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A marathon is a run that is called a race over a royal distance: 42.195 kilometers. This uneven number is related to the 1908 London Olympics. At that time, the route was extended by 2195 meters so that the children of the royal family could follow the competition, and it remains so today. Sprints, on the other hand, take place over a short distance, in which the most important stage is not the run itself, but a proper start and finish. Retinoids are cosmetic ingredients in a treatment that is a marathon, not a sprint. Is it worth the effort to introduce them into your skin care routine?


What are retinoids?

Vitamins are ingredients essential for proper functioning discovered by the eminent Polish scientist Kazimierz Funk. Already in the etymology of the word hides their uniqueness: from the Latin words vita means life and amine a chemical compound that contains an amino group. These “life-giving amines” include vitamin A, which: helps in the production of rhodopsin – a substance responsible for proper vision, keeps the skin in good condition and affects the growth of the body’s cells. It is fat-soluble and includes a group of compounds that are structurally similar but chemically different. They are divided into two groups:

-Retinoids – biologically active vitamin A,

-Carotenoids – provitamin A


Going further, three generations of retinoids are distinguished:

-1st generation – non-selective acting retinol, retinal, tretinoin, isotretinoin,

-2nd generation – monoaromatic retinoids, these are synthetic analogs of vitamin A (etretinate, acitretinate, which are used mainly in the treatment of psoriasis),

-3rd generation – polyaromatic retinoids, are characterized by selective receptor activity (adapalene, tazarotene).

According to two nomenclature committees, IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) and IUBMB (International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), retinoids are compounds containing four isoprene units, which arrange in a head-and-tail chemical structure.


Discovery of retinoids

The medicine of ancient Egypt, Greece and the Middle Ages had already demonstrated the effectiveness of using animal liver (where most vitamin A is found) to treat night blindness. Vitamin A was first obtained from whale liver in 1934. Research into deficiencies of this vitamin undoubtedly contributed to the discovery of retinoids. Albert M. Kligman is a pioneer of many treatments for acne and skin problems. He is the first dermatologist to explain the correlation between sun exposure and skin aging. He and James Fulton discovered tretinoin in 1969, which Johnson & Johnson marketed under the brand name Retin-A as a treatment for acne. In 1971, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved tretinoin as a drug to treat acne. Women who used Retin-A observed that the quality of their skin also improved: it was firmer and wrinkles were less visible. Kligman undertook another study, the results of which were published in 1986. They showed that topical application of 0.05% of this retinoid slows down photoaging. Extensive research and practical application of tretinoin in the treatment of photoaging resulted in the development of retinoids with cosmetic effects such as retinol, retinal, retinyl palmitate (this is the inactive form, it does not convert to retinoic acid).


How do retinoids work?

One of the mechanisms of action of retinoids is the regulation of the epidermal renewal cycle. The skin consists of three layers: epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous tissue. It takes roughly 28 days for the epidermis to “replace” cells with new ones. The speed of this renewal decreases with age, and this is where retinoids, among other things, come to the rescue. When we use a product with retinol or retinal the appropriate enzymes in our skin convert these two forms to the active form, retinoic acid:



Retinol is 20 times weaker than retinoic acid. As you can see above in the diagram, it needs two oxidation processes to convert to retinoic acid.  Retinal, on the other hand, needs one such transformation. This results in less loss and faster action. In vitro studies have also shown that retinal is the only retinoid with antimicrobial activity (in vivo studies have shown such an effect at 0.05%). This is partly due to the presence of an aldehyde group in the isoprene side chain. It also has less irritant potential, so it will work well for people with sensitive and vascular skin. Retinol is a fat-soluble ingredient. It penetrates the stratum corneum. Once it reaches the keratinocyte, it penetrates and binds to the appropriate receptor (there are four groups of receptors with high affinity for retinol). This interaction promotes keratinocyte proliferation, enhances the protective function of the epidermis, reduces transepidermal water escape, protects collagen from degradation and inhibits the activity of metalloproteinases responsible for the degradation of the extracellular matrix. As already mentioned, retinoids are a marathon, not a sprint. They work slowly, gradually and undoubtedly require patience. When using them, one has to reckon with increased skin sensitivity, symptoms of irritation such as redness, dry skin or flaky skin. Studies have shown that 85% of the population experience skin irritation when using prescription retinoids. When introducing a cosmetic with retinoids, one can use short-contact therapy, which involves applying the product as a mask for a maximum of 30 minutes, and then washing it off (using a gentle facial cleanser). Studies show that this period of time is sufficient for them to work. Retinoids make the skin more sensitive to the sun and more susceptible to damage, proper sun protection is of utmost importance.


There are no others like it

Retinoids are among the most lauded cosmetic ingredients, with the best documented anti-aging effects. They are effective against acne, hyperpigmentation and unparalleled when it comes to slowing down the aging process. They are a true cosmetic superhero forming a pillar in skin care that works wonders.


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