Retinol Vs. Retinoid: Learn The Difference And Pick The Right One

Written by Ramona Sinha

Are you caught up in the retinol vs. retinoid debate? Many confuse the two ingredients and often end up using them interchangeably. Both retinoid and retinol are vitamin A derivatives and are technically different. However, in some cases, they can be the same thing. Confused? This article explores the difference between retinoid and retinol and which one you should use for your skin. Keep reading!

What Is Retinoid?

Retinoid is a vitamin A derivative and umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives, including retinoic acid, retinol, retinol propionate (pro-retinol), and retinol palmitate.

Dermatologists prescribe retinoids for acne and improve skin health due to their stunning results on most skin types. It is often confused with retinol.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid and much milder than retinoid. You do not need a prescription to get retinol, and it is a common ingredient in OTC skin care products. However, retinol differs from retinoids at a molecular level, and although both have similar benefits, the effects of retinol are much milder than retinoids. Let’s understand it in detail in the next section.

Retinol Vs. Retinoids: How They Work And The Benefits

The similarity between the two ingredients is – they provide the same benefits. However, the rate at which you may see the improvements might differ due to the difference in strengths.

Vitamin A is fat-soluble. When you apply retinoids or retinol to your skin, it penetrates the stratum corneum  (the topmost layer of the epidermis) and the dermis (the second layer). It binds with the receptors in the keratinocytes (epidermal cells) and stimulates them and the fibroblasts (cells that produce collagen). In other words, retinoids and retinol stimulate the skin cells to:

  • Promote collagen synthesis
  • Improve skin texture
  • Reduce wrinkles and fine lines
  • Reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and dryness
  • Reduce pigmentation and brighten the skin
  • Soothe acne and inflammation
  • Promote cell turnover rate

OTC retinol products are often combined with other ingredients. These products are gentler than prescription retinoids; however, you have to be patient and use them continuously to see visible results.

The side effects of retinol and retinoids are also similar, except for the intensity. If you start using any of them without knowing the right concentration and the proper way, you may experience side effects. Let’s take a look.

Side Effects Of Retinoids And Retinol

If your skin is not used to retinoids and retinol and if you use them every day, you may experience:

  • Redness
  • Peeling
  • Flaking
  • Skin irritation
  • Dryness

These symptoms may occur due to the increase in skin cell turnover rate. The best way to avoid this adverse effect is to start with the lowest concentration of retinol. If you are using prescription retinoids, the doctor will gradually increase the strength, depending on the skin tolerance levels and condition.

Some other side effects of retinoids include:

  • Acne flare-up
  • Photosensitivity
  • Discoloration of skin
  • Stinging
  • Eczema flares up

However, retinol and retinoids are not safe to use during pregnancy. Avoid them if you have conceived or are breastfeeding.

If both retinol and retinoids have similar benefits, why not use any of them interchangeably? How do the two ingredients differ? Let’s find out.

Retinoids And Retinol: How They Differ?

Retinol and retinoids differ in two aspects:

1. The Strength Of The Ingredient

Retinoids are more potent than retinol. They are available in topical and oral form and only on prescription (like tretinoin and tazarotene). Retinol is the mildest of all retinoids, and that is why it is often suitable for sensitive and dry skin. However, the way your skin will react to retinol depends on how it can handle the ingredient. Usually, OTC skin care products contain retinol in concentrations between 0.00015% and 0.3%. So, you can start with the lowest concentration.

2. The Time Taken To Show Results

Retinol converts to retinoic acid through a two-step oxidation process. That is why it takes longer to show visible results, unlike retinoids, which are potent and show quick results. Retinol products may take at least three months to show results, while retinoids may give you visible results within six weeks.

There are certain things you need to keep in mind when using retinol or retinoids.

How To Use Retinoids Correctly

Remember that retinoids and retinol can make your skin photosensitive. So, you cannot skip sunscreen lotion if you are using retinoids during the daytime. Here are a few more guidelines:

  • Always use retinol and retinoids at night to prevent photosensitivity and UV damage.
  • If you must use a retinoid in the morning, follow it up with a good SPF sunscreen religiously.
  • Gradually introduce your skin to retinoids or retinol. Start with the lowest strength and gradually increase the strength once your skin gets accustomed to it.
  • Always follow up with a gentle moisturizer after applying retinoids (including retinol). This will help prevent dryness.
  • Use retinol only a few times a week to understand your skin tolerance level.
  • Do not mix retinoid with too many other ingredients or affect the ingredient’s efficacy (explained later in the article).

Depending on your skin concern and time frame of results, you can choose between retinol and retinoids.

Retinol Or Retinoid: Which One Is Better?

Go for retinol if:

  • You have sensitive skin.
  • You are using retinoids for the first time.
  • You are looking for a preventive measure to improve your skin.
  • You are just starting with an anti-aging skin care regimen.

Use potent retinoids (with doctor’s prescription) if:

  • You have mature, oily, and comparatively resilient skin.
  • You are dealing with deep wrinkles, fine lines, and blemishes.
  • You have chronic acne flare-ups and scarring.
  • You are looking for faster results.

Consult a dermatologist and get your skin analyzed to understand the proper strength of retinoids that might work for you. Chronic acne often requires oral antibiotics or retinoids. The doctor can suggest proper treatment measures depending on your skin condition. Retinoids are beneficial for the skin. However, they are not a one-size-fits-all – not everyone can use retinol and other retinoids.

Who Cannot Use Retinol And Retinoids?

Avoid topical retinoids and retinol if:

  • You have sensitive and rosacea-prone skin.
  • You have existing skin conditions.
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Avoid oral retinoids if you are pregnant, as they may cause congenital disabilities in the baby.

Retinol or any other retinoids shouldn’t be used with several other ingredients as that may irritate the skin.

Which Products Cannot Be Used With Retinoids?

Retinol and retinoids are potent ingredients that accelerate cell regeneration. They shouldn’t be mixed with any other potent ingredients as that can dry out the skin and cause further irritation. Do not mix retinoids with:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)
  • Vitamin C
  • Drying ingredients like astringents, alcohol-based toners, medicated cleansers

Never use retinol and retinoids before waxing or shaving the skin and before laser treatments. The skin remains fragile after such treatments and procedures, and retinoids can further irritate it. Also, never mix multiple retinol products. This can cause inflammation.

Before layering your retinol with other products, make sure you read the ingredient list to see and avoid the above ingredients.

Closing Thoughts

While retinoids are extremely potent anti-aging ingredients with multiple skin benefits, they are powerful enough to ruin your skin health if not used properly. So, before rushing into things, take time to understand your skin and what it needs. If you are not sure, consult a dermatologist to avoid unwanted side effects.


Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments
  2. Retinoic Acid Embryopathy

Recommended Articles

Was this article helpful?
The following two tabs change content below.
Ramona is a journalist-turned-content writer. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature and has been writing for the digital world for over five years. She specializes in writing for Skin Care. She has done a certificate course titled ‘Dermatology: Trip To The Skin’, offered by Novosibirsk State University. She believes that beauty begins with a good skin care regimen and is on a mission to eliminate all toxins from her routine. She helps and guides readers in selecting products and ingredients specific to their skin type/issue. When Ramona is not working, her books and passion for music, good food, and traveling keep her busy.