A beginners' guide to Retinol

A beginners' guide to Retinol

Vitamin A, or its most common derivative, retinol, is famed as skincare’s magic ingredient. It’s beloved by dermatologists and clinically proven to help treat acne and wrinkles, the two far ends of the skin issue spectrum, as well as all the irritation and dullness in-between. How? By speeding up the epidermal turnover and boosting collagen growth.

The retinol boom first came with a warning of potential side effects: redness, dryness, supreme sun-sensitivity… a hangover from the prescription form it was previously known for. Then came products with ‘gentler retinoids’ that could be worn in the day, and then, the plant-based alternatives.

Vitamin A is an ingredient with nuances, so if you really want to know the nitty gritty of the vitamin A gang, get ready—class is in session.


This is the name for all vitamin A derivatives, of which, retinol is one. i.e. retinoid is the parent, retinol is the child, but this isn’t a single child household. There’s also retinol esters, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, trifarotene, and isotretinoin. No matter what retinoid is in your product, your skin can only use the active form of vitamin A, retinoic acid. All retinoids convert to retinoic acid when they mix with the enzymes in our skin, but in one, two or three steps. Retinol esters convert to retinol, then retinol to retinaldehyde, then finally from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid. The closer the compound to retinoic acid, the more readily it converts and can take effect. However other factors can play a part in the effectiveness.


A prescription form of vitamin A oft known by the brand name Retin-A, tretinoin is pure retinoic acid so it gets to work pronto. It’s 20 times stronger than retinol, and has shown a significant ability to help reduce wrinkles, lines and restore collagen, as well as treating acne by slowing keratinization and preventing the clogging of sebum. Wonderous abilities, but the downside is the potential side effects of dryness, redness, inflammation and even hyperpigmentation, often associated with retinol.


Two steps from active, this is the most common retinoid in non-prescription skin care. Clinical tests have shown retinol to have similar results to retinoic acid, just with a little more time. Retinol is present in different product types for different purposes. Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum firms the appearance of crepiness and fine lines, while Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Kate Somerville KateCeuticals™ Resurfacing Overnight Peel do their work overnight with retinol that’s encapsulated. This means the ingredient is enveloped in a protective barrier to increase the stability and minimise potential side effects.


Often seen on ingredient lists as retinyls, these are the gentlest of the vitamin A derivatives and best used in conjunction with other retinoids for effective results. VERSO Daily Facial Fluid contains the brand’s famed Retinol 8 complex, which is a combination of retinol esters that’s eight times stronger than retinol, but half as likely to irritate due to the extra conversion steps.


Because there’s always a vegan option, retinoids (often derived from animal, milk, or egg enzymes) have some growing competition. Heard of bakuchiol yet? It’s the extract from the babchi plant, found in India, that’s making a name for itself as the natural Retinol alternative. Both help to increase the turnover of collagen, but with a very low chance of irritation. Bakuchiol is the champion ingredient in GOOP GOOPGENES All-in-One Super Nutrient Face Oil and Omorovicza Midnight Renewal. bareMinerals Ageless Phyto-Retinol Face Cream hosts its own natural alt retinol, phyto-retinol from the picão preto plant.

Written by Alexandra Whiting

Back to blog

Leave a comment