Everything you need to know about topical vitamin A.

Nowadays it seems like every face product on the shelf is claiming to have come straight from the fountain of youth. There’s makeup that is “age-defying” and moisturizer that is “age-reducing.” You can walk out of a store not quite sure whether you’ve just purchased a facial serum or a time machine.

In the anti-aging category you'd be hard-pressed to find ingredients more touted than retinols and retinoids. But the question is: Do they really work?

We reached out to doctors and skin experts to have them explain what retinols/retinoids are, what they do, and if they really do make a difference in helping us achieve healthier-looking skin.

What is retinol vs retinoid?

Biba de Sousa, a licensed esthetician located in Beverly Hills with more than fifteen years of experience in the skin care industry, says, “Vitamins are nutrients that are essential to life. They function as co-enzymes and enzymes are activators in the chemical reactions that are continually taking place in our bodies. Vitamins A, C, and E are the 'skin vitamin group.' Retinol is one of the most usable forms of vitamin A. Once oxidized, it becomes retinoic acid.”

Dr. Joyce Park, a dermatology resident in New York City who also runs the skin care/beauty blog Tea with MD, told us that retinol is one of the most usable forms of vitamin A because it absorbs quickly and easily into our skin. Retinoid is much stronger and needs gradual introduction to the skin because of its strength. There is a chance that irritation and peeling may occur because of its potency. Products such as Retin-A, Renova, and Avage are available through prescription only. Park says the topical agents are very effective, citing, “Studies have shown that topical application of retinoids result in new collagen formation and increased epidermal thickness, as well as clinical improvement in wrinkling, dark spots, rough skin, and skin texture.”

She further explained that retinol needs to be converted into retinoic acid to work. Your body can do this conversion, but it takes some time. Retinoids, on the other hand, are already in retinoic acid form, so your body skips that conversion step. For this reason, retinols take a bit longer to see results—but on the upside, they are gentler.

What are the results of retinol/retinoid creams and gels?

De Sousa says, “The effects are diminished signs of aging, such as reduction of pigment and fine lines, smoothing of the skin surface, better exfoliation of the dead skin cells (which assist in combating acne), and increase in dermal thickness and hydration."

Dr. Yelena Yeretsky, a board-certified doctor of medical aesthetics with a practice in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, agreed, saying that “adding retinol into your daily beauty ritual will help even out skin tone. It also increases cell turnover, treats fine lines, and stimulates collagen production. Retinol allows your skin to have a smoother, more youthful appearance.”

She suggests using retinol-based products in the wintertime, as it is a time of healing because you're out of the summer rays. Simply apply a pea-size amount all over your face every other night and slowly build up to nightly as tolerated.

Retinols are not just used as age prevention. Dermatologists frequently prescribe retinols to combat acne in teens and young adults because of the quick cell turnover rate (no time for acne to develop deep in skin). Beyond combating premature wrinkles, retinols are beneficial to use in your late teens and twenties because they aid natural skin exfoliation for an even and glowing skin tone.

While retinols are by no means magical elixirs, the expert consensus is that they do indeed make a difference in refreshing and rejuvenating your skin.

Photo Credit: The Happy Bloom