What Are Retinoids?

Explanation of retinoids, what they are, and what they do |

Retinoids are topical or oral (ex. Roaccutane) products, chemically related to Vitamin A, that help with acne, anti-aging, and hyper-pigmentation. You might have heard of retinoids before if you have ever used products with retinol, retinoic acid, or tretinoin (more on the different types of retinoids in the next section).

Retinoids aid in the normalization of hyperkeratinization, which means they help your skin slough off (or desquamate) dead skin cells at a more normal rate so the dead skin cells don't bind together and clog your pores. This is important because if your hair follicles are clogged, you get keratosis pilaris. If your oil ducts are clogged, you get acne. Both are unwelcome skin conditions.

Aside from helping your skin shed more normally, retinoids also have some anti-inflammatory effects. However, these effects might be less pronounced because retinoids come with their fair share of irritation when you start using them. So instead of noticing that your skin is less inflamed, most people notice the dry skin and the initial breakout, the blatant side effects of retinoid use.

How do retinoids work?

Medscape's extremely educational article on topical retinoids offers a great explanation for how retinoids work:

"Retinoids and retinoid analogues exert their activities by interacting with nuclear receptors (RARs [retinoic acid receptors] or RXRs [retinoic X receptors]) on cells and by activating genes that contain RARE (retinoic acid response elements) or RXRE (retinoic X response elements) in their promoters (Michel, Jombard, & Démarchez, 1998). Additionally, they can regulate gene expression by inhibiting the activity of other transcription factors, such as AP-1. The AP-1 transcription complex controls the expression of a subset of genes that are expressed early in response to extracellular mitogenic stimuli or to stress. It has been hypothesized that the AP-1 may play a substantial role in the inflammation and immune response (Michel et al., 1998)."

Scientists think retinoids work by binding to specific retinoic acid receptors (RARs) in your skin and activating them. The activation of these receptors results in collagen production and/or skin desquamation, etc. Different receptors do different things when they are activated. Therefore, retinoids improve the way your skin sheds and renews itself by binding to and activating these RARs. Think of them as cell-communicators that tell your skin cells to behave in the best way possible.

Benefits of using retinoids

Long term retinoid use basically "changes" your skin by affecting gene expression and causing new skin cells to divide and function at their best. When used consistently, retinoids can keep your skin clear, even out skin tone, repair sun damage, and prevent pre-mature aging. This skin-changing factor, along with other exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties, make retinoids the gold standard for acne and anti-aging treatments. However, those with clear, wrinkle-free skin can also use retinoids as a preventative measure to help keep skin young and healthy in the long run.

Even though retinoids are great products, they do not work miracles. While they can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and stimulate collagen production in your skin, they cannot completely stop the aging process. Retinoids also come with their fair share of irritation and may not be tolerated by everyone.

Retinoids are available both over-the-counter and via prescription. Stronger retinoids, however, must be prescribed by your dermatologist or medical practitioner. Retinol, retinaldehyde, and tretinoin are all classified as retinoids. To learn more about them and their differences, check here.

Last updated: October 9, 2012

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Types of Retinoids

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