Retinols, Adapalene, Tretinoin. Where do I start?

Retinols Broken Down by Founders Beauty

Retinols as we’ve mentioned before is touted to be skincare’s holy grail. Be it acne and scars, tackling fine lines and wrinkles, or skin exfoliation, retinol is your saviour. Vitamin A the key ingredient in Retinol, is a trusted ingredient, hence, it is one of the most common products that sits on one's vanity. Dermatologists across the globe swear by this ingredient and prescribes it in various forms depending on the type of your skin, and the stage in the life that you’re in. For instance, someone who tolerates vitamin A well, may be graduating on to a stronger form of retinol, where as someone who is pregnant may be asked to use a retinol alternative like lactic acid. Be it retinols, retinoids or carotenoids, or even acids, retinols are known to be very effective and always delivers what it promises to. Hence, with the number of types of retinol available from those available over the counter to those prescribed, there can be confusion.

Let’s start by breaking down Retinols, and the huge family that they are:

Retinyl palmitate

A synthetic form for retinal acetate; this can be derived from animal fats, fish oils, and Vitamin A supplements. The most basic form and often identified as a close cousin to Retinol. It is milder and a lighter version of retinol that promises great results. When applied to the skin, it manages to exhibit anti-aging properties as well as tackles acne and helps with scar reduction. It also has antioxidant properties that neutralize free radicals. Hence, contributing towards smoother, brighter and younger looking skin.


If you’re a newbie with sensitive skin in the world of retinol, here’s what you need. This over-the-counter product which is a vitamin A derivative, is easily absorbed into the skin and solves concerns gradually. Being gentle in form, it is important to be patient with results when using this product as it will take time to show results, through consistent and monitored usage, you definitely will see results.

Retinoic Acid

Known to improve acne scars and reduce post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, retinoic acid is a metabolite of vitamins A. While the product cannot erase deep wrinkles, it can certainly improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It increases by production of collagen by stimulating the production of new blood vessels in the skin. Moreover, it helps fading dark spots over time. Tretinoin, a prescription-based drug is a kind of retinoic acid dermats swear by for some skin concerns post evaluation.

Retinol esters

While the importance of Vitamin A in both, skincare and diet is established, here’s another potent form we’re looking at when it comes to skincare. It is known as an abundant form of retinoid that’s present in the body. Quoting a reliable study, "when a fatty acyl group is esterified to the hydroxyl terminus of retinol, a storage form of retinol, the retinyl ester is formed." This can be applied topically or taken orally. Additionally, some other retinal esters present in the body are palmitic acid, oleic acid, stearic acid, and linoleic acid.


An upgrade to the basic retinol would lead you to Retinaldehyde. And in case you are, look no further than retinaldehyde. This form is a few steps away from retinoic acid but is equally promising. It also doesn’t have as many side effects. Because it is a grade above retinol, it further improves the chances of healing skincare issues slightly sooner than retinol.


Moving to the prescription-based retinoids, here’s tretinoin that’s prescribed by dermatologist to treat skin concerns like acne, sun damage, and the appearance of wrinkles. While both Tretinoin and Retinol are part of the same family and work towards boosting collagen levels and skin exfoliation, the two are very different. Tretinoin is a synthetic version of Vitamin A. It works well by first irritating the skin and then showing results. It is stronger than retinol and shows results in just a few weeks. It is however not very well tolerated by individuals with sensitive skin.


A topical retinoid for acne, adapalene gel is the active ingredient that has several skin benefits. Prescribed by a dermat for curing acne, adapalene goes deep within the pores to treat acne at the source. It unclogs the pores and works towards restoring the skin’s natural texture. When compared to tretinoin, adapalene is more stable to light and oxygen. It also speeds up the process of skin cell turnover to make sure your pores remain unclogged and free from bacterial formation.


Another kind of retinoid is Tazarotene that is used to treat acne as well as psoriasis a skin disease that leaves red scaly patches on parts of your body. More so, it is also used to reduce aging by helping with wrinkles and discoloration, otherwise known as sun damage or photo damage, by causing an increase in the thickness of the outer layer of the skin. Prescribed in various forms like cream, foam, and gel, this ingredient is meant to be applied only once a day generally in the evening as with most other retinols. As per a lot of dermatologists, using Tazarotene at the same time every day consistently shows better results. Most importantly, because this is a strong ingredient, it is important to apply only the amount suggested by your dermatologist on to your skin.


A lot of research is being done on retinoids that have not reached the fourth generation. With constant and gradual developments, retinoids have reached a point of maximum efficacy. Trifarotene, which belongs to Retinoids Gen 4 is the most potent form and is used to treat acne vulgaris. Available by a doctor’s prescription, Trifarotene works by promoting skin peeling of the affected areas and preventing new acne from forming.

General Myths About Retinoids

Sources: medik8, ncbi, Differin, dermatology times

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