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Your guide to using retinoids for acne, ageing or pigmentation

Put your best face forward.

Written by
Kaitlyn Wilson
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
May 15, 2024
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Your guide to using retinoids for acne, ageing or pigmentation
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Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinoic acid and retinol are all forms of vitamin A.

Retinoic acid, which is also known as retinoids, is considered the gold standard in acne treatments, as well as refreshing ageing skin, smoothing fine lines and wrinkles, and reducing the appearance of acne scars.

But before you go slathering your face in vitamin A, it's important to understand what retinoids are and how to use them. Let's dive in.

What are retinoids?

In simple terms, retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A found in many skincare products.

Weaker strains of the chemical can be sold in supermarket and chemist creams and serums, but stronger retinoic acid can be obtained by a healthcare practitioner or dermatologist to treat acne and other skin conditions [1].

How do retinoids work?

Available in a topical or oral form, retinoids work to improve your skin in a number of ways. Topical retinoids come in creams, liquids and gels and can be applied directly to your face, whereas oral treatments are tablets or capsules.

Retinoids stimulate the growth of new skin cells, exfoliate the skin and unclog pores. There also increase collagen production and thicken the skin, which helps repair and minimise fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinoids also help to decrease melanin production, which is responsible for pigmentation and dark spots and is commonly used to treat acne, pigmentation and the signs of ageing.

What is retinol?

You'd be forgiven for thinking retinol and retinoids are the same. However, they are different — retinol is often found in over-the-counter skincare.

Retinol penetrates the epidermis, targets free radicals and exfoliates, and improves skin texture. It increases collagen production, improving fine lines and wrinkles while reducing pore size.

It can also be used to treat mild acne and scarring. However, severe acne may require clinical treatment [2].

Are retinoids better than retinol?

It isn't as simple as retinoids versus retinol as both can be used to effectively treat different skin concerns. However, retinoids are much stronger than their retinol cousin and are better suited to more severe skin issues.

In saying that, both ingredients are clinically proven to reduce fine lines, stimulate collagen production, reduce pigmentation and fight acne.

So, which is better? Well, that depends on what your skin tolerates. The clinical efficacy of retinoids is undeniable, but so are the side effects for sensitive skin. If retinoids are used without an adjustment period — which means slowly building up how often you use the product — it can cause dryness, flaky skin and redness.

However, as retinol contain less active ingredients, they are more gentle on the skin and don't usually cause the same reactions or skin irritation that can come with retinoids [3].

So, if you have sensitive skin, non-medical grade retinol could be a good choice for you.

However, you can slowly build up your skin's tolerance by slowly introducing retinoids — starting with once a week, then twice a week, then three times a week and so on.

Why should men incorporate retinoids into their skincare routine?

Skincare is for everyone — not just women. And, men can gain a lot by adding retinoids into their skincare regime. If you're interested in targeting acne, ageing, skin texture or pigmentation, retinoids are the way to go.

Rretinoids work to reverse sun damage, reduce wrinkles, shrink pores, fight acne and minimise acne scarring [4]. They are incredibly effective with only a small amount of product and results are visible within a couple of months of use.

This skincare ingredient will allow you to treat your skin without fuss — there's no need for a 10-step skincare routine when you're using retinoids.

When and how do you use retinoids?

One of the most important things to remember when you're first starting to use retinoids is to introduce them very slowly. These are potent chemical compounds that can cause skin irritation as well as dryness and sun sensitivity.

Here are the do's and don'ts to follow when using retinoids:

  • Your retinoid formula should always be applied at night in the following product order — cleanse your face, apply the retinoids and follow up with a hydrating moisturiser
  • Use only a pea-sized amount of the formula and start using it once a week before moving on to two nights a week and so forth
  • Be careful to avoid the eye area
  • Be sure to wear sunscreen every single day — no matter the weather as retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun
  • Avoid using any other active ingredients when first incorporating the retinoids into your skincare routine — strip it back to the basics for the time being

If you experience any inflammation or irritation, use your topical treatment less frequently. When the skin has recovered, try to increase usage again [5].

How to layer retinoids

Retinoid treatments can be layered with other products but it's important to follow a certain order of skincare products to make sure all of the ingredients play nice and are working as effectively as possible.

  • To layer your retinoid with other skincare products, always start with clinical-strength products first
  • Always apply retinoids at night for the most effective treatment
  • Apply to clean and dry skin after cleansing
  • Give your skin a few minutes to absorb the retinoid before completing your regimen
  • Layer the rest of your products, such as serums and night creams, in order from the lightest to the heaviest
  • If you are experiencing dryness and flaking skin, try the sandwich method, which involves applying moisturiser, and letting it sit for a few minutes before following it up with the retinoid treatment and another layer of moisturiser

What products can't be used with retinoids?

Due to the strength of retinoids, there are a number of skincare ingredients that don't mix well with it.

This doesn't mean that you have to stop using these products going forward, but it is best to slowly reintroduce them after you've been using retinoids for a few months to avoid any skin reactions.

Once you have built up a tolerance to the treatment, it's best to use these ingredients at different times of the day to your retinoids.

Vitamin C

Your skincare routine can include both vitamin C and retinoids, but not at the same time. Vitamin C is best applied first thing in the morning, before sunscreen, so it can do its work fighting environmental aggressors and free radicals.

When it comes to the nighttime routine, retinoids help clean the skin of free radicals and repair damage.

Benzoyl peroxide

Commonly used in other acne treatments, benzoyl peroxide is a powerful and highly effective skincare ingredient but using it with retinoids tends to cancel the effects of both products.

Stick with retinoids for your acne treatment and if you're still dealing with breakouts, consider trying Software's Acne Kit, which is designed to target breakouts at all stages and can be used alongside your clinical-strength treatment.

Alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids

Popular AHAs and BHAs like lactic acid and salicylic acid work wonders for the skin but because they are chemical exfoliants, they can cause redness and irritation when used with retinoids [6].

It is possible to reintroduce chemical exfoliants into your skincare routine with retinoids after a few months but be sure to use the AHA and BHA infused products on alternative days to your retinoids.

Pilot's skincare formulas treat acne, ageing and pigmentation — simply start an online consultation with a Pilot practitioner and they will create a treatment plan based on your skin concerns.

This could be anything from targeting fine wrinkles to fading pigmentation and reducing breakouts. Each formula is made to order just for you and is delivered to your door. Plus, you'll have access to ongoing care and your practitioner can adjust your treatment wherever you need. It's never been easier to treat your skin kindly.

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