Retin A, Retinoids, Retinol & Vitamin A Creams

Posted by Audrey Kunin, MD There have been 12 comment(s)

Retinol, Retinoids and Rejuvenation

Retin A was developed more than 30 years ago as an acne treatment. It's actually a twisted form of the Vitamin A molecule. Dermatologists prescribe it not just for acne but for a wide variety of other skin concerns that respond to exfoliating agents and "keratolytics" (a product that removes a plug out of a hair follicle or sweat gland. Since then a wide range of prescription molecules have been developed as well as their cosmetic counterparts.


Exactly what does vitamin A do? By its very nature, vitamin A causes drying of the skin and exfoliation. A bevy of prescription and OTC vitamin A topical preparations make use of this side effect to treat a variety of skin concerns.

The term Retinoid refers to any Vitamin A based molecule. It's a category, similar to saying antibiotic. They may be related, but some are stronger and more effective than others.

A retinoid has the ability to help unplug pores, even out skin discoloration, restore vibrancy to the complexion, reduce oiliness, treat skin concerns such as acne and psoriasis (the rx versions) and improve the appearance of fine wrinkles.

Topical Vitamin A has also been suggested to help build collagen fibers within the dermis helping restore elasticity and further improve fine lines.


Having trouble trying to figure out what all of the various names and strengths of prescription vitamin A creams on the market? While Retin A is undoubtedly the most widely recognized brand name, in recent years, the active molecule tretinoin, has been marketed under a variety of names (Retin A, Avita, Atralin Renova), some with different uses. Other retinoids which have come to market include Tazarotene (Tazorac and Avage) along with Adapalene (Differin). Some are mixed with other ingredients such as Ziana (tretinoin plus antibiotic clindamycin) and Tri-Luma (tretinoin with skin bleaching hydroquinone and steroid fluocinolone). Future prescription retinoids found outside the U.S. not yet approved include topical versions of Isotretinoin (Isotrex and Isotrexin).

Cosmeceutical retinoids include (in descending level of effectiveness) Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate and HPR (Hydroxypinnacolone Retinoate).


The use of these prescription retinoids can have side effects you won't like if you don't listen to the doctor's instructions as well pay close attention to what your skin is telling you.

Surprisingly, Vitamin A cosmeceuticals such as retinol and retinyl palmitate (usually used for skin rejuvenation) counterparts are thought to be mild and irritation-free. This could not be further from the truth. You typically need to approach and use all topical vitamin A products in a similar manner unless directed not to do so.

What to watch for

  • Redness
  • Burning/Stinging
  • Peeling/Exfoliation
  • Increased Sunburn Potential

This is actually why I created DERMAdoctor Poetry in Lotion 1% Retinol. This patent pending formulation contains a hydrating, calming anti-irritant base.

I have personally found my own set of directions very useful particularly for patients just starting out with a topical vitamin A product. This helps mitigate the irritation, dryness, redness, etc., that can develop early on and help keep patients motivated to continue using their products. This applies to stronger levels of retinol as well as prescription agents. As for the fear of using a topical Vitamin A product during the summertime. Applying such a product does not mean your skin will burn to a crisp if you go outdoors. It is certainly important that you wear a sunscreen daily (oil-free if you're acne prone) and pay attention to how much sun you're getting. But it doesn't mean just because it's summer you MUST give up your Retin A, etc. If you use a little common sense and a lot of sunscreen, you are unlikely to have problems. If you do have sunburn concerns, then consider a non-vitamin A product such as DERMAdoctor Photodynamic Therapy 3-in-1 facial lotion with broad spectrum spf 30 for your skin rejuvenation during the summertime.

How To Apply Your Product

  • Start out using your product EVERY OTHER NIGHT
  • Wash your face (or other area of treatment)
  • Wait 20-30 minutes
  • Apply a PEA sized amount of cream to your finger
  • Dab the cream/gel around the area to be treated and rub it in well
  • Wash off your hands
  • Keep your product out of your eyes
  • If you are treating wrinkles around the eyes, you may apply the product under the eyes and to the crow's feet areas. Avoid applying products to the upper eyelids with the exception of DERMAdoctor Wrinkle Revenge eye balm.

Secret tip: water bonds with any retinoid and makes it more likely to cause irritation. What’s the #1 ingredient in any skincare product you could ever choose? That’s right, water. Retinoids are always a solo act. Never layer a moisturizer, night cream or anything else you can think of with it. On the off nights and during the day, feel free to use other skincare treatments.

All Retinoids, prescription and cosmetic exfoliate the skin, increasing sunburn potential. Exercise caution and wear a broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen daily!

There is no question in my mind that the day tretinoin became a "proven" wrinkle treatment that the true medical/cosmeceutical search for the fountain of youth began. And to think it all started with an acne cream!

If you find yourself using a topical vitamin A product every other night, particularly if you are experiencing any flaking, the use of a glycolic acid product on the off nights such as DERMAdoctor Litmus Test glycolic acid facial moisturizer is helpful for maximizing your skin rejuvenation results as well as controlling the flaking.

Finally, Vitamin A creams in general are not to be used during pregnancy or while nursing. From a pregnancy purist’s standpoint, cosmetic retinoids should typically be avoided as well. Should you find yourself unexpectedly expecting, don’t panic. Simply stop use and discuss with your Ob-Gyn.

Topical Vitamin A is here to stay! Enjoy the many wonderful options and use them wisely and in good skin health!

Thank you for taking the time to read my newsletter. As always, I hope you have found it informative.

Audrey Kunin, M.D.

This content is sponsored by DERMAdoctor. The author receives compensation for its creation. All content is the legal copyright of DERMAdoctor, Inc, and it may not be used, reprinted, or published without written consent.

The information provided is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended to provide medical, legal or other professional advice.

This post was posted in Articles, Exfoliation, Discoloration, Rejuvenation, Milia, Pores, Anti-Aging and was tagged with eyes, anti-aging, rejuvenation, wrinkles, vitamin A, retinoids

12 Responses to Retin A, Retinoids, Retinol & Vitamin A Creams

  • Polly says:

    I've just started using Poetry in Lotion and I've never used a retinol product before. For how long should I use it? A month, a year, forever?

    Can I/should I use an antioxidant serum during the day while using the Poetry in Lotion?

    Thank you.

    Posted on January 6 at 1:38 pm

  • I am 65 years old. I have always had nice skin but now seeing fine line around my eyes and mouth. My skin tone isn't the same anymore and I am noticing my pores. I have tried many brands and have not had any results. I am looking for a treatment for my skin so I can avoid the lines, pores and dryness to get worse.

    Can you recommend what creams within your products I should use.


    Posted on January 4 at 12:15 pm

  • Marg says:

    Would like to start using a vitamin a cream could u tell me what to get

    Posted on January 3 at 10:29 pm

  • Iorek says:

    Dermadoctor's product "Bodyguard" doesn't state that it is broad-spectrum. Is it?

    Posted on July 8 at 7:27 pm

  • Becky says:

    I am looking for products to help with milia. I was prescribed Tazorac at one point, and it helped somewhat, but it was painfully drying so I was unable to use in regularly enough to really make a difference. I am now unable to have any retinoids covered by my insurance because of my age-I am 31, and am wondering if there are any OTC products that can help? I also have large pores and blackheads on and around my nose and chin, occasional pimples, and red, rough(er), uneven skin. Do you have any suggestions?

    Posted on May 28 at 8:54 am

  • Joseph says:


    I'm using Retin-A Micro, predominantly for acne. Do you still advise waiting between 20 and 30 minutes to apply the product even though the package insert doesn't specify that?


    Posted on May 17 at 5:56 pm

  • KP Duty body scrub has saved my life. For the first time in years my skin feels like a new born baby's. I cannot recommend this product highly enough. Thank you so much and I am so glad I found you.

    Posted on May 2 at 10:04 am

  • Dr. Kunin,

    Your recommendation to use my RetinA without using a moisturizer first makes sense because of the water content & irritation. It does however, contradict the blog I read for Dr. Cynthia Bailey. She recommended putting your moisturizer and wait at least 30 minutes and when you are going to sleep that you then apply your RetinA. I have fine lines and wrinkles that I would like to fade, what are your thoughts?
    Thanks for your insight,

    Posted on April 25 at 8:56 pm

  • summer says:

    Dear Dr,

    Im 45 year old and been having personal problems lately and to my surprise in just 3 months I noticed I aged so neck became too wrinkled and my face became so dry and fine lines suddenly appeared. Is it advisable to use Retin A on my neck too as thats the only retinoid available here over the counter.Im from Philippines.
    Thank you,Dr and more power!

    Posted on April 18 at 11:31 am

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