Retinol? retinal? Tretinoin? My guide

Retinoids are booming right now and everybody wants a retinoid in their routine but which one to choose? Today’s is about the holy royal family of retinoids: retinol, retinal and tretinoin. 

Who are they? 

The amount of misinformation on those actives is scary. So let’s go back to the basics. The story starts with retinol.

Retinol is a synonym for vitamin A. Retinol is an essential vitamin that our body and skin need to function. Retinol is found in food, meat, and veggies, carrots for example. Retinol is transported in the blood by a carrier protein (plasma binding protein) until it reaches our skin cells. Our skin cells (keratinocytes and fibroblasts) are dependent on the retinol pathway to do their job. One of them is proliferation. Watch me talk about it.

Skin cells capture the retinol from the blood and either uses it or stock it. When the retinol is store it is converted into a retinol ester. Which are found in skincare but are pretty useless. Alternative, skin cells will use the retinol. When the retinol is « used » it is converted into retinal (or retinaldehyde) and then into tretinoin (or retinoic acid, in biology). Tretinoin will bind to receptors that are formed by different subunits. The binding of tretinoin to its receptors will trigger a cellular answer such as proliferation, increase the synthesis of collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acids and so on.  

Which one to use? 

Retinol works in a dose-dependent fashion the more and the stronger it is. Retinol and retinal both results in tretinoin synthesis but are less irritating. As little as 0.05% Retinol has already wonderful effect on the skin. Tretinoin is the most study and there is a compelling amount of data to prove the increased synthesis of collagen in the dermis and reverse photodamaged skin. Then it is retinol that also has a fair amount of data. Retinal is likely as potent as retinol but there are fewer publications to demonstrate the increase of synthesis of collagen which is why you won’t see me recommend it. I remind you that with anti-aging you want to boost the production collagen, elastin and all that jazz in your dermis. The only two molecules with sufficient scientific data are retinol and tretinoin. 

Retinol versus tretinoin

The big question is always retinol or tretinoin. Tretinoin is only a prescribe molecule and should stay like this. The biggest downside of tretinoin is how irritant it is on the skin. Depending on your skin you may tolerate it better than others. If you have minimal signs of aging you do not need tretinoin. I notice far too often people that use tretinoin even though they don’t need it. Tretinoin is amazing for photodamaged skin or mature skin that wants more but it is very irritating.

Retinol is very potent and 1% has similar results than tretinoin with fewer irritations. If you are in your 30’s with no visible sign of aging retinol 0.3 to 0.5% is great to keep your skin in a younger state. In my opinion, tretinoin is too irritating and potent when you do not need it. I recommend you consult a dermatologist if you suffer from major acne and you are concerned with anti-aging, in that case tretinoin is a great option.

Remember, that skincare is here to support the natural functions of your skin. You want to help your skin not create unnecessary inflammation. In general, I always prefer a gentle but yet effective routine to support your skin. 

I give more details in my video.

Thank you for your time. 

Cyrille 

Here are the retinoids that I recommend

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