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Retinoids: A Primer

Retinoids are an increasingly hot topic in skin care. Effective in treating acne, psoriasis, and in warding off the signs of aging, these topical and oral medications are skyrocketing in popularity in both prescription and over-the-counter formulations. Despite their ubiquitous presence on drug store, beauty specialty shop, and pharmacy shelves, there is a lot of confusion surrounding these therapies.

What are Retinoids?

Retinoids are vitamers of, or chemical compounds derived from, vitamin A. Vitamin A is responsible for cell growth and turnover. When used in skin care, retinoids alter the turnover of epidermal cells and increase the shedding of dead cells in a process called hyperkeratinization. This increased turnover and shedding makes retinoids incredibly effective in treating conditions like psoriasis (where skin cell turnover is disordered), managing pore-clogging conditions like acne, combating hyperpigmentation by accelerating cell turnover, and stimulating collagen growth to fight wrinkles and other signs of aging.

There are so many choices! How do I know which retinoid is right for me?

Before starting any new skin care regimen, we highly recommend consulting with a board-certified dermatologist. A dermatologist will be able to diagnose and treat your skin condition and will make recommendations tailored to your needs. They can also help you understand what to expect from any new products or devices you may be using.

Retinoids come in a variety of strengths and formulations.

Retinyl palmitate, retinol, and retinaldehyde are weaker retinoids (from weakest to strongest) that are available over-the-counter. They are commonly found in anti-aging and acne treatments. Adapalene, widely known as the active ingredient in Differin, can be found both over-the-counter and by prescription. Tretinoin, tazarotene, and isotretinoin are available by prescription only, with oral isotretinoin being the most potent formulation available.

Tips for Using Retinoids

  1. Take Your Time: If you're using an over-the-counter product, start off slow. Retinoids can be very irritating to the skin, especially for first-time users. It's best to start off by applying product once per week or once every three days until your skin has had time to adjust. If you are using prescription medication, it is critical to follow your provider's instructions.
  2. Use Product Sparingly: Using extra product will not enhance results. At best, it will waste product. At worst, you'll experience unnecessary irritation. A pea-sized amount is generally ideal.
  3. Sunscreen is Required: Regardless of what products you're using, you should be applying sunscreen every day, rain or shine, indoors or outdoors to combat the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays. This goes double when using retinoids. Remember, retinoids increase skin cell production and cause dead skin cells to slough off faster than usual. That means the skin is particularly vulnerable to sun damage.

Need for more information?

Consulting with a board-certified dermatologist is the best way to determine what products are right for your skin. With DermatologistOnCall, you can conduct an online visit from your computer or mobile device – and, it only takes a few minutes. Log in to, answer a few questions about your health, and upload photos of your skin. You can expect a diagnosis, treatment plan, and any prescriptions (if necessary) sent to the pharmacy of your choice – typically in an average of 24 hours.