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Understanding Retinoids & Retinol Skin Care

Vitamin A is the secret of healthy, attractive skin

To enjoy a healthy and happy life, your body requires adequate quantities of vitamin A. As vitamin A has a crucial connection to healthy vision. We are taught pretty early in life that a shortage of vitamin A in our bodies causes vision deficiency, especially night blindness. Remember the carrots that your parents insisted you finish if you wanted to avoid eyeglasses as a child? 

Well, vitamin A is necessary for our bodies in many more ways. It helps your body’s immune system and other organs to function normally. Vitamin A also plays a vital role in the health and appearance of your skin. Especially as you cross your 20s and progress towards middle age, your skin will start to produce less collagen. The loss of collagen and elastin leads to wrinkle formation, and the skin will become thinner and drier. The effects will also become more noticeable after several years. Vitamin A derivatives such as retinoids can help your skin stay healthy and youthful in appearance at this juncture. 

History of Vitamin A derivatives

Vitamin A derivatives for skincare have been around for quite a long time now. In fact, the US FDA had approved topical and oral retinoids as prescription medications for skin conditions such as acne, fine lines, and wrinkles as early as 1971. Scientists soon discovered the anti-ageing properties of retinoids, such as improving skin tone, and reducing fine lines and wrinkles . It achieves results by inducing quicker turnover of the surface skin cells and boosting collagen production. Retinol, a type of retinoid, has also received clearances as an over-the-counter topical medication to reduce pigmentationactive acnemild acne scarsand improve skin texture and tone.   , a type of retinoid, has also received clearances as an over-the-counter topical medication for reducing pigmentationactive acnemild acne scarsimproving skin texture and tone.    

Today, the term "retinoids" is a catch-all for an array of vitamin A-based products used on skin. Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds that share the same structure as vitamin A. They can be natural or synthetic and include many forms, such as retinol, retinal, and retinyl esters. For acne treatment, mild forms of retinoids such as adapalene come in both prescription and over-the-counter formulations. For a higher concentration of retinoic acid such as tretinoin, tazarotene, and trifarotene are topical formulations available by prescription for acne. Isotretinoin is an oral medication available by prescription only for severe acne. 

Types of Vitamin A derivatives 

Provitamin A compounds

Also known as carotenoids, they are an inactive form of the vitamin and cannot be absorbed directly by your body. In order to use provitamin compounds, your body has to convert them first into their active forms. Typical provitamin A compounds include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Provitamin A is available in plant sources such as carrots and apples.  

Preformed vitamin A compounds

Better known as retinoids, they are derived from animal sources and can be absorbed directly by your body. This class of Vitamin A compounds includes products such as retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid. Preformed vitamin A is available in animal products such as chicken, fish, meat, and dairy. 

How do vitamin A derivatives work on your skin?   

When applied to the skin surface, they get transformed to retinoic acid. Thereafter, retinoic acid repairs the effects of acne or photo-ageing. By effectively attaching itself to receptors on the cell membranes and impacting the production of sebum, the retinoic acid works on improving the skin condition. The efficacy of retinoids broadly depends upon two factors – their concentration levels and stability. 

Understanding Retinoids  

‘Retinoids’ are an umbrella term denoting a range of skin products based on vitamin A-derivatives. Retinoids are a class of compounds whose chemical structure resembles vitamin A and are available in natural and artificial forms. Retinal, retinol, and retinyl esters are some of the popular forms of retinoids used in skincare treatments. The difference between these different types of retinoids lies in the number of steps involved in their conversion to retinoic acid. The greater the number of steps retinoid requires for transformation, the more time it takes, resulting in proportionate loss of efficiency. Conversion of retinal or retinaldehyde to retinoic acid involves just one step, while retinol requires two steps, and retinal esters complete the process in three stages.  

Milder forms of retinoids such as adapalene are used for treating acne. Adapalene is available either as a prescription or over-the-counter medications. In topical formulations for treating acne, you also have more potent versions of retinoic acids, such as tretinoin, tazarotene, and trifarotene. These formulations are available only by prescription. In severe cases of acne, doctors often prescribe isotretinoin, to be used as an oral medication.    

What is Retinol?   

Retinol is probably the most popular form of vitamin A that can be purchased as an over-the-counter product as it contains lower strength than retinoic acid, making it safe to use. Although there are other derivatives of vitamin A, the relative speed at which it converts to retinoic acid makes retinol a favourite in skin treatments. Its speedier conversion to retinoic acid helps retinol retain efficacy better. This means your skin benefits more from the application of retinol. Retinol, also known as Vitamin A1, is reputed to cure skin conditions such as acne, reduce the impact of ageing on the skin, and improve skin firmness. 

" Not all retinoids are the same."

When shopping for retinol products, you could end up confused over the wide array of anti-ageing formulations claiming to be retinoid-based. However, not all of them need to be retinol-based because other retinoids like retinyl palmitate are the weakest of retinoids. A slightly stronger variant called retinaldehyde, and adapalene, the strongest over-the-counter retinoid formulated specifically for treating acne. Whatever be your skin condition and the level of treatment it requires, taking a medical practitioner’s guidance is always a safe bet.

Retinoid vs Retinol – What is the difference?

As derivatives of vitamin A, both retinoids and retinol are dependable allies in the efforts to give a fresh lease of life to your skin. They both deliver the same benefits, but the rate of improvement might differ based on the concentration of the retinoic acid. In this case, it might take a little longer to see your results from retinol as it contains a weaker form of vitamin A. 


As a class of medications, they are stronger and fast-acting. They are commonly prescribed by doctors and are generally recommended for adults with high tolerance levels or suffering from issues such as severe acne, adult-acne, and ageing-related issues.    

Some pointers to keep in mind about retinoid use - 

  1. Prescription retinoids are potentially dangerous for foetuses and young babies. Therefore, pregnant and nursing women should avoid the use of these products.   
  2. Products containing retinoids must be used at night-time only. During the day, sunscreen (SPF30 and above) is recommended when you step outdoors.   
  3. Avoid the combination use of benzoyl peroxide products because it may lead to photosensitivity. 


Products are easier to obtain, more generic in nature, milder, and therefore, considered generally safe enough to self-medicate. They are suitable for adolescents, and people with less tolerance levels, mild cases of acne, or minimal skin damage due to photo-ageing.    

While shopping for retinol products, it helps to keep these pointers in mind -   

  1. Choose products that are in capsule form as they are better protected from degradation.    
  2. Opt for products with retinol concentrations that are high enough to actually work on your skin. 
  3. Avoid products that contain vitamin esters such as retinyl palmitate as it has been found to increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun and causing the skin to be more susceptible to sun damage. 
  4. Avoid products that contain skin irritants such as parabens and sodium benzoate that are usually added as preservatives. 

Why do you need a prescription for retinoid products? 

Due to their higher concentration levels and the risk that can arise out of improper use, retinoids need to be handled with care and professional precision. Misuse or improper selection of retinoid products can leave the skin even more damaged. Retinoid treatment for your skin problems must be taken under the guidance of a medical practitioner who is trained and experienced. Remember, a medical prescription is mandatory for obtaining retinoid products. 

Doctors can help as they know your skin better. 

Remember, your doctor knows best. Take the time off for a consultation with a qualified aesthetic medical practitioner. Following a thorough evaluation and diagnosis of your skin condition, the doctor will hand-hold you through the treatment process. By prescribing the appropriate medication or treatment to ensure you receive the optimal benefits for your skin to regain its original plump, spotless look. 

Dr Kenneth Thean graduated with MBBS (Singapore) in 1981. In 1986, he obtained his post-graduate Fellowships of both the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians of Glasgow. Prior to starting Ensoul Medical Clinic, he was formerly responsible for starting Singapore’s National Skin Center as their founder Administrator.

He later developed a strong interest in aesthetics and decided to build a solid foundation in aesthetics medicine through attending training and mentorship programs worldwide with knowledgeable and experienced aesthetic physicians from Korea, USA, South America, Europe, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, and, of course Singapore.

With a dedication to concentrating on treating complex skin problems such as pigmentation, acne, scars, eczema, and skin laxity, Dr Thean had spent many hours learning and improving his knowledge of lasers and other energy-based devices, both locally and overseas.