The skincare and beauty realm is abundant in natural and synthetic skin-savvy compounds intended to help you achieve and maintain a glowing, smooth, and youthful complexion. In addition, there are countless skincare ingredients for each skin issue, making it easy to find the right skincare products for your particular skin type and issues. However, various similar-sounding ingredients, such as retinol and retinoids, can be puzzling.
In the never-ending world of skincare ingredients, retinol and retinoids are two of the most frequently thrown around terms. Since both these terminologies appear to be the same, many people may think of them as different words used for the same ingredient. But, in reality, retinol and retinoids are not the same. So let’s dive into the difference between retinol and retinoids and determine which will work best for you.
What is a Retinoid?
A retinoid is a vitamin A derivative. Retinoid is a rudimentary umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids. Retinoids are usually sold at drugstores, grocery stores, beauty stores, and pharmacies. The cost of retinoid products can vary.
They’re known as skincare powerhouses that have been extensively used in skincare products and studied for decades. Retinoids are found in topical as well as oral medications. Therefore, you may commonly see them labeled as acne treatments. A common type of retinoid used for topical acne treatment is Accutane or Isotretinoin.
What is Retinol?
Like retinoids, retinol is also a form of vitamin A that can be converted into retinoic acid, the active form of retinoids, in the body. In essence, retinol is a subtype of retinoids. Besides acne treatment, retinol is widely used in anti-aging products because it has been shown to improve the appearance of various signs of aging, such as uneven skin tone, fine lines, and wrinkles.
Retinol can be found in many over-the-counter skincare products, but it is essential to use it correctly and in moderation to avoid skin irritation or other side effects. Some people may benefit more from prescription-strength retinoids, which should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
What is the Difference between Retinol and Retinoid?
As mentioned above, retinoids and retinol are both derivatives of vitamin A. Retinol is a subtype of retinoids; hence, all retinols are retinoids. However, retinoids are not retinol.
The major difference between retinoids and retinol is the concentration or strength they are available in. Retinol contains lower strength of retinoic acid as compared to retinoids. Another way to understand this difference is that the stronger ingredient (a retinoid) takes less time or steps to break down into retinoic acid when applied to the skin.
Another key factor that distinguishes retinoids from retinol is their molecular structure. Retinol formulation comprises an ester form, which requires retinol compounds to break down into retinoic acid when applied topically. This makes retinol even weaker.
Nonetheless, retinol is still highly effective in helping to reduce and treat numerous skin problems, particularly acne, discoloration, and signs of aging. Low strength means retinol products will take longer to yield noticeable results. The positive aspect of weaker retinol structure is that retinol products are gentler on the skin and are generally considered safer, even for those with dry and sensitive skin.
Retinol carries lesser adverse effects than retinoids, which are higher-strength ingredients. While you may need professional consultation and supervision while using retinoids, retinol does not require a prescription and can be easily found in OTC formulas.
What are the Benefits of Retinol and Retinoids?
Retinol and retinoids offer the same benefits but to varying degrees. Retinoids are found in high strength, which means they work faster when applied to the skin. Therefore, you’re more likely to see visible effects in a shorter time than retinol. However, retinol is known to be better for anyone struggling with sensitive, itchy, and dry skin. Here is a range of skin benefits retinol and retinoids offer:
- Minimize Fine Lines and Wrinkles: Retinol and retinoids boost cell turnover, which can help to stimulate collagen production and improve skin elasticity. This leads to a decline in the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Improve Skin Texture and Tone: Since retinol and retinoids work by accelerating cell turnover, they repair and revitalize the skin faster. The fast rejuvenating action can lead to smoother, more even skin texture and tone.
- Prevent and Treat Acne: Products containing retinoids and retinol can help to unclog pores, reduce inflammation, repair damaged skin, and decrease the formation of acne-causing bacteria, making them an effective acne treatment.¹
- Reduce Hyperpigmentation: The fast and effective cell renewal and repair process due to the ability of retinol and retinoids to increase cell turnover can be beneficial for those trying to get rid of discoloration, such as acne scars, melasma, freckles, and sunspots. They can help fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots, resulting in a more even skin tone.
- Soothe Inflammation: Topical retinoids and retinol can be helpful for people suffering from inflammatory skin issues or irritation and redness. Tazarotene, a retinoid, is known for its calming and healing effects arising from regulating skin cell growth.
- Reduce Pore Size: Retinoids and retinol can help to draw out impurities, dead skin cells, and excess sebum from the pores, which can lead to a reduction in the size of the pores.² Also, they can thicken the skin and improve its firmness, resulting in smoother skin and visibly smaller pores.
When and How to Use Retinoids?
Since retinoids come in higher concentrations than retinol, it’s imperative to incorporate them slowly into your skincare routine and allow your skin to build tolerance. Start by using a pea-sized amount of your topical retinoid product at night, every third day. Once your skin builds tolerance towards it, you can apply it on alternate days.
Retinoids can make the skin photosensitive and prone to cell damage. So, don’t forget to shield the skin against oxidative stressors by using sunscreen daily. Common prescription forms of retinoids include tazarotene and tretinoin.³
When and How to Use Retinol?
This gentler form of vitamin A is widely used in OTC formulations and skincare products and is accessible to everyone. Retinol products are great for those looking for gentle treatment options for their sensitive or inflamed skin. Like retinoids, they should also be applied at night as they can also make the skin sensitive to sunlight.
It’s recommended to use retinol every other night and then every night, depending on your skin’s condition and reaction. Since retinol is a weaker ingredient, your skin may not take as much time to build tolerance as with retinoids. Also, remember that retinol is a weaker form of retinoid and may not produce dramatic and noticeable results as early as retinoids.
Are There Any Adverse Effects of Retinol and Retinoids?
Yes, both retinol and retinoids can have some adverse effects on the skin, specifically if used in excessive amounts or if you have sensitive skin. Some of the most common adverse effects of retinol and retinoids include the following:
- Skin Irritation: They can cause skin irritation, redness, and itching, mainly when used in high amounts. This is because retinol speeds up the skin's natural exfoliation process, which can leave the skin more vulnerable to cell damage and irritation.
- Dryness: They can reduce the skin's natural oil production and cause dryness, primarily when you use them in high concentrations, or your skin is already dry, to begin with.
- Photo Sensitivity: Retinoids can increase the skin's sensitivity to UV rays, leading to sunburns, sunspots, inflammation, and other types of skin damage. It is essential to always wear sunscreen when using these ingredients and avoid unnecessary sun exposure.
- Flaking: Retinol and retinoids can cause dryness and peeling of the skin. This effect is more prominent when you start using these ingredients or use them in high amounts.
Although retinol and retinoids may sound interchangeable to many of us, they are different skincare ingredients. The fact is that these compounds are related but have different attributes, strengths, and molecular structures. Although both ingredients are generally suitable for most skin types, those with sensitive, inflamed, and dry skin may need to be cautious and stick to a gentle product with retinol that doesn’t aggravate the skin.
We hope the information in this article has helped differentiate retinol and retinoids and aided in deciding which one is better for you.
- S. Brooklyn. (2022). ‘Adult Acne: What it is and how to treat it’, Sundree, Accessed April 14, 2023. Available at: https://sundree.com/blogs/news/adult-acne-what-it-is-and-how-to-treat-it
- Cleveland Clinic. (2023). ‘7 Ways To Minimize Pores’, Cleveland Clinic, Accessed April 14, 2023. Available at: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-shrink-pores/
- WebMD. (2023). ‘Tretinoin’, WebMD. Accessed April 14, 2023. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-3956/tretinoin-topical/details