This article looks at topical retinoids for acne and whether the use of gentler vitamin A derivatives such as retinol and retinaldehyde are an effect addition to a natural acne treatment plan.
What are retinoids?
Retinoinds, such as retinoic acid (a.k.a. tretinoin, Retin-A), retinol, retinaldehydge and retinyl palmitate are a group of vitamin A derivatives that have been shown to unclog pores, boost collagen to reduce fine lines, and speed up cell turnover to help fade hyper pigmentation.
Why are topical vitamin/retinoids so good for clearing acne?
Topical vitamin A has been used successfully to treat acne breakouts for over 40 years. The reason why they’re so effective is because they treat multiple angles of acne formation. Unlike topical ingredients such as Tea Tree and Thyme that work primarily to fight bacteria, topical retinoids unclog pores, reduce inflammation, fade hyper pigmentation, reduce sebum production AND plump out the skin to improve texture. There aren’t many, if any, other ingredients that offer ALL those skin benefits.
Scarring and skin rejuvenation:
Topical retinoids increase our skin cell turnover rate, which helps to reverse UV damage and fade sun spots and post-inflammatory hyper pigmentation. (link)
Keeps pores clear:
Retinoids are effective chemical exfoliators and help the skin shed cells more effectively which prevents pores from becoming clogged. (link)
Read more about the role of clogged pores and acne formation here
Slows down sebum production:
Topical retinoids are able to penetrate deep into the skin and help slow down sebum production by binding to sebocyte receptors. (link)
As you can see from the above, topical retinoids can effectively combat both acne and pigmentation/scarring at the same time! This is one of the reasons I believe that retinoids are an amazing addition to your skin care regime. However, there are certain types of retinoids that I love and highly recommend, and certain types of retinoids that I don’t endorse.
Topical Retinoid Glossary:
Not all forms of vitamin A are created equal. Some are more easily converted to retinoic acid – the magic ingredient that fights acne AND ageing. This is what the typical conversion pathway looks like:
Retinyl palmitate ⇰ Retinol ⇰ Retinaldehyde ⇰ Retinoic acid
Retin A: Retin A is a brand name for topical vitamin A containing active ingredient; tretinoin. Some other brand names of prescription tretinoin include Avita, A-Ret, Renova and Tretin-X.
Tretinoin: Tretinoin is the pharmaceutical form of retinoic acid and comes in topical liquid, cream, and gel. Tretinoin is available only with a doctor’s prescription.
Retinoic Acid: Retinoic acid is derived from retinol and is the key ingredient found in prescriptions that fights ageing and acne. Products containing retinoic acid can only be obtained via a prescription. Nonprescription alternatives (retinol and retinaldehyde) need to be converted into retinoic acid by the skin.
Retinyl Palmitate: Retinyl palmitate is too far removed in the conversion chain and is considered to be too weak and not an effective retinol. Don’t be fooled by brands using this ingredient as their retinoid as you won’t see the results you want. Some brands also use retinyl palmitate in higher quantities and retinol in very minimal quantities so they can market their product containing high levels of retinoids but it won’t actually be formulated with as much retinol as you’re lead to believe. It’s also worth noting that retinyl palmitate is on the list of mildly comedogenic ingredients so definitely worth avoid if you have acne.
Get your free list of pore clogging ingredients in skin care and cosmetics here.
Retinal/Retinaldehyde: Retinal/retinaldehyde It is a relatively new form of retin A that is thought to be more effective than tretinoin, as it’s shown to also have significant antibacterial activity (compared with retinol and retinoic acid) and there are little/zero side effects. Another plus is that it is the immediate and closest precursor to retinoic acid – that magic ingredient used by the body to fight acne and the signs of ageing – meaning that in only needs to go through one conversion to become retinoic acid.
Retinol: Retinol is the most popular derivative of vitamin A used in skin care. Retinol can be converted into retinoic acid but it’s a much slower process, this is why retinol is much safer and gentler on the skin. Products containing retinol can be purchased by anyone and often come in the form of a serum. Retinol needs to go through 2 conversions before it becomes retinoic acid – the key ingredient that fights acne.
Which are the best retinoids for acne?
For me, there’s no question over which type of retinoid is the best! There are lots of studies on retinol and a few recent studies on retinaldehyde that show that despite them both being much gentler alternatives to Retin-A or tretinoin, studies show they’re actually JUST as effective (here, here, here), it may just take a little longer to see the desired results.
These days, clean beauty brands, such as Marie Veronique and MyChelle, are harnessing the incredible skin benefits of topical vitamin A/retinoids for acne in more gentle products and formulating their retinoids with other outstanding natural antioxidants and ingredients that work to repair and nourish your skin in a way that no prescription cream can ever do.
Why I don’t recommend prescribed Retin-A
Retin-A and other Tretonoin based treatments are often touted as miracle workers as they can sometimes work really quickly and some acne patients start seeing results in just a few days. While this may seem tempting to those who are struggling with skin issues, this ‘quick fix’ can often mean the root cause of your acne gets ignored and your healing plan get pushed to one side.
Retin-A has a long list of potential side effects
Some of the side effects that can occur from taking Tretinoin or Retin-A are skin redness, dryness, itching, scaling, mild burning and sometimes the worsening of acne. Experts say that these are just temporary side effects and will decrease as your skin becomes accustomed to the drug. While this may be true, not one part of me believes that this amount of skin irritation is a good thing for our skin or our body.
Topical Retin-A also contains other irritating ingredients
Topical Retin-A, specifically tretinoin, contain other ingredients that can have a negative impact on the skin – particulary isopropyl myristate, polyoxyl 40 stearate and butylated hydroxytoluene which are all known skin irritants. Their full profiles can be found on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.
Topical Retin-A doesn’t contain any skin boosting actives
While you might have been able to get away with stripping your skin with harsh chemicals when you were a teenager, as an adult suffering with acne you have to think seriously about supporting your skin as it ages alongside treating your acne effectively. Retinoids work best when they are combined with other acne-fighting antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, B3 or Green Tea extract – most green beauty products containing gentler retinol or retinaldehyde will include at least one of these actives to further boost the health of your skin.
Retin-A won’t cure your acne for good
As I mentioned earlier, Retin-A/Tretinoin (or any other topical retinoids) aren’t going to heal your skin for good. Why? Because they don’t fix the root cause of your acne! Acne is caused by imbalances within our bodies, most often problems with our hormones or digestive system. Retin-A/tretinoin may clear up your skin, but when you stop using it, it’s likely that your acne will return at full force because you haven’t addressed the root cause. The only way you can say goodbye to acne and be 100% consistently clear, is if you change your diet and lifestyle and heal your body from the inside out.
Although they can really help your acne, I don’t believe you should rely on topical products alone to keep your skin clear. I don’t want you to have the stress and worry hanging over you at the thought of your ‘holy grail’ product running out or being discontinued and your acne coming back with a vengeance.
I want you to be free from the anxiety and pain that comes with acne. I want you to eventually be free from all topical products, contraceptive pills, prescriptions and supplements and not be afraid of acne coming back. For that to be possible, it means nurturing the body to a healthy state where acne simply cannot survive.
Natural, gentler retinoids are much better for your skin long term
I never recommend getting a prescription retinoid/tretinoin cream, but I DO highly recommend using a gentle, natural serum containing gentler retinoids to treat acne and scarring. Gentler retinoids, such as retinol and retinaldehyde, are a much safer and effective way of treating your acne naturally. While these gentler retinoids aren’t a quick and permanent fix for acne, they can keep your pores clear and improve the texture and tone of your skin while you work on fixing your insides and nourishing your body so it can repair itself!
Read more about the role of clogged pores and acne formation here.
Check out my next post on the best natural retinoid serums here and learn why you should be including topical retinoids in your acne clearing regime. Plus, what ingredients you need to look out for, and more importantly, what to avoid when adding a topical retinoid to your natural acne treatment plan.
Peace, Love & Clear Skin