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The Beauty Lab Guide To Understanding The Hierarchy of Retinoids

Not many skin care ingredients are as widely known and coveted by skin care specialists as retinol, or more specifically, retinoids. If you are a skincare enthusiast you've likely experimented with some form of Vitamin A derivative (Retinoids). As your local skincare expert, I instruct clients to incorporate some form of retinoid in their anti-aging skincare routine by the time they hit their mid 20's. That being said, prescription-grade retinol, may be prescribed earlier to treat a host of skin disorders, such as acne vulgaris.

In this post, I'll discuss the range and hierarchy of retinoids, and the target effects of each derivative. Armed with this information, you'll be better equipped to make informed purchases that are effective enough to treat your individual skin care needs.

Above, I mentioned that most skin enthusiasts have "experimented' with retinoids and for good reason. A lack of understanding about this complex topic has left many perplexed about all the terminology regarding Vitamin A derivatives. Retinoid is merely a blanket term for several different forms of Vitamin A.

Retinoids are subcategorized into four main categories, retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. The first three can be found in over-the-counter and professional skincare products. Retinoic acid is only available in prescription-grade formulas because of its potency and potential for irritation. All four retinoids, work to alter the skin's DNA makeup by binding to retinoic acid receptors in your skin. The benefits include; improved skin texture, improved hyperpigmentation, reduction of fine lines, pores or wrinkles and minimizing acne.

In the world of dermatology, the Retinoid Hierarchy is developed in accordance with efficacy vs irritability. The potency or percentage of retinoid in the product often correlates with the irritation users experience. The exciting news is that science is catching up and new formulations that combine potent (more effective) buffer ingredients like squalene and beta-glucan to minimize the irritation. Stay to the end to find out which product is taking this the professional-grade retinoid industry to new heights.

Rentinyl Ester

All forms of over-the-counter retinoids must be converted by the body to retinoic acid on the skin to be useful. Retinoic acid (Tretinoin) is of course already in a useable state. Retinyl Ester is the least potent and must be converted by three steps to becoming retinoic acid on the skin. Therefore, this is a gentle, albeit less potent, alternative for very sensitive skin. Keep in mind, potency may offer better results.


The most famous of all retinoid forms. This powerhouse ingredient regulates cell turnover, promotes skin exfoliation, unclogs pores, and smoothes fine lines and wrinkles.

Together with a skincare expert, you will be able to minimize irritation by developing a skin cycling routine for retinol. The goal is to achieve tolerance of retinol without drying, redness or peeling.


Retinaldehyde is the strongest over-the-counter retinoid. This derivate is one step closer to the usable state of retinoic acid which often means quicker, more effective results.

Retinoic Acid

Retinoic acid is the base molecular level retinoid that is biologically available for uptake by skin cell DNA. Because of its potency, it is only available in prescription grade for targeted skin conditions and prescribed for short-term use. Tretinoin is a common prescription-grade retinoid used to treat cystic acne or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

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