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What are Retinoids & How Do They Work, Which Retinoid to Choose, Side Effects & Risks, OTC Retinoids

What are Retinoids and How Do They Work?

Retinoids are a class of vitamin A derivatives that are one of the most widely and thoroughly researched anti-aging ingredients available on the market today.(1) This is why it comes as no surprise to know that retinoids are being hailed as the gold standard of skincare that helps decrease wrinkles, fine lines, large pores, age spots, and much more.

However, in order to understand how retinoids help reduce wrinkles and fine lines, it is essential to know how retinoids work and which type of retinoids are best suited for your skin type and what you aim to achieve.

There are many types of retinoids available today. While some of them are over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids, others are only available on prescription from a dermatologist. Depending on your needs, your dermatologist will prescribe stronger formulas of retinoids if your skin condition requires the same.

What are Retinoids and How Do They Work?

As mentioned above, retinoids are produced from derivates of vitamin A. These ingredients work by neutralizing the free radicals present in your skin that might be causing damage to collagen. Collagen is manufactured naturally by the body and is vital for youthful-looking skin. However, as you age, the body’s production of collagen and elastin begin to decrease over time. Your body also starts to break down the elastin and collagen, as well as fat stores — this further contributes to sagging and thin skin, wrinkles, and fine lines.

Retinoids not only preserve your present collagen stores in the body but also boost the production of new collagen in the body. This helps ‘fill in’ or decrease the appearance of any existing wrinkles and also helps prevent the onset of any new ones.

While using retinoids, you might also witness improvements in the following:

However, if you want retinoids to work, then you need to use these products on a regular and continuous basis. You may also need to switch from one retinoid product to another over time, depending on what your skin requires.

Which Retinoid Should You Choose for Treating Wrinkles?

There are five major types of retinoids that are commonly used in the treatment of wrinkles. These are:

Retinyl Palmitate: Retinyl palmitate is the least potent type of retinoid that can be found over the counter.(2) You can consider using this ingredient if you have overly sensitive or excessively dry skin, and there is only a minimal level of wrinkling.

Retinaldehyde: This is another OTC type of retinoid that is a little bit stronger than retinyl palmitate.(3)

Retinol: Retinol is the most active type of retinoid ingredient that is commonly found in OTC retinoid products and is known to be highly effective in treating wrinkles.(4)

Tretinoin: This form of retinoid is a strong retinoid that is only available on prescription from your dermatologist.(5)

Tazarotene(6): Tazarotene is one of the most potent retinoid ingredients that is also only available by prescription only from a doctor.(7)

The fact is that the manner in which a retinoid gets formulated also has a huge role to play in how effective it is going to be. For example, the retinoids are alcohol-based gels are considered to be one of the most effective of all retinoid formulations because of how easily they get absorbed by the skin.(8) This is why they are mostly recommended for skin that is prone to acne breakouts.

If you have dry or mature skin, then you might find that your skin reacts more favorably to cream-based retinoids that are known to have a nourishing effect.

Including Retinoids to your Skincare Routine

It is recommended that you carry out a skin patch test before adding a new retinoid product to your daily skincare routine. A skin patch test can be done in the following manner:

  • Apply a tiny amount of the new product either on your elbow or the side of your forearm.
  • Cover this area with a bandage and leave it there for 24 hours.
  • After 24 hours, open the bandage and check to see if there is any inflammation or irritation. If there is any type of irritation or any other symptom of a reaction, then discontinue using the product.
  • If within 24 hours, you do not experience any symptoms or reactions, then the product is deemed safe to use, and you can apply it on your face and elsewhere.
  • Once the product has passed the skin patch test and you know that it is safe to use, you can start applying it every alternate night. But make sure to apply it only after cleansing and toning and also before you apply your nighttime moisturizer.
  • You can start applying the product every night after following the alternate-day cycle for at least a week or two.

Retinoids are usually recommended for use art nighttime because they tend to increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. This is why you should wear sunscreen when you are going outside during the day so as to reduce any risk of side effects.

Side Effects and Risks of Using Retinoids

While retinoids are known to be highly effective in treating wrinkles and other skin conditions, the strength of these products is known to have a downside in the form of potential side effects. Irritation on the skin and dryness are common, especially when you start to use these products for the very first time.

The chances of experiencing side effects are also exceptionally high if you are already using multiple anti-aging products all at one time. This is why it is recommended that you always perform a skin patch test for any new product you want to use and then only introduce them into your skincare routine – one at a time. You should also space out any new additions by at least two to three weeks in order to allow your skin time to adjust and settle down to the new product.

This is also why it is recommended to use any new retinoid product every alternate night rather than daily so that you are able to reduce the risk of any side effects.

Furthermore, the risk of side effects can also be reduced by starting with a product that has a low retinoid concentration and then gradually increasing the potency of concentration as required.

If you are experiencing any kind of side effects and they tend to continue, then you should discontinue use of the product or try and switch to a different retinoid. Sometimes it might also be that you will need to try out a different anti-aging ingredient altogether.

Another potential side effect of using retinoids is the risk of sunburn. You also put yourself at risk of developing age spots. To counteract these side effects of retinoids, you should diligently wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day without fail.

It is not advisable to use retinoid products if you are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.

OTC Retinoids for Treating Wrinkles

OTC retinoids are readily available at any beauty store or even at your local drugstore, and they are some of the first options you should consider when you want to try out retinoids for wrinkles. Here are some of the popular OTC retinoids that are known to work effectively in treating wrinkles and fine lines.

Derma-E Anti-Wrinkle Renewal Cream: This cream is made with retinyl palmitate and is best suited for dry skin that is in the early stages of aging. It also helps fight dull skin. This renewal cream is enriched with vitamin A cream that helps to bring about visible impro0vements to your skin as it helps diminish the appearance of wrinkles and lines. Furthermore, the addition of panthenol and allantoin helps in nourishing and providing intense moisturization to the skin.(9)

Body Merry Retinol Surge Moisturizer: Made with retinol and certain other types of antioxidants, this moisturizing product works as a multi-purpose lotion to reduce the appearance of not just wrinkles, but large pores as well. The product can be used for nearly all skin types and anyone who is looking to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, acne, or any other types of scars on their face. You can also use this as a night cream or even use it on and off during the week alongside a more regular facial moisturizer for best effects.(10)

Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum: This serum contains only two percent retinol and is ideal to use as a nightly serum to help reduce acne, wrinkles, and age spots. The serum also contains 20 percent vitamin C and 2 percent of salicylic acid, which help reduce hyperpigmentation on the skin. This serum is loaded with vitamin C, which protects against the damaging effects of UV rays and also helps repair the sun damage caused to your skin. Furthermore, the product also contains a dash of hyaluronic acid, which is known for its anti-aging effects and also provides hydration to the skin’s surface. The niacinamide found in this serum is known to treat acne and many other skin conditions that leave the skin looking uneven and inflamed. Niacinamide helps naturally reduce inflammation and reddishness on your skin.(11)

Murad Resurgence Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream: This retinoid cream is ideal for dry to dehydrated skin. This is a cream-based retinoid product, and it helps decrease the appearance of wrinkles while also helps significantly improve your skin tone. The cream is known to contain peptides that helps bring down the risk of any type of irritation. This night claims that it has ‘250% more renewing power’ than the other more traditional retinoid products, while also being gentle to be used on sensitive skin. The product also improves the overall firmness of your skin and also boosts its elasticity, making you look younger. It is best to use this product if you are looking for a solution to fix those visible fine lines, deep wrinkles, rough texture, dryness, and loss of firmness of your skin.(12)

Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate: This is a nightly gel that contains citric acid and retinol. Citric acid is a form of anti-aging AHA (alpha hydroxy acid), and apart from wrinkle-fighting benefits, this gel is also known to have many other skin benefits. You just need to drop one drop over your entire face and use more only if it is really required. This gel is said to give a firmer look for your skin while also boosting the tolerability of the product by your skin. This retinol formulated product targets the skin’s natural collagen reserves and helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and also the deep-set wrinkles. At the same time, it also lightly exfoliates your skin to reveal a more youthful-looking skin underneath the surface layer.(13)

Prescription Retinoids for Treating Wrinkles

OTC retinoid products should be the first products you try out when you want to begin using retinoids for treating wrinkles and other skin conditions. However, if after a couple of months of using these OTC products, you do not experience any visible results, then it might be time to consult your doctor or a dermatologist to get a prescription version of retinoids.

Prescription retinoids are known to be more potent and also more effective than the OTC counterparts at reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.(14) However, this also means that they are more likely to cause complications and side effects.

It has been commonly observed that dermatologists are likely to prescribe one of the following prescription-strength retinoids for the treatment of wrinkles:

  1. Tretinoin (brand name: Retin-A)
  2. Adapalene (brand name: Differen)
  3. Tazarotene (brand name: Tazorac)

Out of these three, tretinoin is the most widely-used prescription retinoids for treating wrinkles. It is available in the form of a cream, and when you are using it, you must ensure to wear sunscreen daily to keep your skin safe from sunburn and photoaging.


Retinoids are one of the most promising skincare products being used today. However, you have to be patient once you start using these products as it might take at least six months for you to notice any significant improvement in your wrinkles from the time you begin using retinoids. It might even take up to a full year for the results to become visible properly.

If you find that you are not seeing any results even after using the product for several months, then it is time to consult a dermatologist, who might suggest the use of a prescription-strength retinoid now. They will be the best person to recommend the correct retinoids or any other methods, including fillers, to help you improve the appearance of wrinkles and any other skin conditions.


  1. Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H.C., Roeder, A. and Weindl, G., 2006. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in Aging, 1(4), p.327.
  2. Ewg.org. (2019). RETINYL PALMITATE (VITAMIN A PALMITATE) || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG. [online] Available at: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/705545/RETINYL_PALMITATE_%28VITAMIN_A_PALMITATE%29/ [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  3. Saurat, J.H., Didierjean, L., Masgrau, E., Piletta, P.A., Jaconi, S., Chatellard-Gruaz, D., Gumowski, D., Masouye, I., Salomon, D. and Siegenthaler, G., 1994. Topical retinaldehyde on human skin: biologic effects and tolerance. Journal of investigative dermatology, 103(6), pp.770-774.
  4. Health. (2019). https://www.health.com. [online] Available at: https://www.health.com/beauty/best-retinol-cream [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  5. hims. (2019). How Long Does Tretinoin Take to Reduce Wrinkles?. [online] Available at: https://www.forhims.com/blog/how-long-does-tretinoin-take-to-reduce-wrinkles [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  6. Ogden, S., Samuel, M. and Griffiths, C.E., 2008. A review of tazarotene in the treatment of photodamaged skin. Clinical interventions in aging, 3(1), p.71.
  7. Jwatch.org. (2019). NEJM Journal Watch: Summaries of and commentary on original medical and scientific articles from key medical journals. [online] Available at: https://www.jwatch.org/jd200201300000001/2002/01/30/tazarotene-wrinkles-and-photodamage [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  8. UW Health. (2019). Retinoids: Defining the Difference. [online] Available at: https://www.uwhealth.org/madison-plastic-surgery/retinoids-defining-the-difference/45281 [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  9. DERMA E. (2019). Anti-Wrinkle Renewal Cream. [online] Available at: https://dermae.com/products/anti-wrinkle-vitamin-a-retinyl-palmitate-cream [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  10. Moisturizer, R. (2019). Retinol Moisturizer Cream for Face, Wrinkles & Acne – Body Merry. [online] Bodymerry.com. Available at: https://www.bodymerry.com/products/retinol-moisturizer-for-face-acne [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019]
  11. Eva Naturals. (2019). Eva Naturals Skin Clearing Serum – Vitamin C Plus Serum – 1 oz. [online] Available at: https://evanaturals.org/products/vitamin-c-serum-plus [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  12. All, S., Cream, R. and Cream, R. (2019). Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream. [online] Murad Skincare. Available at: https://www.murad.com/product/retinol-youth-renewal-night-cream/ [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  13. Concentrate, E. (2019). Super Retinol Concentrate Anti-Aging Eye Cream – Exuviance. [online] Exuviance.com. Available at: https://www.exuviance.com/product/exuviance+super+retinol+concentrate+retinol+cream.do [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
  14. Publishing, H. (2019). Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles? – Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-retinoids-really-reduce-wrinkles [Accessed 4 Aug. 2019].
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 14, 2019

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