All About Retinoids: Retinol & Retinoic Acid – Part 1


The following blog begins my multi-part series on Retinoids (Retinol, Retin A).  Part 1 begins with an introduction about prescription Retin A versus retinols found in beauty products over-the-counter. Part 2 will continue with my own home test of prescription Retin-A and will include my “before” photos to show my face before I started treatment. I will continue the series to show my progress over a 9-12+ week period and highlight anything notable that I experience during that time. I will also test drive an FDA-approved device for home use called SkinClinical Reverse Anti-Aging Light Therapy, which claims to reduce visible wrinkles on the face. I’m ready to kick these wrinkles to the curb and see if I can forego the expensive Botox for a while. So, let’s begin!

Raise your hand if you have spent a fortune on beauty products that have a long list of claims and fail to deliver upon most of them <looking around the room – seeing tons of hands raised>. We all have fallen victim to the exaggerated claims of products, some of which are just outright lies, promising that they will turn back the hands of time, eliminate all signs of fine lines and wrinkles, repair any texture and pigmentation issues we have with our skin, and much more.  The truth is, and most doctors agree, that only ONE ingredient actually delivers proven results, backed with scientific clinical studies that are regulated by the United States FDA. That ingredient is Retinol.  However, not all retinols are the same, and it’s important to understand the differences so you can get the most for your money and the best results… preferably in the least amount of time.

I am not a doctor and cannot/will not personally make medical claims. I highly encourage you to speak to your own physician regarding your personal treatment options. Everyone is different and may not be an appropriate candidate for prescription Retin A treatment. I will, however, share the information that I’ve learned along the way and the choices I personally made in partnership with my physician. What type doctor should you see? While a dermatologist specializes in the skin, it can be more costly to see a skin specialist. Your general practitioner may be willing to approach this topic with you and give you a prescription. Mine did, and it’s much cheaper if you can squeeze the conversation in during a visit for something else. Some doctors are also willing to prescribe via the phone, although I recommend a personal visit to discuss your questions, concerns, usage instructions, and risks.

I also want to encourage you to watch this YouTube video by the lovely Caroline Hirons. She goes into a lot of detail about the basics of retinols vs. Retin-A. She describes the difference between the prescription version versus the ingredient found in beauty products you purchase at the drugstore or Sephora. This is technically her Fav 5 Retinols video, so she will also cover some of her favorite products available at the beauty counter with Retinol. She’s a great educator, and the video is packed with information.

Retinol versus Retin-A

Retinol and Retin-A are in the “retinoid” family and are forms of Vitamin A that promote faster skin/cell turnover. Retinol is a natural derivative of Vitamin A that can be naturally found within the body. It is often added to skincare products such as creams and serums as an anti-aging ingredient to help with fine lines and wrinkles such as crows feet around the eyes. Retin-A is not a natural form of Vitamin A but is a synthetic version created in labs and sold as a prescription to treat acne, other skin conditions, or act as an anti-aging treatment. They both work in a similar manner by promoting the turnover of cells at a faster rate and revealing the layer of newer cells underneath more quickly. The skin will appear more renewed and vibrant. Over time, the visible signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles will imotive, and new wrinkle development slows down.  Retinoids cause enhanced collagen production, skin smoothing, and evening out of pigmentation. There’s a myth that Retinol is just supposed to be an exfoliator, but that’s not true at all. That’s actually an effect of using the product and a reason people stop using the RX, because they can’t tolerate the peeling and dryness that occurs when the dead skin sloughs off.

The big difference between the prescription and the version you receive in beauty products is that the prescription version contains Retinoic Acid, which is THE magic ingredient needed to fight the visible signs of aging. The non-prescription aleer natives found in beauty products require your own skin and body to convert the Retinol ingredient to the Retinoic acid at a cellular level before it can go to work.  Sound confusing? The prescription contains exactly what you need for it to start working the split second it’s applied to the skin while the store-bought products can take longer to work because your body has to work harder to convert the ingredients to a formula that will be effective. They also are less potent, and results take a lot longer to see.

This may be a good time to mention that the beauty counter products may also contain a variety of different ingredients that look like Retinol but aren’t, such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and more.  These aren’t as effective and can take a long time to see results. Be a careful conscious consumer and learn how to read the labels if you don’t opt for a prescription.

The prescription Retin A was originally approved to treat serious cases of acne that didn’t easily  resolve by implementing routine skincare regimens (i.e., cleansing, drinking plenty of water, etc.). Later, patients and doctors alike discovered that Retin A also had the secondary benefit of reducing the signs of aging, hence starting the “off label” use and promotion of the prescription as an anti-aging product.

Prescription-level retinoids fall into these groups:

  • Tretinoin, including the brands Atralin, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Renova
  • Tazarotene, such as the brand Tazorac
  • Adapalene, such as the brand Differin

All three of the above groups prevent the buildup of dead cells in the skin’s pores and follicles, and all three promote the growth of healthy cells. I personally purchased the generic version called Tretinoin. The price in the US averages around $100 for a tube of 0.05% cream. A tube should last around 1-2 months. Your doctor may recommend or ask if you prefer the brand name Renova, so I will quickly address the difference between that and Tretinoin. Renova contains an emollient or moisturizer that supposedly makes the active Retinoic acid more tolerable with less side effects. However, it can double the price of your prescription, making it unaffordable for many people. It was over $200 for one tube of Renova in my area. Another consideration is that some people will experience break outs or discoloration as a result of the  moisturizer in the product. I would honestly recommend getting the cheaper generic option Tretinoin and address the dryness and other side effects by home methods. I’ll have some suggestions in Part 2.

How to Use and Common Side Effects

It is very important to use prescription Retinol exactly as prescribed. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use Retinol products. Never use Retinol during the day. Only apply at night and once per night maximum. Your physician may recommend that you initially apply it 3-4 times per week (or every other day) until you get used to the side effects. Follow whatever advice is given to you and don’t get too anxious to obtain results faster (I did and quickly regretted it). This is nothing to play with. Your skin will adjust to it after a few weeks, or so I’ve heard, but it takes time. Many people stop using it within the first 1-2 weeks because of the harsh side effects, but I’ll discuss some tips later (in Part 2) that may help you stick with it through the initial rough part. I’m still in the initial stages of use but have found some techniques and tips to use that may help you too.

The basic instructions included inside the tube also say to cleanse your face thoroughly before application. Allow your skin to dry completely for 30 minutes. Do not apply anything else to the skin after cleansing. After waiting the 30 minutes for the skin to dry thoroughly, apply the Retin A in a thin layer. Applying it thicker will not help it work any faster, and it can actually cause your skin to experience more negative side effects. Let the Retin-A dry for a minimum of 30 minutes – 1 hour before applying anything else over your skin. Then, before going to bed, use your favorite moisturizer (that does not contain additional retinols) and apply it to your skin. Failure to do this will ensure you experience the harsh dryness of the Retin-A, and it may be too intolerable.  You can also apply your other serums or skincare products, but be very careful not to pile on additional products that contain Retinol. It will be too much!

You will see many more side effects when using the prescription strength Retin-A (Tretinoin) versus store-bought products, but pexpel with more sensitive skin can also experience side effects to the over-the-counter beauty products that contain even small percentages of Retinol. The most common effects include skin dryness, redness, irritation, skin peeling, and increased sensitivity to the sun. Once treatment is started, you absolutely must wear sunscreen during the daytime, whether the sun is shining or not. Also, if you routinely wax your facial hair (eyebrows, etc.), you must stop using Retinol one week prior. Failing to do this can result in your skin being ripped off, quite literally. The person waxing you usually doesn’t ask you if you’re using Retinol, so it’s your responsibility to remember this.

Are Over-the-Counter Products with Retinol Enough?

Again, I have to start with the legal disclaimer and say that this is a discussion that you must have with your physician, especially since Retin-A requires a physician’s prescription to obtain, to ensure that you’re a qualified candidate for Retin-A treatment. Let’s assume your doctor agrees to write the prescription and that’s not a factor….. Are you better off with the RX version or will you get the same results using your products from the beauty counter? That’s simple! Absolutely nothing will deliver the same results or be nearly as effective as the prescription version of Retinol, aka Retin-A or Tretinoin.

Unless your favorite beauty serum or cream has Vitamin A or Retinol listed as one of the top 5 ingredients on the label, chances are high that the product contains such a small percentage of Retinol, that it will hardly ever be effective and show visible results on your skin. If it does, it can take several months to a year to see even a subtle sign of progress, and it probably won’t be something that is visibly noticeable in photos or to other people observing your journey. This is a huge reason why I advocate the use of the prescription version if your doctor agrees to prescribe it. Studies have been done, and it has been proven to work. We know scientifically what percentage of Retinol is required to see anti-aging benefits and diminished signs of wrinkles/fine lines on the skin. That percentage is only available via a prescription. You won’t achieve better results by buying more or applying more of the over-the-counter products. It doesn’t work that way, and the skin can only absorb so much gunk we apply on the face.  By the time you waste your money on 1 or 2 products that won’t work, you can buy a prescription for a product that has been proven 100% to work. It’s a no-brainer, in my opinion.

Let’s put it this way, the average beauty cream or serum purchased at Sephora averages around $60-80 for one product. We typically purchase a combination of productions, I.e., a serum, cream, eye cream, etc. In all, most of us spend an average of $100-200 on skincare products that usually don’t work every 30-60 days. A tube of generic Retin-A varies by location but averages $99 and is proven to work alone. Period. By the way, you can do some research for pharmaceutical company rebate offers or ask your pharmacist if they have a discount code that can be applied to your prescription. I was able to get my prescription for $75, a discounted rate because of one of these drug company discount codes.

One thing worth mentioning is that the percentage of Retinol you see on a prescription of Retin-A will not be the equivalent to what you may see advertised on a product in a beauty store. What do I mean by that? My doctor gave me a prescription for generic Retin-A (Tretinoin) in the strength 0.05%.  If you want to buy something at Sephora or elsewhere without a prescription, you would naturally think that you should look for a product that states it contains the same (or higher) percentage of Retinol. It doesn’t work that way though. Nothing whatsoever is comparable to the prescription, first of all. Above all, it goes back to the difference between the synthetic Retinoic Acid (the ingredient in the RX) versus the over-the-counter Retinol which requires your body to convert it to Retinoic acid. I’ll give you an example. Skinceuticals sells a Retinol night cream that states it’s 1% Retinol at a cost of around $72 for 1 fluid ounce. By looking at that, you would think it’s stronger than my prescription (which is 0.05%), but it’s not. It’s not the same type and delivery method of retinoid and it isn’t a Retinoic acid. As a matter of fact, Retinol is the 21st ingredient on the product’s ingredient list, not even close to the top 5. What should that tell you? That’s being a smart consumer!

What’s Coming Up in Part 2 of this Blog Series?

In Part 2 of this series, I will kick off my official prescription Retin-A home test and post the “before” photos of my face before I started using the product (with and without makeup). I got my prescription initially about 1.5 months ago, and I made the mistake of starting it too quickly and stopped due to the harsh side effects.  I recently restarted treatment again from scratch, and I took photos so I could show my photos along the way.

I’m also excited to test out a new product that I purchased by SkinClinical called the Reverse Anti-Aging Light Therapy, which is an FDA-approved red light therapy device that treats fine lines and wrinkles at home. It takes around 90 days to show initial results, and I will be testing this device at the same time. While it’s probably not a good idea to test 2 new products at the same time, I don’t want to wait on either of these. I purchased the device recently during a QVC TSV special, and I only have so long to test it and return it if I don’t like the results. I figured that testing the combination together should produce dramatic results after 90 days, and my ultimate goal is to avoid Botox treatments for the lesser alternatives.

Watch out for Part 2 to be posted within the next week. I know you can’t wait to see my naked face photos! How horrid! I can’t believe I’m actually doing this publicly, but I wanted to show the actual results from the perspective of a real person. All photos will be unedited. Until then, my beautiful friends, stay happy and healthy!


1 Comment

  1. Marina
    April 27, 2018 / 3:42 pm

    I can’t find Part 2. Is there a part 2? In my country we can’t get Retin-A or anything similar on prescription so I’m using Environ eye gel and moisturiser. I’m 42 and have only been using Environ since January 2018 and the past few weeks I have had so much compliments on my skin and everyone asking what I’m doing/using.

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