A Note On Retinol And Retinoids (Vitamin A Derivatives)


Retinol is a common topic in the treatment room and a product that’s often misunderstood. I hope this information offers some clarity in helping you choose whether or not retinol is a product you would like to include in your skincare regimen.

What Is Retinol

Retinol is one of the most commonly used ingredients in skincare, but many people don’t fully understand its origins or uses.


Prescription retinoids, retinol and esters (which we’ll talk about later) are all derived from Vitamin A. After decades of being used in the beauty industry, retinol still wears the crown for its skincare anti-aging and healing properties.

What Is The Difference Between Retinol And Retinoids?

The main differences between retinol and retinoids is that retinoids (aka prescription retinoids) are only available via prescription and tend to, at least initially, be more harsh on the skin since they are already converted into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the key ingredient of retinol and prescription retinoid products. Retinoic acid works by binding to receptors in the outer membrane of our skin’s cells.


The initial harsh effect of retinoic acid from prescription retinoids is also called “the retinol burn” and often causes peeling. This is because most prescription products contain some non-active ingredients like propylene glycol and parabens which may be some of the reasons why irritation may occur.  


At present there are three prescription-strength retinoids on the market:

  • Tretinoin, which includes Retin-A, Retin-A micro and Renova,
  • Tazarotene, which is regarded as the strongest retinoid,
  • and Adapalene, which has proven to be the gentlest on skin.


Retinol is the purest derivative of Vitamin A, and unlike prescription retinoids, does not convert into retinoic acid until applied to the skin. Retinol is a wonderful option because it has a very short, two-step conversion process into retinoic acid making it the most effective kind of Vitamin A derivative without the associated irritation.


Esters are the most abundant form of Vitamin A, and like retinol, convert to retinoic acid once applied to the skin. However, they have longer conversion chains into retinoic acid that significantly affect the stability, efficacy and purity of the product.

Retinol’s Positive Effects

Retinol has a tiny molecular structure that allows it to travel deep beneath the epidermis (outer layer of skin) to the dermis (middle layer of skin). Once in the dermis, retinol aids in inhibiting the breakdown of collagen and boosting healthy collagen production. This helps the surface of the skin appear plump and reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and enlarged pores, while improving skin texture and tone. 


Retinol also helps regulate sebum (oil) production within the skin, making it an excellent option for clients with acne prone skin and/or past acne scarring. Additionally, retinol has exfoliating effects that remove dead skin cells that may lead to moisture loss, ultimately balancing skin hydration. 

What To Consider When Choosing A Retinol Or Retinoid

There are several things to consider when choosing a retinol or prescription retinoid. Here are a few:

  • An effective product should have a high enough percentage of retinol to be effective but shouldn’t irritate the skin.
  • Pay attention to where retinol appears within a product’s ingredient list. Products list ingredients in order by concentration from highest to lowest.
  • If you have sensitive skin, look for products that are made with encapsulated retinol. Encapsulated retinol uses nano-technology to slowly release into the skin and should be less irritating than a prescription retinoid. This process also preserves the retinol longer.
  • Try to avoid toxic preservatives such as BHT, which are widely used in retinol products.
  • Apply retinol at night only.
  • If you are using retinol, apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 daily to prevent sunburn. 
  • Share if you are using a Vitamin A derivative with anyone treating your skin, including waxing. 
  • Cease using Vitamin A derivatives at least 7 days prior to facial waxing.
  • Avoid prescription retinoids and retinol if you are pregnant, nursing or trying to become pregnant as they are teratogenic.
  • Refrain from using benzoyl peroxide products, especially if you are an adult with acne. Prolonged use of BP can make skin photosensitive and impede new skin cell formation, both of which accelerate skin aging.
  • Retinol is not an overnight fix. It may take 6-8 weeks to begin seeing a visible difference.