Natural vs. Synthetic Retinoids

The difference between natural and synthetic retinoids |

As if there weren't enough differences amongst the types of retinoids, a distinction exists between natural and synthetic ones as well.

Natural and Synthetic Retinoids

Natural Synthetic
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinol
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Tretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Tazarotene
  • Isotretinoin

Natural retinoids are naturally occurring and derived from Vitamin A, while synthetic retinoids (a.k.a. retinoid analogues) are not. Synthetic retinoids act like natural retinoids, but they are not the same thing. Both, however, activate RARs (retinoic acid receptors) in your skin. This activation is important because it's basically how retinoids work to trigger favorable skin responses. (For further details about retinoids and RARs, go here.) The process of activating RARs is a big part of what makes natural and synthetic retinoids different.

Natural retinoids, like tretinoin, activate all of your skin's RARs, while synthetic retinoids activate a targeted selection. Because natural and synthetic retinoids activate different RARs in your skin, the effects are different even though they are both retinoids.

You might wonder why there are synthetic retinoids if natural retinoids activate all RARs. I mean, isn't it better to have them all activated? Well, not always. After scientists figured out how retinoic acid worked, they created synthetic retinoids to mimic the effects of natural retinoids, while attempting to isolate and/or improve certain qualities of the responses.

For example, everyone knows that tretinoin can be irritating. Synthetic retinoids help minimize this irritation by only targeting the RARs responsible for the desired response, instead of activating all RARs across the board like natural retinoids do. Adapalene is a prime example, as Differin is one of the mildest prescription retinoids out there today.

Just like how synthetic retinoids can make natural retinoids less irritating without losing effectiveness, natural retinoids might actually not be strong enough for some peoples' skin. This is where tazarotene comes into play. By strongly binding to and activating particular RARs, you get a synthetic retinoid like Tazaroc, which is much stronger than a natural retinoid like Retin-A.

Stability in Sunlight

Another difference between synthetic retinoids and natural retinoids is their stability in sunlight. Natural retinoids tend to break down immediately when exposed to light (that's one of the reasons why you apply Retin-A at night and must wear sunscreen in the day), while synthetic retinoids remain stable. There is also some evidence that natural retinoids turn toxic when exposed to sunlight. Regardless of stability, you don't want to be in the sun anyway when you are using any kind of retinoid because they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.

With a synthetic retinoid like Tazarac, you can also use short contact therapy (SCT) to receive all the benefits of a retinoid without the irritation. Short contact therapy has only been proven to be effective with Tazorac (and not Differin), but it works under the premise that synthetic retinoids are not inactivated by your skin like natural retinoids are.

Natural retinoids can be converted into one another (ex. retinol is converted to retinaldehyde which is then converted to retinoic acid or tretinoin), but synthetic retinoids are very distinct in their chemical composition. Differin is weaker than Tazorac, but it is not a weaker form of Tazorac. They are two completely different drugs.

As you can see, there are a number of things that make synthetic retinoids different from natural retinoids. However, one isn't necessarily better than the other. As long as the retinoid works for you, it doesn't matter whether it's synthetic or natural.

Last updated: October 9, 2012

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