How to introduce retinoids in your beauty regime

5 April, 2023 / words by IALH Editorial Team

Written by Alicia Lartey

Image by Farfetch

You may have heard about the wonders of retinol or tretinoin but have no idea how to use them! The term retinoids speaks to the family of ingredients that retinol, retinal and tretinoin all belong to. Generally speaking retinoids help to manage signs of ageing, texture, pigmentation and some can be used to manage acne. Retinoids work by converting to retinoic acid in your skin and binding to receptors to ultimately boost cellular turnover, reduce sebum production and some retinoids have an antibacterial property. 

The four main retinoids that we see in skincare products are retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinaldehyde (retinal) and tretinoin. Understanding which one to use comes from the understanding of which retinoid is the strongest and which is available over the counter or as a prescription. Retinyl palmitate is an ester and the weakest form of retinoid on the market and my least favourite ingredient in the retinoid family.

Retinol is the most infamous of the bunch! Most brands these days have some form of retinol serum, some of them have a beginner friendly starter serum with a percentage of retinol that does not exceed 1% and an advanced serum at 1%. Especially with retinol, the higher percentage does not necessarily mean the serum is most effective for your skin. 

With retinal, as it is stronger than retinol, some people perceive it as being a more irritating ingredient but that is not the case. As long as your retinal product is stabalised and sits within a good formula there is not much to worry about. As retinal is a more expensive ingredient to formulate with, most formulations tend to have other skin supporting ingredients such as peptides and ceramides, which usually makes the serum a lot less irritating. Retinal also works significantly faster than retinol and is only one conversion step away from retinoic acid. It is the closest ingredient to tretinoin you will be able to purchase without a prescription. In terms of percentage, you will see a lot of retinoid formulations with a percentage that sits around 0.05% which is ideal.

Now the most viral retinoid of them all is the prescription-only tretinoin, which is often used to treat acne but can also be used to treat significant signs of ageing. Tretinoin can be particularly irritating on the skin so it is important to moisturise your skin very well and start with a low percentage to gradually build up tolerance. Unlike other retinoids I would not suggest combining your use of tretinoin with other exfoliating treatments.

The worst part of using retinoids is the possible dryness, irritation and purging, but this can be mitigated by having a skin barrier supporting routine. Choosing the right retinoid for you and your routine can be a bit difficult but once you understand a few basic rules you will be retinoid ready!

1) Strength

When you are starting your retinoid journey it is important to start low and go slow. In the world of retinoids you need to start at a percentage well below zero such as 0.01%, starting your retinoid journey with a product containing 1% can often be too strong and irritating to the skin for most people.

2) Frequency of use

Gradually introducing new ingredients to your routine is always the best way to start off your journey, but it is essential to starting your retinoid journey! The best way to do this is by having a basic routine that is focused on skin hydration and barrier repair, with no other exfoliating acids or treatments in your routine and using your retinoid once per week.

3) Skin barrier protection

You should always have a skin barrier supporting routine, but it is more important when you are using retinoids in your routine. Ingredients to look out for include: centella asiatica, ceramides, glycerin, fatty acids, squalane and shea butter.

Lastly, always remember to wear suncreen!


Youth Focus Pro Retinal Emulsion

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Youth Boosting Advanced Night Retinoid Serum

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Shani Darden

Retinol Reform Anti-Aging Serum

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IALH Editorial Team


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