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RETINOL AND THE RETINOID FAMILY HIERARCHY

Retinol is just one type of retinoid that diminishes the appearance of premature skin aging. Here's where it lands in relation to its star sibling, babiest relatives, and the new-ish nice kid on the block, retinal.
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Retinol has the bigger name, but has more powerful siblings along with younger relatives you don't want to discount.

Retinol has the bigger name, but has more powerful siblings along with younger relatives you don't want to discount.

Retinol and the rest of its retinoid family was part of the What is Retinol? Is it Natural? Toxic? post, but there was a lot to digest in that one. So the retinoid family dynamics now get a separate post. Plus, if you already know all this, you can skip it... or scan to see if I've missed anything you think is important. *grin*

The "natural" or "found in nature" retinoid family hierarchy in descending order of potency.

The "natural" or "found in nature" retinoid family hierarchy in descending order of potency.

RETINOL AND ITS RETINOID FAMILY

Retinol has all the name fame, but within the general topical retinoid family, in order of most potent to least, retinol fits into the lower register: tretinoin/retinoic acid > adapalene > retinaldehyde/retinal > retinol > retinyl esters.

These are referred to as "natural" retinoids even when made in a lab (as most retinoids are) because they mimic what exists in nature.

Tretinoin (brand names include Retin-A and Renova), also known as retinoic acid, is the "active" form of the ingredient. One of the most powerful retinoids, tretinoin is the reason retinol apprehension is a thing. At approximately 20 times the potency of retinol, it's also the retinoid people really mean when they say "retinol is a gold-standard" for dermatologists. (Retinol is a separate, weaker, less active version of retinoic acid, but in the consumer-media lexicon, it's a term that refers to the general family of topical retinoids. Oh, and confusion alert: in scientific papers, "retinol" is used interchangeably with "Vitamin A" as well as to refer to retinol the precursor, or derivative. Retinol is to retinoids as Kleenex is to facial tissue.)

Retinol is often called a derm gold-standard ingredient, but its much stronger relative is the real star and actually holds the title.

Retinol is often called a derm gold-standard ingredient, but its much stronger relative is the real star and actually holds the title.

Tretinoin/retinoic acid's strength means it works faster than retinoids lower in the hierarchy, and delivers the most impressive younger-looking, bouncy-skin results. But with great power... its excellent payoff comes with potentially harsh side-effects, and it can get into fights with other active ingredients, such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid and Vitamin C. Thus the need for a skin assessment and prescription from a dermatologist plus careful protocols to avoid unpleasantness such as excessive dryness, redness, flaking, peeling, sensitivity, stinging, even burns. However, used cautiously, strategically and consistently, tretinoin can produce visible changes within several weeks and significant improvement in skin tone, texture and bounce within a few months. That's why, despite its diva profile, tretinoin has such enduring cachet with dermatologists.

Adapalene (brand name Differin) is a synthetic, not found in nature but included here because it's been around for years, is fairly well known and easily accessible depending on your address. (Because it's a lab baby, I think of it as retinol's adopted sibling.) Designed to treat acne, it yields reduced-breakout results comparable to tretinoin, but with a bit less irritation. It doesn't work exactly like tret, but still delivers smoother, younger-looking skin. Prescription retinoid in Canada. In the US, Differin Gel 0.1%, has been available over the counter since 2016; higher percentages need a script.

Where retinol's best known "adopted" or synthetic retinod sibling, adapalene, fits in.

Where retinol's best known "adopted" or synthetic retinod sibling, adapalene, fits in.

Retinaldehyde (nicknamed retinal) falls about halfway between retinoic acid and retinol in terms of strength, but closer to retinol in terms of skin irritation. Accessible without prescription, retinal is retinol's more athletic sibling, stronger and faster, without the burden of significantly increased side effects. Sounds like it should be better known than it is, right? The problem is that retinoids in general are unstable molecules, "sensitive to light, air and heat," say cosmetic chemists Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu (aka @chemistconfessions on Instagram). And retinal, according to their book Skincare Decoded (WeldonOwen, 2021), "is annoyingly even more unstable than retinol." (There's another reason we're only now seeing a market influx of retinal-powered skincare; I'm investigating; stay tuned.)

Retinol is the middle child in the non-prescription ranks of the retinoid family, and perhaps the most popular in department-store and drugstore skincare. It certainly has the most recognizable name. Though less potent than retinal, depending on the end-product formulation retinol can still trigger irritation, so beginners with sensitive skin should still approach with some caution. Overall, however, with consistent use, it's well tolerated by most people and can achieve skin improvements similar to retinoic acid, albeit over a considerably longer period of time.

Retinyl esters are the mildest form of retinoids and fairly common in skincare as well. Most familiar are retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate; retinyl propionate is another worth mentioning. As you'd expect given their potency position, they're easily tolerated by pretty much everyone, including those with sensitive skin, but aren't usually perceived as strong enough to result in the visible skin improvements expected even from retinol let alone retinoic acid. That said, formulation and concentration seem be a factor in retinyl ester efficacy – France's A313 pommade contains .12% retinyl esters and is widely adored for its efficacy and manageable level of irritation. Retinyl esters also appear to have value as support ingredients for retinol in some aging-well formulas.

Product representation of the topical retinoid family from most potent to least – or most potential for irritation to least.

Product representation of the topical retinoid family from most potent to least – or most potential for irritation to least.

ORAL RETINOIDS: ACCUTANE AND ROACCUTANE

If you've ever suffered from severe, persistent acne or know someone who has, Accutane or Roaccutane will likely sound familiar. Both are brand names (there are several) for a powerful, oral retinoid called isotretinoin. (There are others, but this is the one most people have heard of.)

Side note: the Accutane brand was withdrawn from the US in 2009 by pharmaceutical company F. Hoffman-La Roche Inc. (Roche for short), who had sold the drug in the US since 1982. However, Accutane returned to the US in early 2021, relaunched by another pharmaceutical company, Journey Medical.

Isotretinoin is in fact stronger than tretinoin, which means worse side effects; thus it's usually a last-resort prescription option from dermatologists and comes with strict protocols for safe use (it's absolutely prohibited during pregnancy). Isotretinoin also works in a different way – for one thing, it reduces sebum production by up to 90%, which leads to severe skin dryness, including dry eyelids, dry nasal passages, cracked lips and even cracked skin.

There are other potentially severe risks, but most patients who get through a full course of isotretinoin treatment usually find clear-skin success. (Most never need isotretinoin again, but some do find a repeat necessary a few years after the first.)

Next up in this series: how retinol and the rest of the topical retinoids work.

RETINOL & RETINOID FAMILY HIERARCHY: THE TAKEAWAY

Before we move on to how retinol and its retinoid siblings work, let's do the recap thing:

  1. Retinol is "the Kleenex" of retinoids. The name "retinol" can refer to its entire retinoid family and to Vitamin A, even though it's about 20 times weaker than the strongest topical retinoid, and works more slowly, too. Can still cause some irritation however.
  2. Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, is the most powerful and aggressive topical retinoid, and offers the most dramatic skin improvement relatively quickly. It's the real "gold standard" better-aging ingredient despite its raging-diva attitude toward skin's tender feelings. #HandleWithCare
  3. Adapalene (branded as Differin) is a synthetic designed to treat acne and does so with less irritation than tret. Strong enough to require prescription in Canada; a 0.1% concentration is over-the-counter in the US.
  4. Retinal (short for retinaldehyde) is less powerful than tret and adapalene, but stronger and faster than retinol with about the same level of potential irritation..
  5. Retinyl esters (or retinol esters) are the weakest and consequently most gentle-to-skin retinoids; don't discount them. They provide aging-well benefits in the right concentration.

OVER TO YOU

Have you tried any of retinol's siblings?

If you've used Differin, did you know when you were using it that it's a retinoid, a more active version of retinol? (I ask this because one of my friends used it for years to clear up acne, but wasn't aware it's a retinoid.)

Have you ever been on Accutane or Roaccutane – or do you know anyone who has?

SHOPPITY SHOP-SHOP 🛒

Unless specified, shopping links are affiliate links; thank you so much for your support if you decide to use one. An asterix* indicates an unaffiliated link. xoxo

CANADIAN 🛒 LINKS

In Canada, Differin (adapalene) is a prescription retinoid, and Avene's retinal formulas have the same names as the products in France, but different from the US.

In Canada, Differin (adapalene) is a prescription retinoid, and Avene's retinal formulas have the same names as the products in France, but different from the US.

Tretinoin Cream 0.5% or 0.1% retinoic acid (prescription only)
Differin 0.1% Adapalene (prescription, but... $29.62 CAD at iherb.com)
Avene PhysioLift Night 0.5% retinal ($57 CAD at shoppersdrugmart.ca and well.ca)
Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 ($82 at beautysense.ca)*
A313 Pommade 0.12% retinyl esters ($39 CAD at amazon.ca)
Skincare Decoded
by Victoria Fu & Gloria Lu ($32.30 CAD at amazon.ca and $32.96 at chaptersindigo.ca)

US 🛒 LINKS

In the US, Differing (adapalene) is over-the-counter, and Avene's retinal formulas are sold as RetrinAL.

In the US, Differing (adapalene) is over-the-counter, and Avene's retinal formulas are sold as RetrinAL.

Tretinoin Cream 0.5% or 0.1% retinoic acid (prescription only)
Differin Gel 0.1% Adapalene ($21.19 USD at iherb.com)
Avene RetrinAL .05 Cream ($66 USD at lookfantastic.com)
Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 ($70 at skinceuticals.com)
A313 Pommade .12% retinyl esters ($45 USD at amazon.com)*
Skincare Decoded
by Victoria Fu & Gloria Lu ($19.19 USD at target.com)

**granactive retinoid aka hydroxypinacolone retinoate is on Health Canada's Prescription Drug List (as of January 2019)

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