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How do topical retinoids benefit the skin?

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When it comes to skincare, there are many products and treatments that become buzz words. Many of them either sound like something from a chemistry lab (which essentially, they are, and not always in a good way) or like something completely made up by someone bored or after a quick buck (snail slime facials, we’re looking at you!)

Many of the ingredients in skincare products are surrounded in mystery, causing confusion and doubt over whether they should be used or not.

One such ingredient is a group called retinoids. So what are retinoids for, how do they work and how effective are they? Here’s everything you need to know about retinoids for the skin.

What are retinoids used for?

Retinoids are a group of compounds that are derived from vitamin A. They can sometimes be referred to as retinoic acid, but most of the time, you’ll see them listed on skincare as retinoids.

They’re usually topical, in that they’re applied directly to the skin and most of the time. When used for problem skin rather than cosmetically for ageing skin, they’re issued on prescription. Common topical retinoid treatment creams are tretinoin and adapalene.

Is retinol or retinoid better?

They’re not to be confused with a similar sounding ingredient - retinol. Although retinol is also derived from vitamin A, it has a weaker effect on the skin and is often used in anti ageing skincare products to help promote younger looking skin.

Retinoids, on the other hand, are used to help treat problem skin conditions such as acne. They can also be used to lighten patches of skin that have been darkened by hyperpigmentation problems.

When used professionally, retinoids are also found in skincare products designed for use in beauty salons and skin clinics by qualified therapists to help promote younger looking skin.

What do retinoids do for the skin?

All retinoid products work by effectively removing dull, dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. This then prevents this cellular debris from blocking the pores and causing blackheads, whiteheads and pustules that are common on acne prone skin.

Do retinoids exfoliate?

Yes! They’re very effective at removing dead skin cells, skin flakes, dirt, grime, oil, old makeup and cellular debris that can all block pores.

A mechanical exfoliant, such as a face scrub or exfoliating brush does the same job, but not as effectively as a chemical exfoliant like skincare products containing retinoids.

How do retinoids help acne?

Since retinoid products are good at exfoliating away dead skin cells, they help to manage acne prone skin by helping to keep the pores clear.

Acne spots and breakouts are often caused by blocked pores, so the less cellular debris building up on the skin that can block the pores, the less likely acne breakouts will be if using topical retinoids.

How do retinoids help hyperpigmentation?

Retinoids are also effective at helping to treat areas of hyperpigmentation in the skin. They work by encouraging the faster renewal of skin cells, pushing new skin cells to the surface of the skin to replace old ones.

When the skin is renewed, the pigmentation is more even, helping to lighten areas of skin darkened by hyperpigmentation.

Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles?

Yes, they can be effective at smoothing out the skin, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, in the same way, by stimulating a faster process of skin renewal.

What are retinoids found in?

Retinoids are found in a variety of skincare products, including face washes, cleansers, foams, creams and ointments.

Some products with weaker concentrations of retinol (not retinoids) are available to buy for use at home, but stronger retinoid based products are available for use by professionals in beauty salons and skin clinics. They’re also available on prescription from your GP or skin specialist.

When to use retinoids

Here at Sönd, we believe in the power of treating non conformist and stressed out skin with a holistic approach, including looking at diet and lifestyle activities such as quality of sleep, stress management and how often we exercise.

However, if making diet and lifestyle changes doesn’t help, and you’re still suffering the effects of acne spots and breakouts or hyperpigmentation problems, then you may benefit from topical retinoids.

How often to use retinoids?

When your doctor prescribes topical retinoids, they will advise you how frequently and for how long to use them, depending on your skin type and the severity of your acne or hyperpigmentation.

Topical retinoids are designed to be used sparingly, and you will usually be advised to use them for around six weeks.

Are retinoids safe?

On the whole, using retinoids on your skin, as long as they’ve been prescribed by your doctor and you follow the instructions carefully, are safe.

Their main side effect is making the skin more sensitive to the sun, so when you’re using them, you should take steps to protect your skin from the sun. They can also cause a mild warming sensation on the skin, or mild itching, burning or peeling. These side effects will usually disappear after two to four weeks.

Less commonly, topical retinoids can cause a darkening of the skin in small patches, called hyperpigmentation. This can be permanent.

Do retinoids thin the skin?

It’s a common misconception that retinoid products thin the skin. Many people think that they do, because they can cause the skin to peel, hence thinking that the skin is peeling.

But this isn’t the case. In fact, retinoids can help to plump up the skin, due to its positive effect on boosting the production of collagen, which helps to keep the skin looking plump and smooth.

Can you use retinoids with salicylic acid or glycolic acid?

Salicylic acid and glycolic acid are both types of alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA), a type of fruit acid. They’re useful in the treatment of acne.

However, it’s not advisable to use retinoids at the same time as AHAs such as salicylic acid, as they both have an exfoliating effect, which when combined can lead to excess irritation, skin redness and peeling.

Can I use azelaic acid with retinoids?

Azelaic acid is a medicated skin treatment gel that is often used to treat acne when topical retinoids have failed to work or are causing unpleasant side effects.

It acts as an exfoliant, like retinoids do, and also helps to kill the skin bacteria that can cause acne breakouts. It’s unlikely that you’ll be prescribed azelaic acid treatment at the same time as a retinoid treatment, it’s usually one or the other.

What are oral retinoids?

Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid tablet used to treat severe acne. Like topical retinoids, it’s derived from vitamin A. It’s often referred to as Accutane.

It works by clearing the pores, helping to prevent excess sebum (oil) production, killing the acne causing skin bacteria and reducing inflammation in skin affected severely by acne.

However, Isotretinoin can cause many side effects, including skin inflammation, conjunctivitis, blood in the urine and kidney and liver problems. For this reason, it’s only ever prescribed as a final treatment for severe acne, when all other medications and creams have failed. It’s not suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Speak to your GP if you think you might need Accutane treatment.


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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