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Retinol vs. Retinoid: What’s the Difference?

June 07, 2023

Retinol vs. Retinoid: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever researched anti-aging skincare ingredients, you’re most likely familiar with retinol. This powerful ingredient is known for its ability to target acne, soften wrinkles and fine lines, and reveal smooth, youthful-looking skin.

However, retinol is a bit of a complex topic. The term is often used interchangeably with retinoid, and sometimes even retin-A. While these ingredients have some similarities, there are some key differences that are important to understand.

Keep reading to learn all about retinol and retinoids—what they are, how they differ, and how to choose which option is right for you.

Retinol vs. Retinoid

Retinoids and retinol are in the same family, yet are different from one another. Essentially, ‘retinoid’ is a broad term that encompasses prescription retinoids and over-the-counter retinols.

Both retinol and retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that are converted into an active ingredient known as retinoic acid. However, retinoids have a higher concentration of retinoic acid—which means they penetrate into the skin quicker and often provide more noticeable results.

Retinol, on the other hand, contains lower levels of retinoic acid, and it requires more steps for it to convert to its active state and penetrate the skin. Therefore, retinol works slower compared to retinoids. It often takes anywhere from several months to a year of consistent retinol use to see major results.

Another common term used when discussing retinoids is retin-A, also known as tretinoin. This ingredient is typically used to treat acne and is designed to be used sparingly on the skin, such as on breakouts or acne prone areas.

Due to their potency, retinoids and retin-A can only be prescribed by a doctor (for the most part), whereas retinol is available over-the-counter. Retinol products that are available for purchase are often combined with other ingredients, which means certain products may actually only have very small amounts of retinol in them.

Overall, retinoids, retinol, and retin-A essentially do the same thing—but the process they utilize to get there is different. 

Skin Benefits

Studies have shown that retinol cream and serum products boosts collagen in the skin, which helps to fight signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol is also known to fade hyperpigmentation and age spots, smooth uneven skin texture, and even treat and prevent acne.

In a nutshell, retinol helps with the following skin concerns:

  • Acne: Dermatologists often prescribe retinoid or retin-A gels or creams to patients who suffer from acne. Essentially, retinoids prevent the buildup of dead cells in the skin’s pores, which is a common cause of acne. 
  • Hyperpigmentation: Retinol aids in the body’s natural cell turnover process, which helps to fade sun damage and age spots. If you have discoloration, such as from melasma, retinol can also help to even your skin tone. 
  • Signs of aging: As mentioned, retinol stimulates collagen production, which plumps up the skin by maintaining its elasticity and moisture. This is key to treating and preventing wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Skin texture: For those who struggle with uneven skin texture, a product formulated with retinol might do the trick. Retinol acts like an exfoliator by sloughing away dead skin cells to reveal a smooth, even complexion. 

How to Choose the Right One for You

So how do you choose which type of retinoid to use?

If you’re looking for an anti-aging product you can purchase over the counter, a retinol serum or moisturizer is a great place to start. When first introducing it into your routine, be sure to stick to a lower concentration to avoid over-drying or irritating your skin. As your skin adjusts to it, you can work your way up to a higher concentration.

Whenever choosing a skincare product, it’s important to consider your skin type—especially with retinol. If you’re someone with naturally dry skin, you’ll likely want to opt for a hydrating product formulated with retinol, such as a cream. If you have oily skin, you might prefer a lightweight serum.

In some cases, a prescription retinoid or retin-A is useful. If you’re someone who suffers from chronic acne or has hyperpigmentation that just won’t go away, it might be worth paying a visit to the dermatologist. Depending on the condition of your skin and the treatment they choose, they may prescribe a retinoid product to target your specific concerns. 

Retinol FAQs

As with any skincare ingredient, the method in which you apply it is just as important as the product you choose. This is especially the case with retinol, as improper application can actually cause damage to the skin.

To learn more about how to use retinol correctly, check out this Q&A:

Can you mix retinol with other skincare products?

Retinol tends to be a very potent ingredient, and there are certain ingredients it shouldn’t be mixed with. For example, benzoyl peroxide can actually cancel the effects of retinol, and using retinol in combination with AHA and BHA acids or even vitamin C can dry out the skin and cause irritation.

In general, it’s best to avoid any type of harsh exfoliating products when using retinol—especially if you have sensitive skin. Certain medications or skin treatments, such as intense pulsed light therapy (IPL), may also not pair well with retinol. When in doubt, consult your doctor or dermatologist. 

When should I apply retinol?

This topic is commonly debated in the skincare world, but it’s often said that retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays. So, it’s best to use this ingredient at night. In addition to safety reasons, nighttime can be a great time to apply retinol, as it can aid in the skin cell regeneration process.

If you do decide to use a retinol product during the day, be sure to apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Wearing sunscreen daily is critical regardless, but it’s even more important if you’re using retinol. The last thing you want is to make your skin more susceptible to burning!

How often should I apply retinol?

When it comes to retinol, it’s best to start slow. Some dermatologists recommend using retinol every other night and working your way up from there. If you have sensitive skin, you can even start with just once a week and monitor how your skin reacts. 

How do you apply retinol?

Depending on your skin type, there are several different ways you can apply retinol. If your skin is on the dry side, consider applying a pea-sized amount after using a hydrating serum or moisturizer. This can help to cut back on the intensity of the retinol.

If you have oily skin or have worked your way up to a higher concentration, apply a pea-sized amount of retinol after you cleanse. Whatever you do, just make sure that your skin is completely dry, as applying retinol to damp skin can cause irritation. After the retinol has dried and soaked into the skin, follow up with a moisturizer.  

What if my skin starts peeling and flaking?

Peeling and flaking are common side effects of using retinol. If this happens to you, don’t fret—these side effects may subside after a few weeks as your skin gets used to the product. If the peeling and flaking doesn’t stop or gets worse, however, you may want to try either a lower concentration of retinol or use more hydrating products in conjunction with it.

At what age should I start using retinol?

Whether you’re in your 20s or 60s, there’s no better time to start using retinol.

While retinol is designed to treat wrinkles and target signs of aging, it can be an amazing preventative measure for those who want to preserve their young skin. Additionally, retinoids can be a great option for those who struggle with acne, which is often younger people.

In conclusion, both retinoids and retinol can offer amazing benefits for the skin. Whether you’re looking to target crow’s feet around the eyes or treat stubborn breakouts, this ingredient might be the perfect addition to your skincare routine.

Try Herbal Dynamics Beauty Products with Vitamin A and Retinol: