which form of retinoids is right for you and your needs

Ever wondered which is the best type of retinoid for you? Is there a better type of retinoid for wrinkles or one that’s more suitable for acne-prone skin? With so many types of retinoid available, it can be tough to pick the right one for your unique skin types and concerns. Only one thing’s for sure. You can’t go without.

Retinoids are the most powerful family in the skincare world. They’re the ones you turn to when you want to get those pesky wrinkles off your face, fade away dark spots and kick acne in the butt. But, they’re not all created equal…

Some types of retinoid are more powerful than others and will deal with wrinkles quickly while others work more slowly – but they’re gentler on the skin. Some are so gentle you can’t feel a thing and others turn your face into a red, flaky mess you wonder why the heck you started using them in the first place.Some are tried and tested while others are newborns who have yet to prove their worth.

How do you know which type of retinoid you should use?! Here’s a quick guide to help you figure out which type of retinoid is right for you.

But first…

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a catch-all term for all forms of Vitamin A, the only thing scientifically proven to reduce wrinkles, not just their appearance. You’ve heard that right. Retinoids don’t just make wrinkles look smaller to the naked eye like silicones and hyaluronic acid do. They actually reduce their size and depth.

The retinoids used in skincare can be broken down into four categories: retinyl esters (like Hydroxypinacolone retinoate), retinol, retinaldehyde, and prescription retinoids (like Retinoic Acid, a.k.a. Tretinoin). Esters tend to be the gentlest forms of retinoids while retinoic acid is the strongest and most powerful. Yes, there’s a hierarchy to retinoids – and you’re about to find out all about them and which type is best for you!

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that minimises wrinkles, prevents premature aging, and gives your complexion a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

How Do Retinoids Work?

Although there are lots of different types of retinoids, they all must be converted into retinoid acid, the most biologically active form, for them to work. By binding to and activating retinoic acid receptors in the skin, retinoids can alter the skins’ DNA, changing its appearance in texture and helping to fade away wrinkles, dark spots, and even acne.

The conversion looks like this:

Retinyl palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid

As a rule, the more steps it takes a retinoid to convert into retinoic acid, the weaker (and gentler) it is. Esters don’t need to be converted, but they’re the newer kids on the block and, despite what manufacturers say, we don’t know how effective they are yet.

“[Retinoids] exist on an inverted scale between efficacy and irritability,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Elyse Love. “Of the over-the-counters, retinyl esters are the least potent and most stable, retinol is the in-between, and retinaldehyde (retinal) is the most potent, but most difficult to stabilize.” On the other hand, the more powerful a retinoid is, the more irritating it is. If your skin is sensitive, going with a gentler formula that gives results more slowly is often a better option.

Retinoid Benefits: Why Should You Use Them?

Retinoids are the best ingredients for anti-aging, bar none. Decades ago, scientists were studying retinoids for the treatment of acne. And discovered that, while they were fading away pimples, they also seemed to reduce the size and depth of wrinkles! Since then, study after study has shown that retinoids provide plenty of benefits to your skin:

  • Accelerate cellular turnover: This is the skin’s natural exfoliation process. Retinoids help your dead cells slough off from your skin faster, exposing the newer cells underneath. This benefits skin in two ways. Dead cells can’t accumulate in your pores, causing acne. The uppermost layer, the one with the most sun damage and dark spots, is removed, so that the pigmentation lightens up and slowly disappears.
  • Boost the production of collagen: Collagen is the protein that firms skin. The more collagen your skin has, the fewer (and less profound!) wrinkles you have.
  • Bust acne: By accelerating cellular turnover, they make sure that dead cells can’t fall into your pores and clog them up.
  • Fight free radicals: Free radicals are nasty molecules that cause premature wrinkles, dark spots, and even cancer. Retinoids neutralise them before they can start wreaking their damage on your skin.
  • Reduce the appearance of dark spots: They do this by accelerating cellular turnover. The more layers of dark cells you remove, the sooner you fade away the excess pigmentation.
  • Shrink the size of pores: When your pores are clogged, you get pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. All that gunk stretched pores, making them look larger than they naturally are. By treating acne, your pores go back to their original, smaller size.

Aren’t these all good reasons to start adding a retinoid to your skincare routine? The only question now is: which one?

Related: 3 Reasons Why You Should Use Retinoids

Now that you know what retinoids are and what they do, let’s take a look a closer look at each member of the family:

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Types Of Retinoids: Benefits, Side Effects, And How To Use Them



The alcohol form of vitamin A. Don’t let the word alcohol put you off. Retinol isn’t one of those types of alcohol that hurt your skin and have no benefits. This is a type of alcohol that can do wonders for your skin.


Studies show that retinol has all the benefits of retinoic acid, but on a smaller scale. A 2015 study has found that retinol is about 10 times less potent that retinoic acid. It stimulates the production of collagen, firms skin, fights free radicals and speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process) to fade away wrinkle and dark spot.

The same study, published in the Journal of Drugs and Dermatology, also found that “after 52 weeks, retinol had improved crow’s feet fine lines by 44%, and mottled pigmentation by 84%.” That’s not all. At week 52, skin also showed an “increased expression of type I procollagen, hyaluronan, and Ki67 as compared to vehicle,” leading researchers to conclude that retinol can “significantly improve the signs of photoaging, and improvements in photodamage continue with prolonged use”.


Dryness, flaking, peeling and redness. It’s the harshest of the retinoids available off the counter – but not as harsh as prescription retinoids. A trick to minimise irritation is to use microencapsulated, time-released retinol that’s delivered into the skin over a period of several hours.


Who should use it: 25+ women who are serious about antiaging but aren’t ready to go prescription yet.


  • Paula’s Choice Resist Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00): An anti-aging serum with 0.1% retinol. It also includes antioxidants, like Vitamin E, to prevent premature aging, and soothing ingredients to reduce irritations. Available at Paula’s Choice and Sephora.
  • Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 Night Cream ($62.00): This cream contains only 0.3% retinol but it packs an anti-aging punch. It comes in a moisturising base, but you need to use a separate moisturiser to counteract the dryness of retinol. Available at Dermstore and Skinceuticals.
  • Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): This high-strength 1% retinol booster has a moisturising base and plenty of skin-soothers to counteract the irritating effects of retinol. Use it on its own for maximum effect or dilute it with moisturiser if it’s too harsh for you. Available at Cult BeautyNet-A-PorterPaula’s Choice and SpaceNK.
  • Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00): A micro encapsulated 1.5% retinol serum in an oily, moisturising base to fight wrinkles and fade away dark spots. Available at Beauty BayCult Beauty, and Peter Thomas Roth.

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol

Retinyl Palmitate


Retinyl Palmitate is a mix of retinol and palmitic acid, a fatty acid.


It’s a retinoid, so in theory it gives you all the anti-aging, anti-acne, and skin-lightening benefits of retinoids. In practice? Retinyl Palmitate is weak. You need a very high enough concentration (way higher than what you find in skincare products) to reduce wrinkles and smoothen out the texture of your skin. Some dermatologists recommend you don’t bother with it all. It just won’t do the job as well as its siblings do. *sighs*


It’s the gentlest retinoid out there. So gentle, it usually has no side effects at all. If your skin peels and flakes from it, you might not be able to use retinoids at all.


Only people with super sensitive skin who can’t tolerate any other form of retinoids. For you, the trade-off between effectiveness and gentleness may be worth it. Everyone else, there are more effective forms of retinoids out there.


  • FaceTheory Regenacalm 2% Retinol and Vitamin C Serum S1 (£22.00): This serum has a misleading name. It doesn’t contain retinol at all. Instead it contains the weaker form retinal palmate together with Vitamin C derivatives to prevent wrinkles and make skin glow. Available at FaceTheory.
  • Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 PA++++ ($65.00): A high-spectrum SPF sunscreen that protects from the entire UV range, blue light damage, and pollution. Available at Look Fantastic, Murad, and Nordstrom.
  • Pixi Overnight Retinol Oil (£26.00): This moisturises oil uses both Retinyl Palmitate and retinol to make skin softer, smoother, and younger-looking. Best suitable for dry skin. Available at Boots and iHerb.

Related: Is Retinol Palmitate An Effective Alternative To Retinol For Sensitive Skin?

medik8 crystal retinal 6



Also known as retinal, it’s the aldehyde form of vitamin A. An aldehyde is acompound that contain a carbonyl group – a carbon-oxygen double bond. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t fret. It’s enough for you to know it’s one of the best retinoids out there.


It boosts collagen and makes skin firmer, slowing down the aging process. The more collagen your skin has, the slower it forms wrinkles. It only takes one step to convert retinal into retinoic acid, meaning it’s more powerful than retinol. “Similar to retinol, retinals help promote cell turnover to even skin tone and texture, smooth wrinkles and fine lines, and prevent acne,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman.

A 1998 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology compared the effectiveness a 0.05% retinaldehyde cream with a 0.05% retinoic acid cream. Researchers found that “At week 18, a significant reduction of the wrinkle and roughness features was observed with both retinaldehyde and retinoic acid,” but retinaldehyde was better tolerated.


Retinal is fairly gentle but can still cause irritation in people with sensitive skin. The real issue is that retinal is highly unstable. What does that mean for you? Highly unstable = harder to formulate with = expensive price tag. That’s why you’ll find a gazillion retinol products in the shops and hardly any contain retinal (and if they do, they cost a pretty penny!).


If you’re serious about anti-aging and don’t mind paying more for better results, go for retinal over retinol.


  • Arcona Advanced A Serum ($85.00): A retinal serum with lactic acid and peptides to smooth out the skin’s surface, treat wrinkles, and brighten the complexion. Available at Dermstore.
  • Medik8 Crystal Retinal 10 (£79.00): A retinal serum with hyaluronic acid to provide anti-aging benefits without drying out skin. Available at Medik8, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
  • Osmosis Renew Level 4 Vitamin A Serum ($88.00): A retinal serum with niacinamide and hyaluronic acid to deeply moisturise skin while treating wrinkles. Available at Dermstore.

Related: Does Retinaldehyde Provide The Same Benefits As Retinol Without The Side Effects?

the ordinary granactive retinoid 5% in squalane 01

Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR)


You probably know it as Granactive Retinoid. That’s what The Ordinary (the company that made it famous) calls it. So what is it? An ester of all-trans direct retinoid acid that doesn’t need to be converted into retinoid acid into the skin. Fun fact: the manufacturer makes it as 10% active + 90% solvent (dimethyl isosorbide). In other words, when you see 2% Granactive Retinoid on the bottle, it doesn’t mean it contains 2% retinoid. It contains 0.2% Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate + 1.8% dimethyl isosorbide.


It’s the newest retinoid so research here is still scant. According to the manufacturer, it works almost as well as retinoic acid minus the irritation. One of their studies shows that 0.2% Hdroxypinacoloen Retinoate applied around the eyes twice a day for 14 days shows a dramatic reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.

According to a study sponsored by Estee Lauder and done in-vitro (not real human skin), “HPR had greater levels of gene transcription than retinol and RP (Retinyl Palmitate) at the same concentrations … however, HPR did not achieve gene transcription levels of ATRA (tretinoin).” It’s encouraging, but I’m waiting for more independent studies before making the switch from retinol. However, a 2017 study shows that it’s good at treating acne.


It’s very gentle. If your skin can’t tolerate it, you may not be able to use retinoids at all.


Very sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other retinoids.


  • Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum (£19.88/$34.00): A super hydrating serum with Granactive retinoid to slow down premature aging while making skin softer and smoother. Available at iHerb.
  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane (£7.80): An oily serum with a moistryuiseing base. Very gentle, ideal for absolute beginners or super sensitive skin. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, and Ulta.
  • The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% In Squalane (£11.90): A higher strength Granactive Retinoid serum in a moisturising Squalane base for people who want the highest strength of this active. Available at Beauty BayCult Beauty, and The Ordinary.

Retinyl Retinoate


An ester of retinoic acid made by attaching retinol to retinoic acid. This makes Retinyl Retinoate more stable than retinol, but also more active. While retinol takes two steps to convert into retinoic acid, Retinyl Retinoate converts into both retinoic acid and retinol in the skin. This means that it becomes active both after the first conversion step as well as later on once retinol is further converted.


Retinyl Retinoate stimulates cellular turnover, stimulate collagen to soften wrinkles, helps treat acne and fade away dark spots. According to the manufacturer, it’s 8 times more powerful than retinol. What does everyone else say?

According to a 2010 study published in the British Journal Of Dermatology, 0.06% Retinyl Retinoate Retinyl retinoate “applied twice daily was significantly more effective than a placebo or retinol in treating periorbital wrinkles. Importantly, no severe side-effects were observed.”

Retinyl Retinoate helps treat acne too. In an 8 week study, 0.05% retinyl retinoate “showed a significant decrease in both inflammatory and non-inflammatory lesions, and in sebum amount”. Plus, it also has some anti-bacterial activity against P.acnes, the bug that causes acne.


Like all esters, it’s super gentle and doesn’t usually cause side effects.


Sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other forms of retinoids. I recommend you try this before Granactive Retinoid or Retinyl Palmitate.


  • Medik8 R-Retinoate® Intense (£229.00): Retinyl Retinoate and Retinaldehyde work together to fight wrinkles while hyaluronic acid and ceramdies nourish skin and banish dryness and potential side effects. Available at Cult Beauty, Medik8, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
  • Verso Night Cream ($85.00): A nourishing night cream for dry skin that moisturises skin and prevents and treats the premature signs of aging. Available at Cult Beauty, Sephora, and SpaceNK.

Retinoid Acid


The acid form of Vitamin A. It’s also the active form, the one your skin can use immediately – no need to convert it to anything.


Retinoic acid is the most effective type of retinoids for anti-aging and acne. The reason it works so well is that it binds to the retinoic acid receptors in your skin, changing the basic behaviours, like gene expression, of skin cells.

One of the main causes of aging is the loss of collagen, the protein that firms skin. Retinoid acid solves this problem in two ways. One: it boosts the natural production of collagen types I and III in the skin. Two: it inhibits the activity of matrix metalloproteinases enzymes that destroy collagen.

Like that weren’t enough, Retinoic Acid helps treat acne in two ways: it speeds up cellular turnover so dead cells don’t fall into pores and makes your skin produce less sebum. Both actions prevent clogged pores. No clogs, no acne. While it’s at it, it also has skin-lightening properties that help fade away dark spots.


Although Retinoic acid is, by far, the most effective type of retinoids, there’s a reason why it’s not available at the drugstore, nor the first thing dermatologists recommends. It’s very harsh and causes peeling, flaking, dryness, and irritation.


If you have resistant skin that can tolerate harsh ingredients well, and have been using 1% retinol without side effects for a while, you can upgrade to Retinoic Acid.


  • Retin-A
  • Tretinoin
  • Renova
l'oreal Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Night Serum review

How To Use Retinoids

Doesn’t matter which type of retinoids you pick, there’s always the potential of irritation. Don’t just buy a random product and slap it on your face straight away. If you want to get young-looking, clear skin without the dryness and peeling, always follow these tips to make the most out of them:

  1. Baby steps: Whether you’re starting with retinol or another type of retinoid, start with the smallest concentration available and use it twice a week until your skin gets used to it. If you’re not experiencing any side effects, you know it’s time to upgrade dose and/or frequency.
  2. Moisturise: Apply a nourishing moisturiser after a retinoid to prevent dryness. This is true even if your retinoid product comes in a cream form – and especially if you’re using Retinoic Acid or 1% retinol.
  3. Use at night: Retinoids speed up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process), so they can make skin more susceptible to sun damage. Apply them before going to bed and don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen in the morning.
  4. Alternate it: Using other powerful skincare ingredients, such as vitamin C, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide? Never use them on the same nights as retinoids or you could cause a serious case of dryness and irritation. I recommend you use Vitamin C in the morning and alternative Glycolic Acid/Benzoyl Peroxide with Retinoids at night
  5. Avoid during pregnancy or breastfeeding: Prescription retinoids have been proven to cause birth defects in mice. Smaller doses of OTC retinoids may be safer, but experts recommend you avoid them all, just to be on the safe side.

The Bottom Line

If you’re just starting out with retinoids, opt for low concentrations of retinol or retinaldehyde and slowly increase them – my scientist friend Cheryl shows you exactly how to do this inside her raved about, online course AgeLock, ‘how to get healthier, younger skin, age beautifully on your own terms and even be mistaken for 10 years younger’– you can also get 17% off by using code GIO17.

But If you’re already using the highest possible concentrations of retinol or retinaldehyde and you need something stronger, it’s time to go prescription. Avoid all other forms, unless your skin is so sensitive even the tiniest concentrations of retinol and retinaldehyde irritate it.