Fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone and texture? You may want to consider adding retinoids to your routine.

Today, I’ll be walking you through everything you need to know about retinoids as they really are the 🔑 to dreamy-looking skin!

What Are Retinoids?

‘Retinoids’ is the family term for all vitamin A molecules and its derivatives.

Retinoids are considered the gold standard in skincare. They can address not only the signs of ageing but many other issues which we will explore in the benefits section further down!

Vitamin A was originally used to treat acne. However, during its use, it was found to then have second-to-none, scientifically proven abilities to reverse and prevent the signs of ageing.

There, currently, really is no other ingredient out there that can compete with vitamin A and its incredible abilities!

Before We Get Into The Different Types…

It would be helpful if I showed you the retinoid conversion pathway. Regardless of what type of retinoid you choose to use, they all must convert into retinoic acid. It is this active form that can be used by the skin.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some ingredients don’t require conversion into retinoic acid to be active but we will look at this further down.

For retinoids to have an effect on fine lines, texture and pigmentation, retinoic acid must bind to the retinoid receptors in our bodies. When this happens, cellular renewal and cellular repair processes are undertaken.

Within our skin, this conversion to retinoic acid is carried out by enzymes in a series of steps:

Three steps – retinol esters convert to retinol. Retinol converts to retinaldehyde. Then, finally, retinaldehyde converts to retinoic acid.

Two steps – retinol to retinaldehyde. Then retinaldehyde to retinoic acid.

One step – retinaldehyde to retinoic acid.

The closer the product is to retinoic acid (e.g. retinaldehyde), the more effective it is and the more readily it converts into retinoic acid for use by the skin. 

What Are The Different Types?

Forms of vitamin A or retinoids that exist are as follows and go in ascending strength and in the conversion pathway as we’ve seen above:

Retinol Esters

  • Generally not irritating at all. 
  • The weakest form of retinoids.
  • Requires 3 steps to convert to retinoic acid. Therefore, it loses most of its potency on the way.
  • It has been said by some experts, that they provide little results with topical use.

Examples: Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Propionate, Retinyl Acetate, Retinyl Linoleate.


  • Can be highly irritating, depending on the percentage used.
  • Generally found in 0.3%, 0.5% and 1% concentrations.
  • Has lots of scientific studies behind it. 
  • Requires 2 steps to convert to retinoic acid.
  • Works the same as the stronger retinoids but takes longer to get there due to the more conversions required.

Retinaldehyde (Retinal)

  • Medium potential for irritation. 
  • Usually found in 0.01%, 0.03%, 0.05% and 0.1% concentrations.
  • Very unstable so usually found encapsulated. 
  • Works 11x faster than Retinol. 
  • Strongest form available without prescription. 
  • Requires just 1 step to be converted into retinoic acid.
  • Has antimicrobial properties, so great for oily/acne prone skin.

Retinoic Acid (also known as Tretinoin or ‘Tret’) 

  • Prescription only.
  • High potential for irritation and can cause swelling.
  • Works immediately as you apply to the skin.
  • No conversions required.
  • Suitable for all skin types but as mentioned highly irritating.
  • Requires you to move up from 0.025% to 0.05% and finally 0.1% under the care of a dermatologist.

This biologically active form of retinoids is the form that has an effect on the skin. This is what all of the above needs to convert too (as we’ve seen). 

Retinoic Acid Esters

Within this category you have Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR) which is an ester that is oil-based. It is directly related to retinoic acid and can bind directly to the retinoid receptors of the skin cells. It is often found in higher concentrations because of it being an ester.

FYI, Granactive retinoid is a complex of HPR.

You also may see Retinyl Retinoate which is the child of retinol and retinoic acid. It’s a fairly new product to the market that is more stable and active than retinol (8x stronger than retinol, to be precise!). It’s found to be suitable for sensitive skin types as it has a low to medium potential for irritation. 


Adapalene (or Differin) is a synthetic retinoid, which you can buy over-the-counter (OTC). It’s fairly low in irritation potential. It doesn’t need to convert into retinoic acid before it becomes active.

Its magic lies in its great ability to combat acne. It’s actually more effective in doing so than tretinoin and it’s better tolerated by the skin. However, it still can cause dryness, flakiness, redness and stinging, in the first few months!

Prescription Only Retinoids

There are Isotretinoin (pure retinoic acid like tretinoin) and Tazarotene (doesn’t require conversion to retinoic acid). Both are prescription only and can be very irritating to the skin depending on the percentage used. 

*Isotretinoin is what I went on for a year from my dermatologist*

As previously mentioned to work on the skin, most of these non-prescription forms must be converted or broken down into Retinoic Acid. Once this is done, Retinoic Acid can be used by the skin to produce the effects that we wish to see, such as age-delaying. The weaker forms such as Retinyl Esters and Retinol have more steps to convert and so they lose some of their potency as they do so. Therefore, ideally, you want to be as close to Retinoic Acid as possible (e.g. Retinaldehyde) to have the greatest effect on the skin. However, that doesn’t mean that Retinol doesn’t work, it just may take you a bit longer to see the positive effects.

And remember, ultimately it’s down to your skin’s chemistry and retinoid receptors as to how much of the retinoid product you’re using is actually converted into retinoic acid!

retinoids, medik8, the inkey list

What Are The Benefits Of Using Retinoids?


  • Minimises fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen synthesis and preventing its breakdown for more youthful, plump and smooth looking skin.
  • Improves skin texture by increasing cell turnover. This is done at a cellular level as opposed to acids that work superficially on dead skin cells. The result of retinoids increasing cell turnover is a smoother, brighter skin surface.
  • A more even complexion is achieved by decreasing melanin production. This leads to a more even skin tone and reduced appearance of acne scars, sun spots and hyper-pigmentation.
  • Clears clogged pores (via cellular exfoliation) and can help with acne by decreasing sebum production. This in turn helps to minimise blemish formation.
  • Helps with UV repair.

What Age Should I Start Using Retinoids?

Well, cell turnover doesn’t slow down until you hit your 30s. Before you reach the age of 30, your cells turn over every 28 days. So, if you’re thinking about age-delaying benefits then you could wait until you start heading towards that age zone.

After the age of 30 is a different matter. Cell turnover can slow down to every 50, 60 or even 70 days. Slower cell turnover leads to skin that is dry, dull and wrinkled! So, your retinoids basically trick your skin into thinking it is younger than it is by increasing the speed of cell turnover.

*adds a retinoid product straight to basket* 👀

We have also seen previously, that retinoids provide other benefits aside from age-delaying. So, starting in your 20s if you have acne-prone, oily or sun-damaged skin may be beneficial to you but it might be worth starting with the weaker forms first. Also if you smoke, regularly sunbathe or are generally unhealthy you may want to begin with some form of vitamin A before you reach your 30s.

What Can I Expect When I Start Retinoids?

Depending on type and strength of retinoid that you are using, you may see redness, dryness, patches of flaking skin and generally irritated and sensitised skin. This is a process called retinisation (the process through which your skin gets used to topical retinoids).

These are all normal outcomes of beginning retinoids. To counteract this you can buffer (weaken the formula) the retinoid that you are using by adding in a layer of moisturiser either before or after you have used the product. You can also use oils such as squalane and jojoba over the top of your retinoid product as these oils won’t interfere with how the retinoid works.

Will These Effects Always Happen When Using Retinoids?

No! These symptoms won’t last forever. Once your skin has adjusted and you’re regularly using your retinoid product, they will start to dissipate. Instead, you should then see smoother, more plump, hydrated and glowing skin that you’ve been looking for. So, if you can, work through those initial side-effects!

Another thing to mention is that not everyone experiences these effects, I haven’t but I did start very slow (as I always do – sensible Sally strikes again! 🥱). Not experiencing those signs isn’t an indication that the retinoid product is not working for you. So, don’t be tempted to use it more often or use a larger amount! You skin probably won’t thank you for it!

retinoids, pixi

How Often Should I Use Them?

Generally, it’s recommended that you begin using retinoids as follows:

  • Once in the first week
  • Twice in the second week
  • Every other day in the third week

Then you could progress up to daily use if desired/recommended.

However, as a caveat to that, Kate Somerville recommends if you’re in your 20s, use twice a week. If you’re in your 30s, use three times a week, 40s, use 4 times a week and so on until you reach daily use by your 70s! This is the method I generally use. However, I tend to go for 3-4 times a week depending on how my skin is behaving. If I’m around/leading up to my period I’ll go up to 4 times a week. And I’m under the age of 30!

Just remember that to see the long term benefits you have to be using retinoids regularly and consistently. Experts say that you need at least 3 months of consistent use to see results. Some even say 6 months but it’s not to say that you won’t see some sort of benefits with the first few uses! If you stop using them your skin will simply return to baseline!

At What Stage In My Routine Should I Use Them?

If your vitamin A is in the form of a cream, then use at the end of your routine, after cleansing and onto dry skin. Ideally you want to not use any serums beforehand as you want the retinoid closest to your skin. However, some brands will say otherwise!

If your vitamin A is a serum, use after cleansing on dry skin and leave for 20 mins to sink in before using other serums/moisturisers/oils. The same applies if the retinoid is in toner form!

It’s recommended that you use retinoids on dry skin as when skin is damp, you can experience increased sensitivity. However, I haven’t found any firm evidence to back this up!


In terms of where to use them on your face, avoid your eye area (unless you’re using a retinoid eye cream), corners of your mouth, around your nostrils and your neck. These areas are sensitive! Many brands say to use retinoids on your décolletage but I personally find them too strong for use there. I find anything other than a hydrating moisturiser is too much for my neck at my current age!


Lastly, retinoids can be inactivated by sunlight so always use them at night! Of course, unless you are using a brand that has formulated a retinoid product for use in the day.

Remember to always use your SPF in the morning after using retinoids. You should be using SPF everyday anyway so it shouldn’t be too hard to remember 😉 .

It’s also a myth FYI, that retinoids make you burn more easily, it’s actually more to do with the fact that they can inactivated by sunlight!

When Do I Progress Up?

So as mentioned, if it’s your first time using retinoids, start with a low percentage and introduce to your skin slowly. I would then progress up once your tube/jar/whatever it’s contained in, is empty!

Of course if you’re using a prescription form, follow your dermatologists advice!

What Can & Can’t I Use With Retinoids?

So before we get into this, remember that there will always be brands/products that mix supposedly ‘no-go’ ingredients together all in one product. And that is fine, they will have/should have used scientists in a lab that have formulated the ingredients to be able to work together with no problems.

So with that being said, if you are using the following ingredients separately, this is a summary of what experts recommend:

  • ❌ Save your vitamin C for the AM with your SPF and your retinoid for the night time (different pHs required to work).
  • ❌ You can use AHAs/BHAs/peels with retinoids but not in the same routine. Save your acids for the AM with SPF, retinoids for the PM or alternate the nights you use them on. Both increase cell turnover so can cause irritation to the skin. You may see some seasoned skincare users using acids and retinoids all together. They know their skin and they will be accustomed to doing that!
  • ❌ Don’t use retinoids with benzoyl peroxide together as they will cancel each other out. Again save your benzoyl peroxide and other spot treatments for AM use with SPF and retinoids for the evening.
  • ✅ Ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide are all fine to use with retinoids but use them at least 20 minutes after your retinoid serum has sunk in.

So, I would say that’s probably it for today! I hope you found this helpful and clear. Before I began looking into retinoids, I found them so confusing. So, my aim was to help make it a little less overwhelming for you guys compared to how I found it! I hope I succeeded! 🤞🏻

Next up I will be doing a one month review on my chosen retinoid product. As we’ve talked about above, you need to use a retinoid product for at least 3 months to see the full results. So, in that case, I will update my one month review to include my three month review once I get there! Subscribe here so that you don’t miss it!

As always, any questions please drop me a comment below!

Love & Knowledge,



P.S. You may also want to take a look at my own personal skincare journey & why I began Skin Acid Trip, here ❤. Or perhaps brush up on some other ingredients via the ‘Ingredients Spotlight’ category!

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