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Choosing between Rx and non-Rx retinoids

Choosing between Rx and non-Rx retinoids

Retinoids, or vitamin A derivatives, are powerhouses in the treatment of acne and photo-aging, supported by decades of research.  But there are so many variants - which to use, and why?  Let's learn what prescription and OTC retinoids can do for the skin, and which type of product is best for you.  

Adventures of our intrepid founder

Our founder Linda got on the retinoid bandwagon after having her last child.  Her skin was starting to look worn, dull and uneven.  So she got a prescription for a cream based retin-A that is FDA approved for anti aging.  Her thinking was to go for the 'best' (meaning biggest gun) - since there’s lots of data behind it with compelling before and after studies of extended use.  

Starting slowly, as advised, and using it only a few times per week, results began to emerge.  Smoother, fresher, brighter skin!  So what could go wrong?

What went wrong is a common story among retinoid users.  The downside of prescription retinoids began to emerge - something many of you have experienced. This is a strong drug.  It resurfaces the skin in the way an acid wash resurfaces a driveway - with indiscriminate power.   That means that sensitivity, full on irritation, breakouts and peeling often follow. 

Many skincare users, with the best of intentions, have trouble tolerating prescription strength retinoids and have to manage them carefully.  They buffer them with moisturizer and use them a few days on and as many days off as needed for irritation to calm down.  They introduce 'calming' products into their routines to counteract the irritation.  They usually put up with a period of flaking, purging of nascent blemishes, and sensitivity to their other skincare products.  To put it bluntly, using prescription strength retinoids is a project. So our intrepid founder, after years of on and off use, stopped altogether.  It was just too much work.

Now, many newer forms of synthetic retinoids have been introduced in the prescription space, such as Tazarotene, Retin-A micro and Differin.  Not everyone suffers the irritation and difficulty of managing a regimen with these products, but many many people still do.  They're prescription strength for a reason, and many dermatologists recommend only a short course of them -  a few months - to avoid long term inflammation.


As the side effects of Rx retinoids became better known, several derivatives began to appear in over-the-counter products.  Retinol, retinaldehyde and retinyl palmitate are a few you may have seen over the years.  We were hesitant to try these early on - there was little information proving their effectiveness.  Moreover, companies rarely disclosed the concentration of the powerful active ingredient, which meant that claims were made without proof of effective levels in the formula.  

Over time, however, much research has been done on these compounds.  *  The most potent of them is retinol.  It is tolerated much better by the skin than prescription retinoids, with less irritation and flaking.  Still, extra moisturizers and calming ingredients are often used along with high strength retinol products to keep flaking and irritation at bay. 

Why Formulation Matters

Let's take a moment to talk about the power of a well-formulated skincare product.  Because the next logical step from layering products to get good results without negative side effects is to bring the full expertise of a trained skincare chemist to formulating one well-balanced product.  A good skin chemist will bring the values of their field to making products that work: 

- Science-based: Great formulations draw on scientific research to choose the best, most effective ingredients. A new ingredient might be trendy or hyped, but without research results that prove it can deliver, a good chemist won't bite. 

- Effectiveness: Finished formulas need to produce results, obviously (including compliments).  We have wasted time and money on products that do nothing, or far less than promised.  If a product isn't effective, a good chemist goes back to the drawing board.

- Safety: The more information that floods the skin care market, the more people are mixing and layering multiple products.  We have seen a whole lot of over irritated skin, which shows as breakouts, stubborn dryness, flakiness and redness.  In response, many companies have come out with 'soothing' and anti-irritant products.  A good chemist will avoid irritation in the first place by blending, balancing and carefully producing their formulas.

Enter the Balm

Back to Linda, who abandoned prescription retinoids but was hesitant to try unproven OTC alternatives.  It definitely showed in her skin as dullness and fine wrinkles returned.  So, when she founded The Good Chemist she was committed to offering an elegantly formulated retinol product.  This means a significant enough concentration of retinol to be effective (1% in the case of Renew Balm) coupled with rich, non-greasy ingredients that keep dryness and irritation at bay. 

The big step was to go from the single effective ingredient to a fully developed formula that balanced results with comfort. In the case of Renew Balm, the wonderful additional ingredients include aloe, shea butter and vitamin E - all softening and non-irritating to the skin.  The Balm also includes active peptides and Coenzyme Q10, which contribute to its line-softening and smoothing benefits.  This is what we mean by Simplicity Through Science - using all the knowledge we can bring to bear on formulating a product that works, without making it a complicated project for you.  

Linda (and many of our customers) uses Renew Balm every single night - no management required.  It leaves skin soft and smooth, and with steady use can reveal visibly smoother, younger-looking skin.

 Bottom Line

There is a place for retinoids in many skin care regimens - whether you are fighting acne or the visible signs of sun and age.  If you suffer from acne, a gel-based prescription retinoid is still among the most effective treatments.  Your dermatologist is the best resource for advice on that front.  What matters is to understand the potential risks and be willing to deal with them.

For age-related prevention and repair, you may choose to use a prescription retinoid - just be prepared to carefully manage its use.  Be aware of the common irritation and plan for how you will offset it.  One major consideration with ALL RETINOIDS is that you must wear a sunscreen of at least SPF30 every single day to protect the fresh, smooth skin that is revealed.

Our solution is to use a product like Renew Balm - a best seller among our customers - that is formulated to avoid irritation in the first place while delivering visible results.  It was designed with the common side effects in mind, and made to counter them right out of the jar.  

To learn more about what retinol can do for your skin, see this dermatologist's terrific explanation:

(TIP) Retinoids should not be used if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

*; other reference material available on request.

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