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Some say the A in Vitamin A stands for Anti-Ageing. In terms of its effects on the skin, they’re not far off. But what it really stands for is Retinol. Retinols have long been considered a staple in daily skincare routines. It has a whole range of benefits but needs the most careful consideration through medical guidance. Let’s begin by explaining what Retinol is and how it is made.


What is Retinol?

Retinol provides some important functions in the body. 

  • Helps your body’s natural defences against illness and infection
  • Helps vision in dim light
  • Keeps skin healthy

For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on the skin and what Retinol based ointments can do for you. 


Benefits of Retinol for the skin

  • Helps treat acne
  • Improves fine lines, wrinkles and skin laxity
  • Strengthens the skin barrier, leading to overall skin quality
  • Reduces texture on the skin surface leading to a smoother more refined skin surface
  • Reduces sebum (natural oil made by the skin) production 
  • Redcues dark spots and pigmentation


The Retinol Conversion Cascade

It’s time to get your science caps on, we are about to dive in. Retinols go through a series of conversions by the body and get more active as they progress. The later the stage of the Retinol on its journey of conversion, the more active and thus the more potent. 

Retinols in skincare products vary in which stage they are on. The later the stage means it’s more potent and will require a prescription with a medical assessment. Skincare products that contain Retinols in the earlier stage can be bought over the counter. 

Figure 1: The Retinol Conversion Cascade: The potency and how active the retinol is increases as you move from left to right.

Retinoic Acid

Retinoic acid is at the bottom of the cascade and therefore it requires no conversion. This means it is able to get to work straight away, and be used by the body in its most potent form.  Retinoic Acid in prescription form is the most effective and concentrated preparation available. With good reason, it is hailed the gold standard ingredient for anti-ageing skincare.

Results can be achieved in a smaller space of time following consistent use with Retinoic Acid. My advice would be to take it at your own pace, slow and steady wins the race! Unless it’s a genuine physical race in which case run Forest, run. 

Retinoic acid is a potent drug, and because of it’s potency it had a number of common side effects you should be aware of:

  • irritation
  • redness
  • dryness
  • skin peeling


Retinaldehyde aka Retinal

Really sorry, we don’t make up the names so try to focus and don’t get mixed up.

RetinAl needs to undergo ONE conversion by the body to be available in the active form. Research suggests that retinal is better tolerated by the skin compared to retinoic acid overall. So although slightly less potent, it may be a better option for people with sensitive skin, or those wanting to avoid the side effects often experienced with medical grade Vitamin A.


Again looking at the conversion cascade, retinol needs to undergo TWO conversion steps by the body to be in the active form, retinoic acid. Once converted, it’s recognised and able to be used by the body. Retinol is a common and often an affordable over the counter option, making it an easily accessible option for those wanting to incorporate vitamin A derivatives into their skincare routine.

What do I recommend?

Well I’m an advocate for medical grade skincare and the truth is you’ll get results like no other using Retinoic Acid, it’s a game changer. Efficacy is lost in conversion, but there are the side effects to consider and cost too, so I appreciate it’s not for everyone. Cosmeceutical skincare brands offer a wide variety of over the counter retinoids which are more widely accessible and can provide results with consistent use.

Taking all of that into consideration, stronger doesn’t necessary mean better and it is not a race in terms of building up on strength or formulation. You need to find what works for your skin, take it step by step and enjoy the reverse ageing process!

Products I recommend

Obagi 0.025%, 0.05%, 0.1%. (Only available on prescription)


Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1,3,6,10


SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3

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