What is retinol? Answers to commonly asked retinoid questions

What is retinol? Answers to commonly asked retinoid questions

Throughout your skincare journey, many of you may have heard of retinol and how it is widely believed to be the modern day, gold standard solution for beating signs of anti-ageing. In contrast, some of you may have also heard whispers from critics who claim that retinoids such as retinol can be aggressive on the skin. So what IS true, and what should you believe when choosing a retinoid product? How does retinol work? I’m here to debunk some of the myths surrounding retinol and tell you all you need to know, because from our mid to late twenties we start to lose 1% collagen per year (sounds frightful!) and in my opinion with a product like retinol, we can all start to slow this process down and keep us looking our youthful best!

What’s the difference between retinol and retinoid? 

Let’s get straight into the nitty gritty and understand some of the basic science behind retinoids. ‘Retinol’ is the term most commonly understood and used in the skincare industry and is actually derived from the larger ‘retinoid’ family. There are also a few different siblings in the ‘retinoid’ family as well, so let’s break it all down to make it easier to understand:

Is retinol vitamin A?

You may hear your clinician refer to your retinoid based product as ‘Vitamin A’ from time to time. All retinoids (including retinol) start off as fatty based compounds that derive from Vitamin A, so Vitamin A is like the mother of the retinoid family and is often used as an all-encompassing way to refer to your retinoid product.

What is retinoic acid?

Retinoic acid is the final, strongest form that all retinoids adopt on their absorption journey into the skin. All of the retinoid siblings listed below originate from Vitamin A and once absorbed into the skin cells will be converted into retinoic acid. The different ways in which this is done will define which retinoid you’re dealing with, as well as the side effects and outcome too.

Types of retinoids


Retinol is widely used in cosmeceutical serums and moisturisers, and commonly available over the counter. Retinol is only two steps away from being converted into retinoic acid, but traditionally has fewer side effects than straight retinoic acid. It can take anywhere from 3-6 months after using a retinol product to start seeing results.


Retinaldahyde is just one metabolic step away from being converted into retinoic acid. This retinoid has less side effects than a straight retinoic acid and can be beneficial to all skin concerns and newer users.  

Retinyl palmitate

Retinyl palmitate is four steps away from being converted into retinoic acid so larger percentages of it will be required to see clinical changes, however can be useful for a more sensitive skin type that can’t tolerate other retinoids.


Tretinoin is short for trans retinoic acid. This is a prescription only retinoid that doesn’t have any conversion rate. This version rapidly make its way into the cell without any conversion rate.  Because of this, results can be seen much faster than retinol. It is highly effective in treating acne, forehead lines and wrinkles, however can come with side effects such as sensitivity, skin peeling and flaking. If used incorrectly, the side effects can lead to accelerated ageing and undesired results.


Isotretinoin, or Roaccutane, is a prescription only oral form of vitamin A that is used to treat severe cases of acne. Side effects can include dry skin, cracked lips, joint pain and dry eyes. This medication should be closely monitored by a doctor.

Does retinol thin the skin?

A retinoid product may cause some slight dryness in the beginning, but this is a completely normal process as your skin cell turnover starts to increase. This is not your skin thinning, although it may feel that way! With all of your collagen proteins getting to work, your skin will be doing the OPPOSITE and will actually be getting stronger and more resilient. It is really important, however, that you do complement the use of vitamin A with hydrators, antioxidants and SPF to maintain the perfect balance. Always go slow and start using a new retinoid product 1-2 times per week, gradually increasing so that your skin has time to adapt. Still feeling a little dry?  Apply a layer of moisturiser or hydrating serum BEFORE your retinol to dilute its potency until your barrier hydration improves.

Will retinol make my skin sensitive to the sun?

You may have heard that retinol causes the skin to become more sensitive to sunlight. MYTH. Vitamin A actually breaks down in the sun and becomes less effective and stable which is why we advise you to use it at night. This is often why our product containers are insulated with foil to block out the UVA and UVB rays from sunlight. It can be annoying for our clients who cannot see how much product they have left and then suddenly run out, but advantageous for preserving the product! Even though retinol won’t make you sun-sensitive, YOU STILL HAVE TO WEAR SUNSCREEN! Using a retinol exfoliates dead skin cells, so the younger cells on the surface of your epidermis will need extra protection to prevent them from early sun damage. I often get told by my clients that they are leaving behind their retinol serum on holiday as they are going somewhere hot, but I have girlfriends in Dubai and Queensland who use retinol in their daily routine, and it’s often in these harsh environments when our skin needs retinol the most. Holiday tip: If you go swimming in a chlorinated pool on holiday, apply a protective balm/emollient and some zinc oxide (A.K.A SPF!) to protect your skin barrier and prevent skin irritation. If you accidentally get sunburnt or experience skin irritation, I would recommend pausing the use of your retinol for 5 days post exposure/irritation to allow your skin to recover from the exposure/irritation.

Why can’t I use retinoids while pregnant?

Using a retinol is not deemed safe for use while pregnant and breastfeeding. There have been studies to show that taking oral isotretinoin causes birth defects, so while applying retinol topically to the skin is unlikely to cause any damage (by the time it has travelled through the skin it has adequately broken down), it is still recommended to err on the side of caution. If you are currently pregnant and are using a topical retinol, don’t stress, just discontinue. On a nutritional note, there are a lot of Vitamin A deficiencies present in young children. This vitamin plays an important role for tissue development, helping to repair cellular damage and boost our immune systems, so try and get the kids to incorporate foods rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots, pumpkin, spinach and eggs.

Why does my skin look worse since using a retinoid?

We are more than familiar with this one – in fact we call this the retinoid uglies! In some cases we see clients experience a ‘purge’. This happens when there is rapid renewal of the skin, so just think of this as your skin getting rid of the bad and making way for the new. A purge in the skin may sometimes appear as uniform breakouts all over the skin. Please be patient as this will pass with time, usually within 2-4 weeks. Do NOT pick or squeeze! There’s some microscopic constructions happening right at this point and all the little workers in your skin have enough on their plate. Another thing you may notice is darker pigmentation as the redundant, damaged cells clear off - celebrate it and do not panic, as this is likely sun damage in the epidermis on the last leg of its unwelcome stay. Make sure to add in some brightening ingredients like a Vitamin C product to make sure they don’t return! 

How do I choose the right retinoid product?

Something I say in the clinic approximately 5 times a day is that no two skins are alike. I’m lucky enough to work with 8 phenomenal brands at Clinica Lase that offer different types of retinoids, meaning that I can carefully prescribe to my clients’ needs. Always make sure to use a cosmeceutical grade product to see a positive change in the skin. Cosmetic products do not have the delivery and concentration needed and you may be disappointed with the results. Always ask for professional advice and recommendations from a skin therapist. We will be able to choose based on your skin condition and take the guesswork out of making the decision, making it a much smoother process. Plus a penny saved is a penny earned and we don’t want you buying something that isn’t suitable and is going to go to waste. Here are a few of my favourite go-to’s for each concern:

Retinol for Acne and Breakouts

Vitamin A helps to reduce sebum production, increase healing and has natural moisturising properties which is everything an acne prone skin needs. I personally love Societe's Refinishing Complex as it has the perfect blend of encapsulated salicylic, lactic and malic acid to help exfoliate and unclog oil and dead skin build up, PRP pigment regulating technology to help post inflammatory pigmentation, calming antioxidants plus retinyl palmitate and .5% retinol. It sounds like the perfect cocktail to me!

Retinol for Dry Skin

My hero product has got to be Cosmedix Serum 16. It’s a great introductory serum but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not high strength, because it is actually on par with a prescription retinoid. The bonus with this product though, is that with the 16% LG-retinex patented encapsulation, it will help drive the product into the skin with less risk of irritation to the upper layers than a prescription retinoid. With sodium PCA and squalane you’ll also be sure to receive an adequate amount of hydration. Using this gem, you’ll be certain to see improvements in fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation.

Retinol for Pigmentation

X-cell+ Brightening Serum from Cosmedix Elite is one not to miss for pigmentation concerns. This product is formulated with niacinamide (an essential form of Vitamin B3), which is renowned for its anti-inflammatory and even skin tone effects. They have also added whitonyl nonapeptide to help suppress melanocyte activity, and microencapsulated retinol for skin firming. One added thing I really notice in my client’s skin when they use this – their pores shrink! Option B- you could certainly also use the Societe Refinishing Complex (mentioned above) for all types of discolouration including sun damage, post inflammatory and melasma.

 Retinol for Wrinkles and Fine Lines

Skin Better Science Alpharet Overnight Serum is the real MVP here for all anti-ageing needs. Alpharet is a potent delivery system of retinol and lactic acid equivalent to a .5%,  that will not cause irritation like a prescription retinoic acid. This one seriously delivers on the results and they have also packed in some niacinamide, glycolic acid and anti-ageing peptides. You will expect to see a more re-texturised and refined canvas and as an added benefit this product can help to neutralise red tones in the skin too. You can always step up to the next level with the Intensive Alpharet Overnight Serum after using the regular Alpharet for a while. I love the creamy texture of this one, and it’s a true favourite amongst the Clinica Lase family.

Retinol for Sensitive Skin and Redness

Just because your skin is red or sensitive doesn’t mean you have to miss out. DermaQuest have just the thing for this concern, with their Retinaldehyde Renewal Cream being the ideal choice for delicate skins. The hyaluronic acid will plump the skin and keep your barrier happy and they’ve also added in some sepicalm to help soothe redness and irritation. Going back to my science lesson earlier – the retinaldehyde sibling is much better tolerated, in fact you could use this one nightly! 

Final thoughts

After so many clinical studies, it is evidently supported that retinoids can help to stimulate collagen, reduce acne, fight photo damage and bring your skin back to a youthful condition, which is what we all want right? In a nutshell, retinoids can make a remarkable difference to how your skin looks and feels, and can give your confidence a great boost. It is the one ingredient that our skin needs to function properly and improve conditions and concerns. I personally started using a retinoid from the age of 24, and I’m like a dog with two tails! I’m soon approaching 30 and I sometimes sit and wonder what my skin would be like now if I hadn’t started then… My one piece of advice is to start sooner rather than later as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure!