Blog > Acne > 5 Myths of Retinoid: Debunked 

5 Myths of Retinoid: Debunked 

The term retinoid refers to a class of compounds derived from vitamin A, which means that they have structural or functional similarities to this vitamin. There are a number of types and forms of retinoids such as retinol, retinal, granactive retinoid and retinyl esters, which can be naturally derived or synthetic. 

It is no secret that topical retinoids like retinol cream offer several benefits, making it a popular active ingredient in the skincare and beauty industry. Often considered the “gold standard” of actives, retinoids vary in use and efficacy and can range from oral and topical prescription drugs to over-the-counter topicals common in popular beauty products.  

Studies have shown that retinoids stimulate cellular turnover in the skin, boost collagen production, and reduce wrinkles, as well as reduce pigmentation [1]. However, this has since become a double-edged sword, leaving consumers confused about when to use retinoids, what they should do, and how to apply them. 

In this article, we seek the truth behind this viral skincare ingredient and debunk 5 of the most common myths.

What are Retinoids? 

Retinoids are a class of molecules derived from vitamin A and have structural and/or functional similarities to vitamin A [2]. This fat-soluble organic compound and its metabolites are involved in immune function, reproduction, vision, cellular communication, and cell differentiation [3] 

Retinoids influence the proliferation and differentiation of cells. Their biological effects are mediated and regulated by cytosolic binding proteins and cell nuclear hormone receptors. Retinoids are nowadays used in the treatment of a wide range of dermatological skin conditions like acne, photodamage, hyperpigmentation and even oily skin [4] 

Natural topical retinoids commonly used for medical and cosmetic purposes include retinol and the more potent metabolite, retinaldehyde. Synthetic variants, including adapalene, tazarotene, and trifarotene, interact with the same cellular processes as their naturally occurring counterparts. [5]. 


Related Article: Retinoid vs retinol - What’s the difference 

retinol retinoids vitamin a serum

Retinoid Myths Debunked  

1. Myth: All Retinoids are the Same   

Retinoids are in fact a large group of compounds derived from vitamin A and several of its natural derivatives are retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and retinyl esters. Synthetic derivates of retinoids are also available. Retinoids are available for use in several forms, ranging from over-the-counter (OTC) versions to prescription formulations for topical or oral use. 

OTC retinoids are typically milder concentrations and used for oil control, reducing inflammation, unclogging pores, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, and regulating the growth of new cells on the surface of the skin. 

More potent forms may help in treating skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, and hyperpigmentation. However, stronger forms of retinoids may likely cause irritation. In essence, they are classified as per their potency which in turn depends on the number of steps required for the body to convert before finally becoming active. Every additional step of conversion decreases the strength of the compound. 

OTC (Over-the-Counter)/Non-prescriptive Retinoids 


Type of Retinoid

What it Does

OTC (Over-the-counter)

Retinoid esters 

(retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate)  

Retinyl esters are the least potent form of go through three steps to convert into retinoic acid on the skin. First converting to retinol, and then retinaldehyde, before finally becoming active.  


While they may be the weakest form of retinoids, with consistent use, they can still help address a number of skin concerns like lines and wrinkles, uneven texture and tone, and milder forms of acne. 

OTC (Over-the-counter)


Retinol is arguably the most popular form of retinoid.  

This yellow fat-soluble, antioxidant vitamin necessary for vision and bone development, helps in neutralizing the free radicals. Retinol offers anti-aging benefits such as minimizing the appearance of wrinkles and enlarged pores. 


Conversion of retinol into retinoic acid is a two-step process. First, it converts into retinaldehyde, making it more effective than retinyl esters. 

OTC (Over-the-counter)


(commonly known as Differin)   

It is a third-generation synthetic retinoid with relatively less side effects compared to tretinoin which is a first-generation retinoid.  


Adapalene prevents the formation of micro comedones apart from penetrating the hair follicles when applied topically. It is considered a suitable treatment for acne because it desensitizes the skin to inflammation.   

Medical-grade/Prescriptive Retinoids 


Type of Retinoid

What it Does

Prescription Only  

Retinoic acid 

(retin-A or tretinoin)  

Retinoic acid is the most potent form and is available only via a doctor's prescription. Being the endpoint molecule that is biologically active on the skin, retinoic acid is the strongest retinoid.  


As it is already active and does not need to be converted on the skin, it works its cellular renewal and repair right away. 


Retinoic acid treatments can address more severe skin conditions like acute or chronic acne. This is in addition to helping improve upon the signs of aging, hyperpigmentation, and melasma. 

Prescription Only  


(also known as Acnotin / Accutane)  

Isotretinoin is the oral form of retinoic acid and the most potent of all. Thus, it is often reserved for the more severe and resistant forms of acne.  


When taken orally, isotretinoin permanently reduces the size and production capability of the oil glands. As it is a much more potent form of retinoid, side effects include dry skin, eyes, nose, and lips. 

2. Myth: Retinoids thin the skin  

This myth became popular because peeling is one of the common side effects noticed when starting on retinoids. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not thin your skin with prolonged use. On the contrary, retinoids help thicken the skin because they increase cell turnover and boost collagen production.  

What retinoids work to do is slightly reduce the outer dead layer of the stratum corneum. This tends to thicken due to age and damage caused by the sun. Retinoids also have a beneficial effect on the epidermis and dermis. 

They help to thicken the skin by generating healthy cells and removing the unhealthy ones, repairing the DNA damaged by UV rays. This results in the improvement of microvascular circulation, and building collagen. 

dry skin flaking skin peeling skin flakes

3. Myth: Retinoids work by Exfoliating the Skin   

As peeling, irritation, and redness of the skin are common initial retinoid side effects, many people confuse them with exfoliants. The truth is that retinoids do not exfoliate the skin. In fact, the mechanisms of retinoids and exfoliants significantly differ from each other.   

Retinoids work to boost the production of healthy cells, thus adding to the skin’s strength, while exfoliants are meant to rupture the bonds between the cells leading to the shedding of cells in the top layers of the skin. 

4. Myth: Retinoids make you more sensitive to the sun  

This mistaken belief arises from the fact that retinoids break down when exposed to sunlight.

Since this makes the retinoids unstable and reduces their impact, retinoids are generally recommended for use during the nighttime. As a result, many people mistakenly assume that their skin will acquire sun sensitivity due to retinoid usage.  

However, studies have shown that retinoids do not raise sunburn risks and the apparently low incidence of photosensitivity suggests that it is a misconception [6]. 

sunlight sun exposure photosensitive

5. Myth: Retinoids Deliver Instant Results  

With retinoids, it’s more a case of ‘slow and steady wins the race’ rather than overnight results. Retinoids take several weeks before you notice substantial improvements in your skin. This is more so in the case of retinoid treatments for acne or addressing uneven skin texture. For pigmentation issues, the waiting period for results to manifest could be even longer.  

What are the Side Effects of Retinoids?   

It is possible to experience some unpleasant side effects from retinoids, despite their many benefits against acne, pigmentation, aging, and sun damage.   

The most common side effects associated with retinoid usage include:   

  • Skin peeling  

  • Redness of the skin   

  • Skin irritation   

  • Dryness of skin   

  • Sun sensitivity   

  • Dry eyes, lips and mouth   

Similarly, some rare but more serious side effects, due to retinoid toxicity that you could experience especially when using oral isotretinoin are fetal abnormalities.  

Retinoids are best avoided for pregnant and lactating women as vitamin A being a lipid-soluble compound can be absorbed into the body through the skin, posing risks to the growing fetus.   

While serious side effects are a rare occurrence, potent retinoids are to be prescribed and taken under a doctor’s guidance.   

Key Takeaways 

Whether you’re struggling with acne or pigmentation concerns, a retinoid-based skincare product could be a “game-changer” in your skincare routine. However, it is important to note that OTC retinoid-based products will not only take its time to produce results, but it might not be effective enough for people who struggle from severe acne or have pigmentation that sits in the deeper layers of the skin.  

Speak to our doctors to find out more on how you can incorporate retinoids into your routine for acne treatment and pigmentation removal.