol acetate or retinaldehyde. These are about 20 times weaker than prescription strength retinoids. They work much slower on the skin due to their large molecular size and have few to no side effects. The weaker the retinoid, the more conversions it will take to be in retinoic acid form and the less likely it is that you’ll be getting a therapeutic amount necessary for skin reconditioning. Anyone with sensitive skin is best starting off with this strength until their skin is acclimated.

Estheticians fall into the gray area between carrying OTC and similar-to Rx retinoids, aka “medical grade.” There’s a lot of variation depending on the esthetician and the line they’ve chosen to work with. Some carry retinoids with a low strength because they like a more progressive approach, whereas other estheticians carry ones that can be as aggressive as Retin-A.

Prescription strength retinoids, like Retin-A, contain pure retinoic acid. These work instantly on the skin but cause the most irritation such as redness, peeling, or breakouts. Prescription strength retinoids are absorbed immediately because there are no conversions to be made since they’re already retinoic acid. These strengths are only recommended if you’ve used retinoids before and have built up a high tolerance.

Watch my video below to see how you should be applying:

It takes about 12 weeks of consistent use for retinoic acid to produce noticeable changes in the skin (I’ve seen this happen in a much shorter time span), but give it some time before you decide to off it. I recommend starting with a lower strength only 1-2 nights per week, then slowly increasing usage until you’re happy with the results. You can also increase the strength if you feel your skin can handle it. Talk with a professional and see which one would be best for you!

Sometimes the skin seems to get worse before it gets better. Vitamin A reconditions the skin – it shocks the cells, causing abrupt metabolic changes which is why it can get so dry at first. Congestion from the deeper layers of the skin begin growing out to the surface and all of the sudden it seems the retinoid is breaking you out. This is all normal. It’s your skins way of purging out the toxins and will calm down when the deeper impactions are gone. Depending on how long and the grade of acne, it may only take a few weeks to purge, or in worse cases it may take months before you see the clear skin underneath. If discoloration is your issue, dark spots will seem to get darker at first as they grow out towards the surface. They slowly get shed off the skin and diminish with the help of a melanin suppressant.

I recommend applying retinoid products at night as this provides the most benefits while the skin is regenerating. Dr. Zeichner, dermatologist from New York explains, “the skin undergoes daily circadian rhythms in which specific activities occur at night, and others occur during the day. Cell turnover is significantly higher at night, so applying your retinol before bed may make it work even better by stimulating collagen production when the cells are most active.” #Beautysleep

Some medical grade retinoids are considered as strong and effective as prescription strength Tretinoin (Retin-A) but without all the possible skin irritation! I recently switched to Vivant Skincare’s own patented Vitamin A Propionate and I’ve already seen a dramatic change in my own skin as well as my clients! I originally chose to carry Vivant Skincare because I truly believe and trust in this brand. Dr. James Fulton, dermatologist, self-titled “acne-ologist,” and creator of Vivant Skincare, co-developed Retin-A with Dr. Albert Kligman in the 60’s. Fulton also created benzoyl peroxide and was a pioneer in the world of dermatology.

“Dr. Fulton pressed on with a goal of harnessing the multiple benefits of vitamin A acid in a form that was both effective and easily tolerated by skin. The result was his patented Vitamin A Propionate, which provides all the efficacy of Retin A® without the excess irritation. 

Vitamin A Propionate differs from other forms of vitamin A acid derivatives in its molecular structure. Vitamin A palmitate and other forms of over the counter retinols, have a large molecular structure, which makes them unable to penetrate skin and effectively treat photo-aging or acne. 

Vitamin A Propionate’s smaller molecular structure gives it its superior ability to accelerate cell proliferation and the growth of collagen and elastin. 

In the natural cycle, skin cells are formed and shed off every thirty days. Vitamin A Propionate accelerates that important renewal cycle to between 10 and 14 days. The upper layers of dead skin are shed off more quickly and the build-up of new debris is minimized. New skin is revealed. Collagen production is stimulated. The dermis is increased as cells plump. Ultimately, the cell layers on the surface of the skin are reduced from 14 layers of compacted oil and dead cell debris to eight or nine resiliently elastic layers that give skin a healthy, youthful glow. 

Designed to provide the least amount of irritation with the greatest efficacy, Vitamin A Propionate has proven to be consistently more effective than any other non-prescription retinoid available in clearing and controlling acne and reversing the signs of photo-aging.” – Vivant Skincare

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