Retinol vs. Retinoid: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?



If you’re into skin care at all, you’ve probably heard of retinol. It’s a superstar ingredient that tackles acne and wrinkles thanks to its ability to boost cell turnover. This ability allows it to slough away dead skin cells that become trapped in pores, in order to reveal healthy, new skin cells underneath. By unclogging pores, retinol helps treat and prevent acne. By boosting collagen and the appearance of new cells, it helps soften wrinkles.

Retinol and retinoid are sometimes used interchangeably, but it’s important to note that they are not exactly the same thing. Even though they are both vitamin A derivatives that become converted into retinoic acid, they work a little differently. Namely, retinol works much slower than a retinoid does. Retinoid has also come to be an overarching term that encompasses retinol and other vitamin A derivatives. Let’s explore their similarities and differences, and also take a look at the different kinds of retinoids available.

Related: Best Retinol Cream

Retinol vs. Retinoid: What’s the Difference and Which Is Better?


As mentioned, retinol and retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that become converted to retinoic acid and have many benefits for the skin. Retinol and retinoids can treat acne and signs of aging. They can boost collagen in the skin to further combat wrinkles, and can even fade away hyperpigmentation over time.

Both should be used in your nighttime skin care routine, because they can make skin more susceptible to UV damage during the day.


The main difference between a retinol and a retinoid is that a retinol works a little less efficiently. That’s because retinol doesn’t have as much of the active ingredient as a retinoid. Moreover, retinol is available over-the-counter in various serums and other skin care products, while a powerful retinoid can only be gotten with a prescription from a doctor.

Retinol and certain retinoids have a different molecular structure, which is what causes them to work differently when applied to skin. Over-the-counter retinols come in ester forms (retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid or retinyl acetate). It will take longer for these forms to become converted to retinoic acid and actually show an impact on your skin concerns. Retinoids work by activating certain enzymes in the skin, and then these same enzymes are turned into retinoic acid. With retinol, this same process takes a little longer to happen.

You will also find retinol coming in different degrees of strength. There are milder strengths, moderate strengths and higher strengths, and using them should be determined by your particular skin type and what your skin needs. As for retinoids, you will most likely be prescribed these by your doctor or dermatologist, and they can determine exactly what you need based on your skin issues.

Pros of Retinoids

  1. Acne Treatment – Retinoids and retinol (to a lesser degree) help to unclog pores by sloughing away dead skin cells that can become trapped in hair follicles. When bacteria enters these clogged pores, pimples can form. Certain retinoids and retinol help to prevent this from happening.
  2. Softening Wrinkles – Fine lines and wrinkles can be softened with certain retinoids and retinol because of collagen stimulation. Collagen is a protein that keeps skin tight and basically gives it its structure. Once collagen deteriorates (generally beginning at the age of 30), skin tends to become more lax, with a propensity to sag and develop wrinkles.
  3. Fading Hyperpigmentation – Dark spots can develop for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they happen after a pimple has healed (called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) and sometimes they are caused by excess sun damage. A condition called melasma also results in patches of dark spots on the face. Retinoids can help fade them away by once again removing dead skin cells to reveal newer skin cells underneath.

Cons of Retinoids

  1. Irritation – Retinoids are very irritating; retinol less so. Skin may turn red and peel excessively when using certain retinoids, and for those with sensitive skin, retinol may also cause irritation like redness. Some people get frustrated by this irritation and immediately discontinue use. But if you want real, noticeable results, you have to stick with it. If irritation is simply too great, you can limit use to once or twice a week. As your skin grows used to the substance, you can increase frequency of use.
  2. Sun Sensitivity – Retinoids and retinol can increase sun sensitivity. This means your skin will be more susceptible to burning and other sun damage if you’re exposed to UV rays. Hence, it is recommended that any type of a retinoid be used at nighttime. It will go to work overnight and not be a bother.
  3. Skin Thinning – Retinol and retinoids actually make your skin a little thinner. As layers of skin cells are being sloughed away, skin is becoming thinner as a result. This can be a problem because thinner skin is more fragile, more prone to injury and more susceptible to irritation. If you have mature skin, you might want to use less retinol to prevent too much skin thinning, as aging skin is already thinner than younger skin. Sensitivity may also increase overall, no matter your skin type.

Types of Retinoids

Retinoids have become an umbrella term that refers to a variety of vitamin A derivatives of varying strengths. Here’s a breakdown of the retinoids you may most likely encounter.

  • Retin-A/Tretinoin – Retin-A/Tretinoin is a retinoid available by prescription only. It helps to unclog pores and keep them unclogged, thus helping to both treat and prevent acne. When it comes to wrinkles, it softens and smooths them by stimulating collagen production. It can also treat dark spots by boosting cell turnover. This is a very powerful retinoid that has side effects like redness, peeling, flakiness and dryness.
  • Retin-A Micro – This is similar to Retin-A in that it works in much the same way, but is actually less irritating, and might be better for people with sensitive skin. The medication in this is released more slowly too. Retin-A Micro is only available in gel form, while Retin-A comes in cream, gel and liquid forms.
  • Retinyl Palmitate – This is a vitamin A derivative composed of retinol and palmitic acid (a substance found in palm oil). It mostly works as an antioxidant to reduce free radical damage. Free radicals damage all types of cells in the body, including skin cells, and can accelerate aging.
  • Retinol – As discussed, this is a milder form of tretinoin that is available over-the-counter. It will provide similar results against acne and wrinkles, but with far less irritation. It can be found in various creams and serums in varying degrees of concentration.
  • Retinaldehyde – Retinaldehyde is a much milder form of retinol that promises. It will cause less irritation and side effects, and is recommended for sensitive skin.
  • Adapalene – A topical retinoid, adapalene is used in the treatment of mild to moderate acne, and works by diving deep into skin to prevent a pimple from forming in the first place.
  • Isotretinoin – Isotretinoin used to treat severe, cystic, painful acne lesions. Brand names include Myorisan, Amnesteem, Claravis, Absorica, and Zenatane, but it was formerly known as Accutane or Roaccutane. It is available by prescription only and is monitored heavily in patients because it can cause severe birth defects.
  • Tazarotene – This topical retinoid is used to treat skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and also psoriasis (by reducing quantity and size of lesions). It is available by prescription only.

Bottom Line

Retinoids are highly effective when it comes to skin care. They have been studied for decades, and it only takes one try to realize that they do in fact work and do all that they promise to do. There is a retinoid out there for you depending on your skin concerns, whether it be severe acne or fine lines. The main takeaway here is that retinoids are generally more powerful than retinol, but also more likely to cause irritation and sensitivity. If you’re just being introduced to the world of retinoids, it’s probably best to start out with retinol to see how your skin reacts to it in the first place.

References: Dermatology and Therapy, “Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne”; Clinical Interventions in Aging, “Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging”



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