When the goal is to prevent aging and correct existing damage, virtually all dermatologists will agree that daily retinoid use is the answer. The term "retinoid" refers to vitamin A and the various molecules derived from vitamin A—which itself is also known as retinol (ROL). This can lead to great confusion because while the official name of Vitamin A is retinol, the derivatives, called retinoids, belong to different categories. Beta carotene is a pro-vitamin A, while retinyl palmitate, unlike its successors in the conversion chain to retinoic acid, retinol and retinal aldehyde, does not convert to retinoic acid. This means you do not want to use these forms of vitamin A (unless you are looking for an oil-soluble antioxidant).
The active retinoids you want to use are retinol or retinal aldehyde which convert to retinoic acid, or retinoic acid itself. Misuse of the terminology has led to much confusion around which vitamin A derivative to choose and how to use it. (We cover this in great detail in our story Retinol Vs. Retinoid: How to Choose the Right Vitamin A Derivative.) But once you choose the right vitamin A derivative, it’s essential that you understand how it works and how to properly use it to prevent, and even reverse, visible signs of aging such as wrinkles and age spots.
Vitamin A is essential for normal skin cell development and differentiation. It inhibits collagen breakdown, increases collagen synthesis, increases elasticity, improves water barrier function, is anti-inflammatory, regulates sebum production (making it an excellent choice for treating acne as well as aging) and is the only ingredient we know of that actually reverses the signs of photo aging.
Those with photoaged skin will be encouraged to know how retinoids work to reverse the damage. The magic trick involves:
Basically, as we age, the epidermis thickens while the dermis thins. The use of retinoids inverts that aging process, so long term retinoid users enjoy an epidermis with less age spots and wrinkles supported by a lovely thick dermis. Early retinol usage also helps delay the aging process, so the best time to start using a retinol is in your early thirties, when your cell turnover rate begins to slow. One of the benefits of getting an early start on over-the-counter retinols is that you can hold off on prescription retinoids until your forties or fifties.
Some believe their skin is too sensitive for retinoids, some have tried them and discontinued them due to a reaction, and others fear that retinoids are not natural and should be avoided. The truth is that retinoids are the common denominator of skin care—although everyone’s skin is different, almost every skin can benefit from them. Of course, a crucial exception applies to those who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or nursing.
A few symptoms common to the beginning stages of retinoid use might explain why many people either fear to try them or discontinue their use before they’ve had the opportunity to revel in the improvements. Retinoids initially can cause peeling and some redness, a process called facial retinization. Users should be aware that this is normal and even to be expected — peeling and redness are side effects of retinoids working at a profound level to influence gene expression, resulting eventually in enhanced collagen production, skin smoothing and the evening out of pigmentation.
When people experience such symptoms they often make the mistake of stopping their treatment program, then waiting until the skin gets “better” before beginning again. Giving the top layer of skin time to rebuild can unfortunately initiate another round of redness and peeling which ultimately delays the anticipated therapeutic benefits.
We’ve seen a few companies in the natural camp try to advance the argument that the retinol (aka vitamin A) found in plants like rosehip seed oil is just as effective as retinol, the vitamin A derivative. It’s a specious argument that takes advantage of the fact that the term “retinol” can refer either to vitamin A or the vitamin A derivative that exerts powerful effects on skin health via conversion from retinol > retinaldehyde > retinoic acid. At the end of the day, it’s only retinoic acid that modulates gene expression and influences cellular processes in both the epidermis and the dermis, and there are only two paths there: 1) directly with tretinoin (retinoic acid) or 2) indirectly with retinol (the vitamin A derivative, not to be confused with vitamin A) or retinaldehyde.
And now that we’ve cleared that up let’s forge right ahead to the last hurdle. Almost there!
While every skin has its own idiosyncrasies, almost every skin can benefit from retinoids. Here are some tips to make your retinoid journey successful, even if you’ve had trouble in the past.