What Are the Different Forms of Retinoids?

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Retinoids are the gold standard of anti-aging in skin care. As Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, once said in an interview, “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.” But there are actually a few different forms of retinoids out on the market (with some being more effective than others.) Here are some of the most popular forms that are available to consumers.

Retinyl Palmitate


Retinyl Palmitate is a combination of pure retinol and palmitic acid (a substance typically used in cosmetics as a cleansing agent), and so it must be converted to retinaldehyde and then all-trans retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective. Retinyl palmitate is the weakest form of retinoid, but, when present in sufficiently high concentrations it displays results similar to that of retinol. The problem with retinyl palmitate is two-fold. First of all, you’re getting retinol that is bound to a fatty acid. So each percentage (or portion of a percentage) you’re getting of retinol is actually significantly more weighty, bulky fatty acid. The second problem with retinyl palmitate is that you never get the concentration listed anywhere. It’s true that it’s illegal in the US to put concentrations with percentages on labels for a myriad of reasons meant to protect people — that’s why Skinceuticals’ is Skinceuticals Retinol 0.5 and not 0.5%, and why FutureDerm’s is FutureDerm Time-Release Retinol 0.5, not 0.5%. But many brands will still let you know what’s in their stuff by putting it on their websites and marketing materials. Yet you’ll never see this with retinyl palmitate. And if you did it’d have to be something like “Retinyl Palmitate 2.5” to have the same efficacy as Retinol 0.5.

You can find this form of retinoid in many drugstore retinol serums like the Boots No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum ($23.99, Amazon.com), and also in higher end products like Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair.


FutureDerm Time Release Retinol 0.5

Retinol is the most popular form of retinoid and is present in many anti aging skincare product (including our own Time-Release Retinol 0.5 serum). It is a potent anti-aging ingredient, which deactivates the matrix metalloproteinases that break down collagen, increases cell turnover, and improves skin’s moisture retention. According to experts cited in this article, retinol should be used at night only, in small quantity (a pea-size amount to make a thin layer on your face) after cleansing, and NOT in conjunction with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Retinol also should be used in conjunction with sunscreen every morning, as retinoids/retinol make your skin more photosensitive (sensitive to the sun). Most experts recommend using retinol products once every 2-3 nights at first for the first 2-3 weeks.

Side effects of retinol include skin irritation, desquamation, and redness. In addition, use of vitamin A derivatives has been associated with birth defects, and so it is advisable for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or those who may become pregnant to avoid use of retinol. According to Dr. Baumann, retinol should be present in concentrations of at least 0.04% to 0.07% and packaged properly (to avoid oxidation)



Tretinoin or all-trans retinoic acid is a lipid-soluble molecule that possesses an acidic component (specifically a carboxylic acid group) at one end and a lipid-soluble component (specifically a beta-ionone ring) at the other, with a long polyunsatured carbon chain linking the two. Tretinoin is fantastic because it can address acne and photodamage, which is a rare quality. Tied with hydroxy acids, it is my most recommended ingredient because of this unique duality. It’s worth mentioning that Tretinoin is the only chemical to date to receive FDA approval for anti-aging and anti-sun damage properties.

Tretinoin is one of the strongest retinoids and can be found in many prescription strength treatments like Retin-A and Renova. You can read more about those different mediations here.
Other, less common, forms of retinoids include; Adapalene, Tazarotene, and Isotretinoin. These are primarily found in prescription medications as opposed to over the counter cosmetic products. Again, retinoids are one of my essential skincare ingredients and it’s important to start using them as early as age 21 to help your skin with aging as well as fighting acne.

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Nicki Zevola is the founder and editor-in-chief of FutureDerm.com. Named one of the top 30 beauty bloggers in the world by Konector.com since 2009, Nicki