Guide to Retinoids

So you’ve heard of retinoids and you want to see if it’ll work for you. But before loading up on this new drug, it’s important to be sure whether it’s safe, or whether it’ll even work for you. This quick guide helps you know the basics.
Guide to Retinoids

Skin products can be as fickle as fashion: there’s always some hot new product on the shelves, something new to try. These days, retinoids—synthetic compounds derived from vitamin A—are getting most of the buzz. Used to treat everything from acne to skin cancer, it has come up in a number of forms and several brand names. The most common brands are Accutane, Soriatane, Retin-A, and Differin.

But how effective are retinoids? Are they really the cure-all for skin problems, as some claim they are, or are they just another passing trend? As with any medication, it’s important to get your doctor’s advice before taking any supplements. Here’s the lowdown on retinoids, what they can do, and whether they will work for you.

Types of retinoids

Retinoids can be taken orally (as pills or capsules) or externally (as creams or gels). Oral retinoids are usually taken for chronic conditions such as recurring acne and psoriasis. Most of them require prescriptions, as they come in large doses and must be taken in regulation. Common oral retinoids include Accutane and Soriatane.

Topical retinoids are more popular. They are applied directly onto the skin or affected area, such as pimples, sores, and wrinkles. Most of them are available over the counter, except for a few high-grade ones used for severe skin problems.

How they work

Retinoids prevent the blocking of pores—the main cause of most skin problems—by binding to receptors inside your skin cells. This makes the skin’s composition less sticky, making it less likely to cause a blockage. Since the skin becomes finer, inflammatory lesions such as pimples, comedones and sores heal faster and don’t multiply.

Retinoids also help slough off the dead skin cells that cause the wrinkles and discolorations associated with aging. While they won’t iron out wrinkles that are already there, they can help slow apoptosis, or the process of cell death that tends to speed up as you age.

Potential side effects

Since they’re related to vitamin A, retinoids have the same risks and side effects as their parent chemical. In children, vitamin A toxicity can result from taking more than 25,000 IU daily over several days; adults have a slightly higher tolerance. Medical signs of poisoning include hair loss, skin lesions, bleeding, and swelling or tenderness on the limbs.

Other common side effects include dry skin, liver problems, and depression, although these have yet to be officially linked to retinoids. Birth defects have also been reported in women who took isotretinoin (one of the most common retinoids) during pregnancy. These effects are the reason why most retinoids are taken under close supervision, even those that are over-the-counter. In most cases, your doctor will give you the treatment for a few days and wait a few weeks, or even months, before putting you back on the drug.

What you can do

Not everyone reacts the same way to a drug, and retinoids are no exception. If you’re considering using retinoids, it’s best to consult your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you. Also consider any existing conditions that may be aggravated by the drug’s side effects. If you’re pregnant, avoid them altogether—there are usually safer alternatives in the market that your doctor can recommend.

Kinetin, a plant-based chemical, was recently introduced and touted as the healthy alternative to retinoids. In recent studies, it has been shown to be more than twice as effective in preventing aging symptoms as its contemporaries. However, it has yet to be proven in the mainstream; its only claim to fame so far is a popular advertising campaign. Again, to be safe, get your doctor’s advice before taking it as treatment.