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Retinol & Retinoids: The Complete Guide

What is retinol and how does it work?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, i.e., a vitamin A derivative. Retinoids are the most used and studied anti-ageing compounds. Tretinoin, initially sold as Retin-A, was the first retinoid to be used as an acne treatment in the ‘70s; researchers however discovered that it also has other benefits: it fades precancerous lesions called actinic keratoses, evens out pigmentation and speeds up the rate at which the skin renews itself.

In addition to retinol, retinoids include retinyl palmitate (this is the variant we’ve used in our Retin-oil Serum), retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin and tazarotene, among others, where adapalene and tazarotene are synthetic retinoids while the rest, are naturally found in our bodies.

Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is the only natural retinoid that our skin can process. It binds to receptors in skin cells where it influences cellular processes like growth, differentiation, immune modulation and others. All natural retinoids must first be converted to retinoic acid before our skin can use them and their strength depends on the number of steps required for this conversion - something probably best illustrated by a diagram.

Infographic illustrating the retinoid chain starting with retinyl palmitate, and ending with retinoic acid, or tretinoin.

Synthetic retinoids also have variable strengths but don’t need to be converted to retinoic acid to work.

Infographic that summarises the quick facts on retinoids. It covers what retinoids are, why you should use them, how you should use them and what precautions to take while using them.

A side note on retinyl palmitate

Since retinyl palmitate is the retinoid we’ve used in our serums, here are some more things we think you might like to know about it.

  • Retinyl palmitate is a combination of retinol and the fatty acid palmitic acid.

  • It is found naturally in our skin and is the most abundant form of vitamin A storage in animals.

  • ​​It’s also an antioxidant that prevents visible signs of skin ageing and protects skin from the harmful effects of pollution and UV.

How retinol slows down ageing

Your skin is constantly shedding old, dead cells and making new ones to replace them, so much so, that while you’re young, your skin completely renews itself every 28 days on average. As you age, this process slows down and old dead cells begin to accumulate making your skin look dull, dry and wrinkled.

Retinoids are known to be the gold standard in anti-ageing ingredients. They stimulate the metabolism of skin cells so dead skin sheds off and is replaced by new skin more quickly. They also reduce the amount of melanin, or pigment, that your skin produces. These two effects combined cause dark spots to fade and make your skin brighter and more even-toned.

Because of the effect that retinoids have on skin cell turnover, a lot of people are under the impression that retinoids are exfoliants. This however, is not true. Chemical exfoliants work by breaking the bonds that hold dead skin cells to the surface. Retinoids work by stimulating the production of new skin cells and affecting how they mature - unlike chemical exfoliants, they aren’t able to break the bonds that hold dead cells to the skin’s surface.

Retinoids encourage the production of new blood vessels, and of collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, and reduce the degradation of these substances by slowing down the activity of enzymes that break them down. They also strengthen your skin barrier, reducing water lost through the skin. This results in skin that is firmer, supple, and more elastic. They are also antioxidants, and deactivate free radicals that damage your skin and cause skin ageing.

Lastly, retinoids are also known for their anti-acne effects so if that’s something you’re prone to, you have an additional incentive to incorporate them into your skincare routine.

While retinoids don’t result in a dramatic difference overnight - they require at least 12 weeks of consistent use - a well-formulated product visibly reduces sun damage, brown spots, lines, wrinkles, skin laxity and enlarged pores. In short, retinoids are like a reset button for your skin and encourage it to behave like a younger version of itself.

AccuFix Cosmetics Retin-Oil Serum 0.2%

So how can you incorporate retinol into your skincare routine if the signs of ageing are your main concern? Here’s a quick routine that you could use as a starting point:

When you should start using retinol and how to incorporate retinol into your skincare routine

The fibroblasts - special types of cells that make collagen and other important substances - in your skin begin to slow down in your 20s making it a great decade to add a retinoid into your skincare routine.

However, since retinoids can cause undesirable side effects when you first start them, start with the gentlest available option and build up slowly. If your skin is sensitive, this option might be all that your skin is able to tolerate. And this is okay. Lower retinoid strengths take longer to show effects but in the long-run, they’re all effective anti-ageing ingredients. Also stick with a gentle option if you’re young since you’ll benefit even from low strengths and doses.

In the case of our Retin-oil Serum, which comes in three strength variants - 0.2%, 0.5% and 1.0% - we would recommend starting out with the 0.2% 3 times a week and then building up and only moving on to a higher strength if your skin is easily able to tolerate what you’re currently using. Each time you move to a stronger variant, start by incorporating it into your routine 3 times a week before increasing frequency of use. Don’t let impatience convince you to load up on retinoids, since you’ll only end up burning your face off in the process.

AccuFix Cosmetics Retin-oil Serum all strengths: 0.2%, 0.5% and 1.0%.

Because retinoids result in increased skin cell turnover, you’ll experience a few weeks of flakiness, irritation, and purging (if your skin is prone to acne) when you start. By starting slowly and loading up on moisturiser, you can mitigate these side-effects. They do, however, also usually subside on their own as your skin adjusts to the product. Mild exfoliation can also help with flakiness.

What about combining retinoids with other products?

While this is something I’ve personally done without adverse effects since I don’t have sensitive skin and am an experienced skincare user, it’s not something I would recommend for most people as it might lead to irritation. This is especially true if your skin is sensitive, or you’re new to skincare. If you would like to use other strong actives like chemical exfoliants, benzoyl peroxide and vitamin C in your routine alongside retinoids, use them on the nights that you don’t use retinoids.

Like anything in skincare - or in life - continued results are dependent on consistency of use. If you stop using retinoids, your skin will go back to baseline.

Precautions to take when using retinol

As previously mentioned, retinoids can cause dryness, peeling and irritation. While these issues can be mitigated by starting slowly, you need to be careful if you have an underlying condition like eczema or rosacea since retinoids can potentially aggravate it. Patch test first, start with the mildest available option and keep your skin moisturised. If you have sensitive skin, you can apply a heavy moisturiser before applying the retinoid to reduce the chance of irritation.

Retinoids can also make your skin more sensitive to other products, procedures, and sunlight so as I mentioned previously, avoid mixing them with other strong actives and stop using them for at least a week before things like facials, laser treatments, chemical peels and waxing.

In addition, since retinoids are teratogenic and can cause abnormal foetal development, you shouldn’t use them if you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding. Retinoids are also sensitive to heat and light and should be kept in an opaque container, in a cool, dark place, away from direct sunlight and ideally, used only during the night. As with most actives, to reap maximum benefit, use up the product within 3 months of opening the bottle.

Can you use retinoids around the eye area?

Yes you can! However, since the skin around the eye area is especially delicate and thin, you need to be careful to not use a product that’s too strong. Look for an eye cream especially formulated for the eye area, or you can use our Retin-oil Serum 0.2% since that uses retinyl palmitate, which is a much gentler retinoid. Start slowly and see how much your skin can easily tolerate to avoid risking irritation.

Retinoids and acne

In addition to their anti-ageing effects, topical retinoids are also known for their effects on acne and acne scars. One of the causes of acne is the improper shedding of dead skin cells. When the bonds between dead skin cells don’t dissolve properly, they clump together making it more likely that they’ll clog your pores. Retinoids regulate skin cell turnover, and prevent this from happening.

Retinoids regulate the skin’s immune system and reduce inflammation and are also able to decrease the activity of sebaceous glands - the skin’s oil producing glands - and melanocytes, resulting in clear skin, reduced breakouts and smaller pores.

So what’s the best way to incorporate retinoids into your skincare routine if you have acne vulgaris? As always, start slow and build up slowly. I recommend combining them with salicylic acid for maximum benefit, in a routine that might look like this:

These are general recommendations but as always, feel free to reach out to us for recommendations more geared towards your skin specific type and concerns.

Other benefits of retinol

In addition to helping combat skin ageing and acne, retinoids are also beneficial for other skin issues. Here’s a quick summary.

That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it informative. Don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments below, and keep checking back monthly for more!


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