Your Skin Care Cheat Sheet: Retinols and Retinoids

Published in: Product Reviews, Skin Care

Retinoids, rentinol, Retin-A, Renova — you’ve probably heard of them before. They’re members of the growing family of anti-aging products on the market. Their names are similar (and part of that is smart marketing), but have you ever wondered how each one works?

The skinny


All of the above products fall under the umbrella of “vitamin A derivatives.”

The gentlest member of this family is retinol, a vitamin-A derivative commonly found in over-the-counter skin care products like Philosophy’s Help Me Retinol Night Treatment and Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream.


Tretinoin, a retinoid, is retinol’s far stronger, souped-up cousin. It’s available by prescription only. Tretinoin creams like Retin-A and Renova are also referred to as topical retinoids. They’re frequently prescribed to treat acne.

While both Renova and Retin-A contain the same active ingredient, tretinoin, Renova is generally considered the more moisturizing of the two.

Why the fuss?

Healthy, youthful skin is smooth and resilient, supported by collagen and elastin. Skin loses its elasticity and strength as age and environmental damage (sun damage, chemical burns, etc.) occur, and the results are fine lines and wrinkles.

Vitamin-A derivatives have a molecular structure small enough to penetrate skin’s lower levels, where they strengthen and replenish collagen and elastin. Clinical research going back 20 years confirms the anti-aging properties of retinoids like Retin-A and Renova. They’ve been proven to smooth skin, unclog pores, regenerate collagen and may even prevent some types of skin cancer.

(Side note: Your girl *loves* scientific data. I was a biology major in college!)

While not as potent as retinoids, retinols still pack some anti-aging punch. Studies have shown their ability to moisturize, smooth, restore skin tone and color, and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Things to think about when using retinoids or retinols

At night – If you plan to use them at night, apply product after cleansing but prior to moisturizing.

In the morning – If you plan to use them in the morning, add a broad spectrum sunscreen to your regimen because retinoids increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Things to avoid

1. Using too much product. Retinoids, in particular, are capable of burning skin if overused.
2. Using them in conjunction with products containing alpha hydroxy acids or bezoyl peroxide, either of which can reduce the effectiveness of retinoids and cause excessive drying.
3. Over-zealous waxing or exfoliation, which may irritate skin treated with retinoids.

Mark down the date in which you open a tube or jar of any vitamin-A product because they all lose potency over time.

My retinol experiment with Philosophy’s Help Me

I’ve been wanting to get on the vitamin-A train for a while now, but I didn’t want to jump right into the oh-so-potent retinoids.

Philosophy’s Help Me, when used at night, is supposed to minimize the appearance of fine lines and reduce discoloration and surface roughness. It also claims to keep pores clear. Retinol (not retinoid) in the product is encapsulated in a time-release technology Philosophy calls Microsponge, which stabilizes the retinol in the cream, releasing it gradually throughout the night.

For three weeks I used Philosophy’s Help Me Retinol Night Treatment ($45), alternating it with a benzoyl peroxide product every other night.

Here’s what I did on retinol nights:

1. Washed my face wish a gentle cleanser — Philosophy’s Purity Made Simple.
2. Used a small, pea-sized amount of Help Me on my face and neck.
3. Waited a few minutes before applying a layer of moisturizer.

And on benzoyl peroxide nights:

1. Washed my face with Purity Made Simple.
2. Swiped Clinique’s Mild Clarifying toner (contains salicylic acid, a betahydroxy acid) on my face and neck.
3. Waited a few minutes before applying a small amount of DDF’s Benzoyl Peroxide Gel 5% with Tea Tree Oil.
4. After letting the gel dry, I applied moisturizer.

Did this bad boy work?

The combo made my skin really clear, and I could actually see a tiny difference in the visibility of the expression lines on my forehead. I swear they seemed smoother and less visible. Also, the retinol didn’t worsen my naturally dry skin (always a good thing). I was also hoping the product would decrease the intensity of some of my hyperpigmenation spots, but I didn’t really see an improvement in that area (drat!).


I think that as an anti-aging product, Help Me works, but the effect is subtle. I am now convinced that retinoid/retinol products are the way to go when it comes to affordable anti-aging treatments, so after I finish this tube I’m going to visit the dermatologist to check out Renova (a retinoid).

Have any of you used Renova or Retin-A? What did you think of it?

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,



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So far, 43 people have commented on this article. How cool is that?

  1. Glosslizard says:

    No kidding! I majored in Bio too! 🙂

    I’ve been steering clear of the retinols and retinoids because of all the precautions (extra sunscreen, watch the AHA’s, no eyebrow waxing…). But I think I may cave soon because — you’re right! — they have such a large body of evidence supporting the anti-aging effects! If anyone has any recs as to a particularly effective form or product, I’d be very interested!

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Glosslizard,

    Ha! Do you use your science degree? I really don’t. But I do have these weird moments when I’ll hear something on TV or on the radio and I’ll have these cascading moments of biology. The other day I heard the words “xylem” and “phloem” and next thing I know I was in the throes of a plant bio flash back (CAM photosythesis! C4! Photosynthetic chain!), LOL.

  3. Lilan says:

    Thanks for the beauty lesson. This is one science I wish they taught in school! Kudos to my mom for being a bio graduate as well because I would have fallen asleep most days 😉

    Anyway, as much as I feel like I take care of my skin, I don’t really read the ingredients in products. I basically just use whatever makes my skin feel nice. However, as I’m quickly approaching 30, I want to avoid those lines.

    If Philosophy’s Help Me gives subtle results, I wonder if I should be using that to start out or if I should use something a little more potent to further prevent. Any suggestions Karen?

  4. Karen says:

    Hi Lilan,

    I’d probably start with the over the counter stuff first because Revova and Retin-A micro can be drying. Philosophy’s Help Me is kinda pricey so for the budget minded Neutrogena Healthy Skin is another alternative. See how your skin reacts to it first with the over the counter stuff. If you think you can tolerate it and want a stronger option then move onto the prescription stuff. 🙂

  5. PeeChee says:

    I must say after I found your website I’ve been checking it everyday…

    I took Accutane (an oral retinol and a requirement to take BIRTH CONTROL)in college also to obtain a BIO degree. 🙂 It was a blessing for me since it cleared up my acne in less than 3 months. With all the precautions of this Rx, I suffered mild dry eyes and 2 nosebleeds. Come to think of it I took it in the dry summer months (hence the nosebleed incidents) so don’t for get to HYDRATE!! Even if your taking topical Renova or Retin-A.

    I was on the OBAGI system (which requires the use of Rx RETIN-A) years later. I did have a “red-flushed” face the first few weeks but it didn’t bother me. My skin cleared up and skin tone evened out. You really have to avoid going under the sun if your going to use this stuff. Pile on the sunscreen too! I stopped using the Retin-A when I found out I was preggers so a few weeks later I was glad to be able to wax my eyebrows after the alloted time. Bad Move. I say wait a little longer if you can. It ripped my skin off. Retin-A is no joke.

  6. AshB says:

    Hi Karen,

    Great post! It’s worth noting that a lot of products that say they have retinol or have anti-aging effects (and even some that don’t) actually have a weaker form of retinol called retinyl palmitate. For example, I use Murad’s Skin Perfecting line (for my combination skin: cream on my cheeks during winter, and serum all over my face) and while it’s not marketed as an anti-wrinkle product, it is supposed to be anti-aging. I’m in my early twenties, so I actually prefer the milder retinyl palmitate for now, because I find that they do make my skin a little smoother. A lot of drugstore creams have this weaker form, so if you’re looking for serious anti-wrinkle stuff be sure to check the label for actual retinol.

  7. Melissa says:

    Wow! Thanks for the tips! Now that I’ve hit the 30 mark, I need to take a closer look at anti-aging products. The price tag is a major bummer for me. For $45, I would like to see a signifigant difference!

  8. Meghan says:

    Hi Karen! LOVIN’ all of the bio majors!! I’m a wildlife biology major who now works in the life insurance industry. Go figure, huh?

    I have been using an Rx tretinoin for a couple months. While I have notice a huge difference in the brightness and evenness of my skin, I have yet to see a huge differnce in my acne. Which is frustrating, because my acne is the reason I started using it. I don’t have terrible acne, but at almost 30 I’m doing all I can to rid myself of it. Maybe I need a stronger dosage?? I also, thankfully, haven’t experienced any of the extreme dryness or peeling that my doctor warned my occur.

    Thank you so much for such a fantastic blog! It makes my night to come home from work and see that you’ve made a new entry that I can enjoy. It’s kinda like beauty crack! And, I don’t even want to mentioned how much my product collestion has increased since I began reading your reviews! You haven’t led me astray wrong yet!

  9. Karen says:

    Hi PeeChee,

    Glad to see ya here! 🙂 I actually thought of you the other day ’cause I was watching a show on TV and they showed a high school band doing a field show, LOL.

    Anyway I had a friend who used Obagi too; she had great results in the decrease of hyperpigmentation. I don’t know much about the line, but I’ve read that some of the products contain the active ingredient hydroquinoine, which is banned in the EU. She really liked the products though, and was given them by a physician in one of the best dermatology departments in the US.

    And OUCH about your brows! You poor thing!

  10. Karen says:

    Thank you AshB! That is great information. Another side note regarding ingredient lists is that you want to see your active ingredients high at the top, as ingredients are listed in the order of highest to lowest amounts on a label.

  11. Karen says:

    Science majors, I command thee to show yourselves!

    LOL, just kidding Meghan. Wildlife biology, cool! Do you do a lot of field work when you were in school?

    Anyway, I’m sorry about your acne, it really sucks (in fact, my forehead just broke out a few days ago and it looks like the surface of Mars, which is why I haven’t put up any face of the day posts.) What products have you tried, besides the prescription tretinoin? I had two big bouts of acne – the first was when I turned 18, and the only thing that made it go away was Accutane. The second one happened a few years ago (I think it was product related – sadly, it was MAC foundation), and after trying lots of different topical solution benzoyl peroxide finally did the trick.

    Yay, and I’m so glad you enjoy the blog. Thank you again for saying hello and I hope we get to chat again soon. 🙂

  12. Karen says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Yah, I know it’s quite pricey. I’ve heard that Neutrogena Healthy Skin is a good one too though, and it’s just $13.

  13. Lilan says:

    Thanks for the reco, Karen. I’m going to look into it! Neutrogena, here I come..

  14. Mariana says:

    Hi Karen,

    I was a cell biology major and went into medicine. Reading about your flashaback to photosynthesis was a blast from the past! Anyway, thanks for the info; there is so much out there regarding skin care that I feel really behind. Yours was an easy-to-understand synopsis. I’m in my mid 30’s now (eek!) and my skin is still breaking out and has the wonderful combination of aging and acne. Lol, I made it sound worse than it is, but I’m not happy with it!!

    BTW, I am trying to force more water down and am also drinking more tea!

  15. Sandy says:

    Shu Uemura died, aww =( RIP to him. His makeup brand is good!!
    Would you know any products for dark circles =(

  16. Megan says:

    Okay so wow…I have a BS in Biology with a Chemistry minor…LOL amazing…maybe that’s why glosslizard,you and I all have addictions to reality dating shows, and make up (and TJ’s chocolate stars, mac and cheese etc.)…LOL Maybe it all comes down to science. Speaking of which…did you guys ever watch that special the Science of love? It was like a reality dating show where they tried to show that you could use science to match two people up. It was only a one episode special. It was interesting though.

    Anyhow I’ve never used retinols. The thing is… that I know I should probably start thinking about heading that way. The whole preemptive strike thing. I must admit that my skin is looking better than some of my closest friends who are the same age…but I am starting to be able to tell where I’m going to get wrinkles. Like the whole parentheses around the mouth thing…:-( What age is appropriate to start using anti-aging products? 🙂 I must admit I started using the Clinique Zero Gravity Repairwear Lift cream on my neck…but only because after your post about it I remembered there was a relatively large sample of it in a free gift I had gotten in like October. 🙂

  17. Glosslizard says:

    LOL! Xylem and phloem will do that to you!

    I did use my degree for a time. I had a lab job at Chiron in Emeryville after I got out of college. Talk about boring and repetetive! Theory is so much more fun than practice! I quit when I got pregnant and I don’t think I’ll go back to biotech. I’m more interested in applying biology to beauty and doing something like beauty consulting for people with serious and chronic skin issues.

    Also, I don’t know if this would be helpful to anyone else, but I have had great luck treating my breakouts with a 1% Clindamycin topical solution (a topical antibiotic) that I got from my dermatologist. It’s been practically miraculous! I’ve had none of the dryness associated with Retinoid use, and no other side effects to speak of. Of course, it won’t fight wrinkles, but all my zits are gone! 🙂

    Meghan, you’re so right! This blog is beauty crack! And I’m so hooked! 😀

  18. Stacey says:

    Cheat sheets are very important when trying to decide what anti-aging skin care is best for you. I did research before picking the product line I use now. I chose Hydropeptide by Azure Cosmeceuticals. One thing that I was happy about is that their face corrective cream has 11 antioxidants in it. I had read that if a brand has more than a couple antioxidants in it that it will be effective. Plus the same cream has 3 peptides in it. All their products leave my skin feeling clean and smooth. The eye cream is amazing, the first that actually does what is promised. The puffiness is gone and the color under my eyes is getting lighter. I’m very pleased that I did research and chose well.

  19. Karen says:

    You’re welcome, Lilan! Let me know if you like it, I’d love to hear your verdict.

  20. Karen says:

    Hi Mariana,

    What a coincidence, I’m chugging some hot tea right now…ahhhh!

    Acne at any age is stressful, but having it as an adult is hard. I dunno about you, but when I got acne a few years ago I was like, “I can’t freaking believe this! I thought I grew out of this already!” The good thing is though that I think now the medication available (even the over the counter stuff) isn’t as harsh as it was when we were teenagers (I’m 32…remember the late 80s and early 90s where the only stuff around was harsh Oxy10?).

    What do you do in the medical field? Everyone I hung out in college was pre-med (it was like the big thing to do) and VERY STRESSED OUT, ha!

  21. Karen says:

    Hi Sandy,

    Funny you should mention this, ’cause my dark circles have been extra bad lately because of my cold and my regular MAC Select Moisturecover ain’t doing it. Have you heard of Amazing Cosmetics concealer? It’s supposed to be really great. I haven’t tried it myself but I’ve been wanting to after a friend recommended it.

  22. Karen says:

    Hi Megan,

    Wow, look at all ya science nerds coming out the wood work! Let’s all sit down together and synthesize some molecules together, O-Chem style. Okay lets not because I got less than stellar grades in O-Chem!

    I think I did see a snippet of “Science of Love” awhile back. Was it on The Learning Channel?

    As for the age to start anti-aging products, I have to say that the #1 anti-aging product, sunscreen, should be started early and be used consistently. I didn’t start wearing sunscreen daily until college, and I wish wish wish I started earlier in high school. And don’t get me started on the sunscreen on the neck thing, oy!

    I’m starting to notice fine lines too – on my forehead and around my smile.

  23. Karen says:

    Hi Glosslizard,

    Yeah, I had a brief stint in biotech and tis not my cup of tea either. The people I worked with were awesome, but the work itself was as entertaining as a drift wood. ZZZzZZ…

    Clyndamicin – sigh. Unfortch I’m very allergic to it. For the first two weeks it was awesome but after that I developed a weird allergic reaction to it. My face got all swollen (my eyelids were practically shut) and the doctor had to give me a shot with a needle that was so thick and huge it looked like it was meant for a horse. And to make matters worse, the shot went into my booty!

  24. Karen says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, Stacey! I’m looking for a new eye cream so I’ll check those products out. 🙂

  25. Glosslizard says:

    LOL! That pretty much sums it up! 😀

    Such a bummer about the allergy (no pun intended)! That’s just wrong in so many ways!

  26. Megan says:

    LOL I got the O Chem…I had an awesome professor and I loved it.

    So I’m allergic to Clindamycin as well but I’ve never used it topically. They gave it to me after I had my wisdom teeth removed…it was NOT CUTE!!!

    That’s crazy…I mean is science/bio etc. that popular…or is there something about your writing style attracting us all Karen? 🙂 LOL that’s a little crazy…

  27. Karen says:

    I’m guessing it was probably all of the reagents we were exposed to in the fume hood in Chem lab.

    OH GOD! I just had O-chem flashback: “Chair” and “Boat” conformations! Remember those?!?

  28. Mariana says:

    I remember the Oxy10! I also remember completely soaking a cotton ball in Sea Breeze and rubbing it all over my face. Haha! Ahh, the pre-med days; I miss them. I’m a psychiatrist, so you can imagine that life can get pretty crazy at times (no pun intended) : )

  29. Megan says:

    I definitely do remember those chairs and boats…:-) I think I might even still be able to read a gas chromatography readout…there’s the alcohol LOL…

  30. Karen says:


    OH GOD! I remember Sea Breeze too! How about those terrible Buff Puff things, did you ever use those? I had one and now I cringe at the thought of it!

    That’s cool that you are psychiatrist. I think I might need you to stage my makeup intervention … oops, it’s too late. 🙂

  31. Karen says:

    Megan, I totally hated doing those! I vaguely remember the “spikes” being important.

    And LOL, alcohol – sometimes when I drink beer I think about fermentation reactions.

  32. Lea says:

    Wowza, “anti-aging” seems to be a very popular topic, this is my fave as well so I’m gonna have to put my 2-cents in!! I was ready to enter a Physician Assistant Program but had a change of heart (after I’ve taken most of the Biology, Zoology, Chemistry, Anatomy, Physiology, Microbio…silly me). I’m very pleased with my decision so no regrets here.

    Hey Karen (and everyone here),

    I’m in my 30s and I use a line of anti-aging products. 98% of the time I get carded (it’s flattering but to some extent annoying) since I look like I can be 17. Do you know that Mineral Oil is the 2nd leading cause for aging? Read on…

    • Mineral oil is a common ingredient found in 98% of all personal hygiene products, according to USA Today.
    • Mineral oil comes from black crude oil out of the ground and is like plastic wrap on your body; it keeps toxins from escaping and keeps beneficial ingredients from absorbing.
    • Since your skin is the largest organ on your body (and incidentally, the organ most responsible for eliminating toxins next to your liver), it is absolutely necessary for it to be able to breathe and function properly.
    • Companies use it because it is cheap and it is inorganic which allows a product to have a long shelf life. Mineral oil costs $1/gallon where essential oils can cost up to $100/gallon
    Bottom line- if you’re buying skin care products – even the expensive ones- if they have mineral oil in them, it’s a waste of money. Min. oil blocks all the good ingredients from being absorbed into your body.

    Note that I’m not here to sell, in fact I’m not even gonna name names (unless you ask of course). I just want share what I know because they might be some desperate ladies out there just like I once was. I’ll try not to sound like an annoying salesperson here, my job is to educate you, about the company and the products. I started out as a consumer determined to find the safest products for my very sensitive skin. I’m part of a home-based business that specializes in skin products and weight loss. The company was established in 27 years ago in 1980, all products are formulated in Switzerland but made in the USA. Products are sold in US, Canada, Australia, and UK. 3 beliefs: Pure, Safe, and Beneficial. Pure meaning the purest ingredients. Safe meaning it’s safe to use – less than 1 % chemicals. Beneficial meaning IT MUST WORK!! If you’re anything like me (maybe a little skeptical at first), you want to know what makes one company different than what you are currently using or what makes it a better choice than all of the other options out there.

    May I please (pretty please) reveal a very educational lesson was shared with me?

    Skin is an active organ. Our skin is the quickest way to get something into our system. Once something comes into contact with your skin, it can be detected in every organ of your body within 26 seconds. That’s incredible! It’s called the trans-dermal effect, and companies are now taking advantage of this knowledge which is why we’re seeing so many patches on the market birth control patch, smoking patch, heart medication patch and so on.
    So what this tells you is that the choices we make as far as products we use in our daily routines, is more important than you might have thought. Not only does it affect how your skin looks and functions, but it also factors in to improving your overall health throughout the course of your life.

    The Cancer Prevention Coalition recently put out a press release that states: “Mainstream cosmetics and personal hygiene items pose the highest cancer risk exposure to the general public – higher than smoking.” * The greatest risk actually comes from seemingly safe products! So what can you do about this? The best thing to do would be to choose to change the products that you are exposed to most frequently. That is your skin and body care.

  33. Megan says:

    Oh the days of seabreeze… LOL…so how about I always wanted a buffpuff or whatever but my mom wouldn’t let me get them…because she said my skin was too sensitive. Where she was when I was buying the seabreeze who knows? LOL I also remember driving her nuts until she bought me this Naturistics shampoo at walmart when I was like 11 or 12…and I had an allergic reaction to it…it was really cute… LOL…yeah she said I told you so a couple times after that one. 🙂

  34. Karen says:

    Wow, thank Lea! Lots of good info!

  35. Karen says:

    Hi Megan,

    I think that Sea Breeze still might be available for sale, LOL. I dunno what it was about those Buff Puffs that made them so appealing (maybe ’cause they can double as Brillo pads in a pinch). I remember that it hurt like hell on my skin! What was I thinking?

    I don’t remember Naturistics shampoo! I worked the Timotei back in the day …

  36. I used a tretinoin cream prescribed by a dermatologist a couple of months ago. It was for for acne but to help fade scars from adult chicken pox. My scars completely faded, but I did get the idea that the cream was really strong because the derm told me that some people got burning sensation, and in some of the places I used the cream (it was just to be applied on the scars) I first got a huge spot and only after it cleared did the scar start to fade. The interesting part is that the tube of cream cost three euro! All the cosmetic creams on the market probably have much less active ingredients and may cost up to 100 times more!

  37. Karen says:

    Hi Sylvia Scarlett,

    Wow, it’s amazing how well the tretinoin seems to work – and so budget friendly, as well. I got a long way to with my tube but when I’m done I’m going to pay the derm a visit to see what my options are, too. Maybe Renova will be cheaper (and more effective), who knows?

    Thanks for popping by and saying hi! Have a good weekend.

  38. Laura says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thank-you for posting this information it has been very helpful. I was considering a Biology degree in Marine Biology but before heading to University I changed my mind to business haha.

    I was wondering if the Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle Cream would work well for blackheads? I’ve had some pretty deep ones reappearing here and there on my nose and just shows up as red bumps. They are always so irritating and annoying, any advice would be helpful thanks!

  39. holiday says:

    For fighting fine lines and wrinkles, nothing beats retinol. For less than $50, the Somaluxe Stem Cell Moisturizer is the most potent retinol-enhanced cream you can buy – only dermatologists used to sell it – but I found it online. Its a rich cream and its retinol is perfect for my sensitive skin.

  40. Marita says:

    Very interesting! This “Retinol thing” is coming now as a trend to Europe. In my past you have to visit a dermatlogist to get a creme. But nowadays you can just buy online 🙂

    Still true is, it works but you have to be very careful. The sensibility on UV will be weakened and the skin will be thiner. Not what you want in the long run.

    I love the inspiration on your blog!

    Greetings from Germany

    Marita recently posted … Retinol Creme oder Serum als Wunderwaffe gegen Falten?

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