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All About Retinoids: The Royal Family of Anti-Aging Skincare

Do you have dull-looking skin and fine lines? Have you also been experiencing a loss in skin elasticity, or suffer from adult acne? These are all symptoms of aging skin, which is a natural and unavoidable biological process. Surprisingly, one ingredient has been proven by science to be able to address all these problems — Retinoids, or the Vitamin A group. This group of ingredients has been hailed as the “royal family” of skincare because they are the scientific “gold standard” of topical treatment for aging skin!

History of Retinoids

While retinoids were initially found and used as a topical and oral medication for a multitude of skin conditions, it was used primarily for acne. After 40 years of close observation, skincare scientists found out that retinoids contain an extra benefit of repairing and rejuvenating sun-damaged skin. What a sweet surprise! This benefit improves overall skin texture and effectively reverses signs of aging. 

How Do They Work?

Our skin cells have a receptor for retinoic acid. Retinoic acid functions like a wake-up call for our skin cells to do their job right. Skin cells sometimes “behave” erratically or slowly, because just like us, they become tired as the human body ages! Retinoids help to increase our skin cell turnover rate and to basically renew our skin cells. This helps to increase the production of collagen (which is the building block of our skin), and also fades hyperpigmentation. 

Who Can Benefit?

Anyone who is concerned with acne, signs of aging, and wishes to prevent early signs of aging can benefit from the use of retinoids. Perhaps you’re wondering — when is the right time to start? There is no black and white answer to this. However, if your main issue is mild acne, you can start anytime.

Additionally, the truth is that our skin collagen production significantly reduces by 1% each year as we reach the age of 25. This fact is good reason to start on your retinoids journey as you reach your mid to late-20s. Being diligent with the usage of this ingredient will help prevent your skin from forming (more) fine lines before it’s too late!

FAQ: “Retinoids, retinol, retinoic acid, Retin-A — What are these ingredients? Are they the same?”

‘Retinoids’ is an umbrella term for both prescription-based active retinoic acid as well as the over the counter (OTC) derivatives. Imagine retinoids as a company, and the derivatives such as retinoid acid, retinol, retinaldehydes as the directors, managers, and assistants of the organization.

The only active form of retinoids that our skin cells recognize and respond to is retinoic acid. Imagine it as the strongest member and the director (or boss) of the group. However, retinoic acid is only available through doctor’s prescription (for example: RetinA cream). 

The other derivatives such as retinol, retinaldehyde and granactive retinoids are the sidekicks to retinoic acid. While they may not be as powerful, they still have their own roles to play keep the group rolling. These “sidekicks” are the ones that are readily available in OTC skincare products, and are less “powerful” because they need to overcome “obstacles” before being able to perform like retinoic acid. Simply put, they require our skin’s enzymes to convert them into the active form (retinoic acid) before they can signal the skin cells. 

To name a few of these derivatives and the number of conversions it requires: 

  • Retinol esters (3 conversions): Retinyl proprionate, Retinyl palmitate, Retinyl aspartamate 
  • Retinol (2 conversions)
  • Retinaldehyde (1 conversion): Retinyl-aldehyde, Retinal
  • Retinoic acid esters (0 conversions): Hydroxypinacolone retinoate, granactive retinoid (most powerful, but prescription-only!)

The Drawback

Before you start your retinoid journey, you should note that there may be possible side effects. This is commonly known as the “retinoid reaction”, and include the onset of redness, stinging, scaling, xerosis, pruritis and purging. 

However, do not be discouraged, because these side effects are concentration-dependent and will subside over time. Check out these tips and tricks to incorporate retinoids into your skincare routine while minimizing this side effect! 

Tips For Newbies!

How To Use

  • When: Apply ONLY at night time. Use retinoids 1 – 2 times a week and increase the frequency as your skin adjust to it.
  • How: Slowly but surely. To make sure that your skin adjusts to the ingredient, use a product with a lower concentration. A cream formulation can help act as a barrier that allows a slower and gentler release of the retinoid to the skin, which is great for beginners. However, if your retinoid product comes in serum form, you can just layer it on top of your moisturizer.
  • Important: Don’t forget to apply your sunscreen every day! This is because retinoids will increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Is It Safe During Pregnancy Or Breastfeeding?

Retinoids are not safe to use during pregnancy (although this has only been proven at a certain amount of concentration). It is best to avoid the use of retinoids during pregnancy. While the OTC options are unlikely to cause a problem while breastfeeding, do note that there has been no hard evidence to prove its absolute safety. This is why Picky has filtered out all retinoid-based products in our pregnancy-friendly filter!


There you go! Now you know the reasons why this ingredient is so popular with skincare enthusiasts. It is multifunctional and especially effective for acne treatment and reversing signs of aging. Find your next retinoid product with our retinoids hero ingredient filter and remember to leave a product review on the Picky app after you’ve tried it! Click here to go to the Picky website, or here to go back to our blog.

2 Responses

  1. This article is super helpful and timely. I know a lot of us experience maskne these days from wearing our masks most of the time. My derm just recently prescribed me a gel type retinol product to target my hormonal acne and it has worked wonders from the 4 days I have been using it. My acne has flattened and my skin feels smoother too! Even some fine lines I’ve noticed prior to using retinol is slowly disappearing. Loving the results so far!

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