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Retinoids for the skin: a form of vitamin A

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, is a fat-soluble vitamin broken down to "retinoids". It is found in several foods and is essential for several vital functions, such as helping your body's immune system work properly, improving vision in dim light, keeping skin and other linings of the body healthy.

It is found in tablet form in supplementation and is in the majority of multivitamins as well. It is also found in many skin care products, which boast effective acne reduction and anti-ageing properties.

This is true and is supported by research!

How does retinol work on the skin?

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that promotes skin renewal and enhances collagen production. Once applied to the skin, the fat-soluble retinol penetrates the skin to the binding receptor and activates it. These receptors are responsible for the proliferation of the epidermis (top layer of the skin), strengthening the protective function of the epidermis and reducing excessive water loss. Moreover, retinoids protect against the degradation of collagen.

What do professionals have to say?

Retinoids work at a much more profound level by affecting gene expression and causing enhanced collagen production, skin smoothing, and an evening of pigmentation, but do not add an increased risk of sunburn.

Taking large amounts in tablet formulations is not recommended, especially if female and of childbearing potential. This is due to its cytotoxic effects in large doses. This is done only under specialist dermatologist care for severe acne.

The average person requires 12 weeks for retinoic acid to produce noticeable changes in the skin. Therefore, these products should be used for a minimum of 12 weeks to see real differences.

The strongest retinoid isn’t always the best. This is because some people have sensitive skin and cannot manage with potent retinoids, therefore require a gentler retinoid from which they can benefit a lot more—making it suitable for most people.

Potential side effects and precautions

While retinoids can provide significant benefits to the skin, it's important to be aware of potential side effects and take necessary precautions. Common side effects include skin dryness, redness, and mild irritation, especially during the initial stages of use. It is advisable to start with a lower concentration of retinoids and gradually increase as tolerated to minimize these side effects.

Retinoids can also increase skin sensitivity to sunlight, so it is crucial to use broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF during the day and avoid prolonged sun exposure. Additionally, pregnant or breastfeeding individuals should consult with a healthcare professional before using retinoids, as high doses of vitamin A can be harmful to the developing fetus or infant.

Incorporating retinoids into your skincare routine

To effectively incorporate retinoids into your skincare routine, start by using them at night after cleansing your face. Begin with a small pea-sized amount and gently apply it to the skin, focusing on areas of concern or where you want to target signs of ageing or acne. It is essential to allow the retinoid to absorb fully into the skin before applying any other products.

During the initial stages of retinoid use, it is normal to experience some mild irritation or flaking. To minimize these effects, you can apply a moisturizer or hydrating serum after the retinoid has absorbed into the skin. It is also advisable to use retinoids on alternate nights at the beginning and gradually increase the frequency as your skin becomes more tolerant.

Long-term benefits and maintenance

Consistent use of retinoids can lead to long-term benefits for the skin, such as improved texture, reduced fine lines and wrinkles, and a more even skin tone. However, it's important to note that the effects of retinoids are not permanent, and continued use is necessary to maintain the results. Consider incorporating retinoids as a long-term component of your skincare routine to enjoy their ongoing benefits.

Regularly assess your skin's tolerance and adjust the frequency and concentration of retinoids accordingly. If you have any concerns or persistent side effects, consult with a dermatologist who can provide personalized recommendations and guidance based on your skin type and specific needs.

Remember, patience and consistency are key when using retinoids. With time and proper usage, you can achieve healthier, more radiant skin.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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