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Retinoids: Are they the Holy Grail of anti-ageing skincare?

Skincare is having something of a moment - and for good reason. Many are finally realising that as the body’s largest organ, that’s on display to the world, investing in your skin is wise.

One group of star ingredients hailed as “the holy grail” are retinoids. If you’re in your 30’s and your skincare routine doesn’t contain some form of retinoid, you’re missing out! Big time!

Here’s what you’re missing out on:

  • Increased cell turnover
  • Increased collagen production
  • Clear pores
  • Clear skin
  • Improved finelines
  • Improved skin tone
  • Reduced wrinkles
  • Reduced pigmentation

Retinoids are one part of a trio of skincare staples - vitamin C, retinoids, SPF - that could be termed an elixir of youth!

In this article we’ll cover:

What a retinoid is

The types

The benefits

The side effects

When and how to add them to your skincare routine

What is a retinoid?

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A or have a similar structure to vitamin A and are used in skincare and dermatology for their numerous, amazing, clinically-proven benefits.

Retinoids can be either natural and synthetic.

Natural Retinoids: Natural retinoids are compounds that are found in nature or are derived from natural sources. The most common natural retinoid is retinol, which is derived from animal sources such as fish liver oil. Retinol is converted into the active form of vitamin A, known as retinoic acid, by the skin cells.

Synthetic Retinoids: Synthetic retinoids are compounds that are created in a laboratory and have similar properties to natural retinoids. Synthetic retinoids great for skincare products due to their stability and potency. Examples of synthetic retinoids include tretinoin (retinoic acid), adapalene, and tazarotene.

Retinoids work by binding to specific receptors in the skin cells, triggering a series of responses within the cell, from regulating gene expression regulation, to simulating collagen synthesis, and accelerating cell turnover. These changes have numerous skin benefits, such as improved texture, reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, evening out skin tone, and regulation of sebum production.

What are the main retinoids?

There are three common retinoids used in skincare: retinol, retinaldehyde and retinoic Acid. And they are not all created equal, with some being more gentle (e.g., retinol) and others being more potent (e.g., tretinoin). But you need to take the rough with the smooth, the more potent the retinoid, the more intense the side effects.

It's important to note that the effectiveness and potential side effects of vitamin A derivatives can vary depending on the person, their skin type, and the concentration and formulation of the product they are using.

It’s also important to remember that what you gain in the efficacy of retinoic acid, you make up for in the, sometimes uncomfortable/inconvenient side effects!

If you're considering incorporating vitamin A derivatives into your skincare routine, it's advisable to start with lower concentrations of less potent derivatives, once or twice a week and gradually increase frequency first, and then concentration, and then derivative, over time while monitoring and responding to your your skin's response.

What are the common side effects of introducing retinoids into your skincare routine?

Introducing retinoids into your skincare routine can lead to some common side effects, especially during the initial days and weeks of use. Retinoid side effects are typically temporary and often improve as your skin adjusts to the retinoid.

Here are some common side effects associated with retinoid use:

  1. Dryness and Peeling: Retinoids can cause dryness, flakiness, and peeling of the skin. This occurs because they increase the turnover of skin cells, which can lead to the shedding of the outermost layer of skin. Using a moisturiser can help alleviate dryness and reduce peeling.
  2. Irritation and Redness: Some individuals may experience skin irritation, redness, and sensitivity when first using retinoids. This can manifest as a stinging or burning sensation on the skin. Starting with a lower concentration of retinoid or applying it less frequently can help minimise irritation. It's important to allow your skin to gradually adjust to the retinoid.
  3. Sensitivity to Sunlight: Retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. It is crucial to use sunscreen with a high SPF (sun protection factor) during the day and limit sun exposure. This helps prevent sunburn and reduces the risk of sun damage.
  4. “Purging”: For individuals using retinoids to treat acne, it is not uncommon to experience a temporary worsening of acne before improvement occurs. This is known as the "purging" phase, where existing clogged pores may come to the surface and cause breakouts. This phase typically resolves with continued use, leading to clearer skin in the long run.
  5. Sensitivity: Some people may have inherent sensitivity to retinoids, and their skin may not tolerate them well. If you have very sensitive skin or a history of adverse reactions to retinoids, it's important to use caution and consider lower concentrations or alternative treatment options.

It's important to note that the severity and duration of retinoid side effects can vary. It’s one of the reasons it’s helpful to be guided by a skincare professional, like those you’ll find on Glowday, as they can provide expert guidance and reassurance tailored to you. Find a Glowday PRO here.

How long does it take to see the benefits of retinoids after you’ve added them to your skincare routine?

As with all skincare, the time it takes to see the benefits of retinoids in skincare can vary depending on several factors, including your age, the type of retinoid used, the concentration and formulation of the product, your skin type, and the specific concerns being addressed.

Generally, it may take several weeks to a few months to notice visible improvements in the skin. Here are some general timelines for potential benefits:

  1. Improved Skin Texture: Retinoids can help improve skin texture by promoting cell turnover and stimulating collagen production. This can lead to smoother, more even-toned skin. You may start noticing improvements in skin texture after about 4 to 6 weeks of consistent retinoid use.
  2. Reduced Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Retinoids are effective in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. However, it can take longer to see noticeable improvements in these areas. Generally, it may take 3 to 6 months or longer of regular retinoid use to observe visible reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.
  3. Decreased Hyperpigmentation: Retinoids can help fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots caused by sun damage, acne scars, or melasma. The time it takes to see improvements in hyperpigmentation can vary, but you may start noticing a gradual lightening of dark spots after a few months of consistent retinoid use.
  4. Acne Improvement: Retinoids are commonly used to treat acne by reducing clogged pores, regulating oil production, and reducing inflammation. The timeline for acne improvement can vary depending on the severity of the acne and the individual's response to treatment. Some individuals may notice a reduction in acne breakouts within a few weeks, while others may require several months of retinoid use to see significant improvement.

It's important to remember that results can be gradual and that consistency is key when using retinoids. It's recommended to use retinoids as part of a long-term skincare routine rather than expecting immediate results.

I’m convinced! What’s the best age to start using retinoids?

There’s no right answer here! The best age to start using retinoids can vary depending on the individual - but it’s never too late!

Typically, retinoids are recommended for people in their 30s or older who are starting to see the early signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. However, recent trends have shown that younger individuals are also incorporating retinoids into their skincare routine for to bank collagen, acne, address uneven skin texture or pigmentation issues.

There are occasions where retinoids are prescribed to teenagers if they have persistent acne or other skin issues that would benefit from. In these cases, it’s crucial to consult a skin professional who can assess your specific needs and determine if retinoids are suitable. If they are, they will prescribe an appropriate retinoid and given guidance and followups regarding usage.

Got it. I’m Ready! Let’s GO!

Hold on. Just like you wouldn't go from never going to the gym to signing up to competing in a CrossFit competition the next week…you need to break your skin into retinoids gently. They give your skin a proper work out, on a cellular level. So there are a few rules to follow:

If you’ve not popped your retinoid cherry

  • Start low - choose a low concentration of retinol
  • Go slow - start with every 3rd night, when your skin has adjusted, move to every 2nd night
  • Less is more - a pea-sized amount will do
  • Dot & Dab - dot a pea-sized amount over your skin and press it into your skin
  • Skip it - if you're feeling the effects too intensely, lay off your retinoid for a day or two, avoid aggressive exfoliation and nurture your skin with calming & hydrating products
  • Protect - retinoids are pokey products, you need to ensure you’re protecting your skin EVERY DAY, with (ideally) a vitamin C serum and a hefty slathering of broad spectrum SPF 30+
  • Progress - your skin will adapt to the formulation and concentration of retinoid and your skin gains will plateau. If this happens, and you’re comfortably using that product each evening without any irritation, you may be ready progress on to a higher concentration of that retinoid. Only once you’ve reached the highest concentration for retinol, move onto a low concentration retinaldehyde. Rinse and repeat. Go low and slow. Especially if you have reactive, rosacea-prone or sensitive skin. Those with tougher, oilier skin can usually tolerate retinoids well.

If you're ready to introduce retinoids into your skincare routine, and you'd still like some guidance, head to and find a skincare pro who can help.

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