Retinoid vs Retinol: Differences and Benefits

by John Griffith

Skincare has been around for centuries. In recent times we have been bombarded with thousands of products, promises of great results, new research and a lot of information. So, it’s our job to sift through and find what we truly need. And although there isn’t just one perfect routine for everyone, there is enough quality research to learn from and create our own. Today we want to share with you one of the golden children of skincare. A product used by professionals for years with tons of proven benefits such as anti-aging, anti-acne, pore minimization, scar healing and much more. However, before you jump into buying a retinoid, you need to learn all you can about the retinoid vs retinol debate, so you can make the right choice in order to get beautiful glowing skin.

Retinoid vs Retinol: Which one is right for you?

what percentage is prescription strength retinol

Difference Between Retinoid and Retinol?

When it comes to what the differences between retinoids and retinols are, people get a little confused. Which is completely normal, as they aren’t entirely all that different. In fact, retinol is a part of the retinoid family.

Retinoids are a family of ingredients derived from vitamin A that speed up cell turnover in the skin. They are quite potent and have a lot of benefits. One particularly common form of retinoid is retinol. It is often found in serums, creams, and moisturizers and can be purchased over-the-counter. We know it may be confusing but while the terms are used interchangeably it’s important to learn the distinct differences.

Retinoids come in all types – creams, serums and gels

is tretinoin a retinol diffent bottles of serum and a gua sha

What is a retinoid?

Retinoid is the umbrella term for a group of antioxidants that as we mentioned are derived from vitamin A. Some popular varieties include:

  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinol
  • Tretinoin
  • Tazarotene
  • Adapalene

Some retinoids tend to be more powerful than others. Depeding on the type they may cause severe side effects, but will usually show results faster than commercial retinols. The main difference comes in the difference of strengths and what you want to treat with them.

Retinoids can cause side effects

retinoid benefits black woman using retinol

What is a retinol?

Retinol is a over-the-counter product and you don’t need a prescription for it. Even though it is still super effective, it’s different on a molecular level to other retionids. Retinol has a lower concentration of the active retinoid acid ingredient, which makes it safer for commercial use, and it’s less likely you will have severe side effects. It’s the best way to introduce yourself to the world of retinoids.

Retinol is safer for commercial use

is adapalene a retinol girl with glowing skin

What should I use?

Before making a decision, take into consideration your skin type and the severity of the issue you want to treat. If you have sensitive or dry skin, it’s recommended to start with an over-the-counter retinol. The more potent the product, the more potential for redness, irritation, and dryness.

However, if you have oilier or acne-prone skin, you should be able to start with a prescribed retinoid or a stronger over-the-counter one. However, make sure to consult a specialist beforehand.

Generally speaking, its best to use a retinoid if you want to improve acne, pigment conditions, or even reduce your risk of certain cancers. And to use retinol if you want to improve skin texture, skin protection, minimize large pores and scars and treat keratosis pilaris (bumpy, uneven skin).

Overall, this is all you need to understand about the main differences of retinoid vs retinol.

Consider your skin type and issue beforehand

difference between retinol and retinoid woman with scars

Retinoid Benefits

Thanks to its potent ingredients, retinoids are known to have several benefits. They are proven to diminish acne and acne scars, prevent wrinkles, fade dark spots, smooth and refine skin texture, enhance skin radiance, reverse sun damage, reduce the appearance of aging, brighten skin, regulate oil, and more.

All benefits are clinacally proven 

how often to use retinol clear glowy skin

How it works?

When you first start using retinol, your skin cells start changing the way they behave. This change impacts both the top layer of skin (epidermis) and the deeper layers (dermis). During the initial phase of use, the skin is still getting used to the effects of the product, that is why irritation may occur. As retinoids and retinol make your skin cell turnover faster, that means they also temporarily sloughs off more dead skin cells because of said increase in cells.

Retinoids increase skin cell turnover

is differin gel a retinol serum bottles of retinol

This creates a type of lag time before the new and healthy cells manage to emerge on to the surface of your skin. And since the new skin is exposed before it’s ready, side effects like redness and irritation are the result.

It usually takes between 28 and 40 days, on average, for a new skin cell to be “born”, so don’t expect to see results very fast. Your skin needs time to properly get used to the retinol in order to produce healthy skin. Most dermatologist say it takes about 12 weeks to see significant results. Ah, but thats okay, we would do anything for beautiful skin, long lashes and sleek eyebrows.

You need 12 weeks to see significant results

retinoid benefits woman with cream on hand

What Age Should You Start Retinol?

Experts suggest the best time to start using a type of retinoid is in our early 20s, around the age of 25 specifically. This is usually the time when elastin production starts to slow down, and you start wondering how to get back to that firmer and glowier skin. If you start noticing dynamic wrinkles, such as frown lines, crow’s feet, or laughter lines, it means it’s time to start. Of course, you can also start at whatever age you wish. Retinol is safe to use even if you are younger, as it can be great for acne. If you start later on in life, keep in mind the results may not be as impressive, since prevention is much easier than treating them in the future.

The best time to start is around the age of 25

where does retinol come from serene beauty applying cream

How Often Should You Use Retinol?

It all depends on your skin type, how strong your retinol is and what you want to target.

How to Integrate Retinol?

It’s crucial to integrate any kind of retinoid slowly and gently. Balance is critical. It’s recommended to start by introducing your skin to a pea-sized amount of a low percentage over-the-counter formula. Apply only at night and no more than two times a week. It’s very important to wear good sun protection the next day, as retinol makes the skin more sensitive to light. Regular use of sunscreen also helps to fight off the skin’s natural aging process. If your skin seems to be handling the first dosage of retinol well in the first two weeks, you can start applying it up to two, three times. And just like that, slowly, but surely you can add more days until you can apply it every night.

However, it’s not essential to use retinol every night. You can also apply it only three days a week and you will still be seeing results.

Start slowly to minimaze the chance of side effects

retinol serum vs cream woman using serum

Irritation Occurs

If your skin has visible redness or peeling, use it once per week for a month and then increase to two night and monitor the skin for irritation before increasing the dosage further. If you have sensitive skin, or you want to be sure of minimal irritation, some dermatologists suggest applying it by the “retinol sandwich” method. This technique consist of applying moisturizer onto wet skin first, after that apply 2 or 3 drops of the retinol on your skin. Let it absorb for around 20 minutes and apply moisturizer again.

Try the retinol sandwich technique

is adapalene a retinol woman picking at skin in mirror

The Don’ts of Retinol

Although most vitamins and minerals help our skin, you must have caution when starting a retinol. Don’t mix vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide and AHA/BHA acids or any other active products as it will probably cause irritation and skin damage.

Keep in mind to also skip your retinol product on the days before you exfoliate, as the process is abrasive and irritating to the skin. If you are getting any in-office treatments such as lasers, microneedling, microdermabrasion and others it’s best to take a break from your retinol.

Be careful when using other products and treatments with retinol

adapalene vs tretinoin microneedling skin rejuvination

What Are the Negative Effects of Retinol?

We’ve talked about what miracles retinoids and retinols can perform, but now let’s talk about what possible side effects can occur. Alongside all the good stories come plenty of bad ones. Some people say using such products forever ruined their skin, leaving others who are interested too scared to even try. However, does retinol really have the ability to damage your complexion so greatly?

As you have read so far, it is perfectly safe to use these kinds of products on your face. The problems start to occur when they are not used properly or used on certain skin types.

Can retinol damage your complexion?

types of retinoids serum bottle

Side Effects

It’s important to keep in mind that when it comes to any type of retinoid vs retinol, both are quite powerful, so you may experience some side effects. Approach all with caution. No miracles happen overnight, so it’s good to know what you may be experiencing before that beautiful, healthy and glowy skin finally shows. First-time retinol users usually report some variation of these side effects:

  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Dryness
  • Peeling
  • Acne Breakouts

If you apply too high a strength or too frequently, you may also experience further irritation such as itchiness and scaly patches.

You may experience common side effects

when to use retinol serum woman looking at her face

Retinoid vs retinol burns both occurs when you introduce your skin to a too high amount of retinol, which can cause severe problems. It’s best to stop using the product and let the skin heal before trying with a lower percentage of strength.

Rare Side Effects caused by Retinol Burn:

  • Flare-ups
  • Skin Discoloration
  • Swelling
  • Stinging

Keep in mind that everyone’s skin reacts differently and based on what you use – retinoid vs retinol, you may have some, all or none of these. It’s essential to pay attention, though, so you can change your routine accordingly. As your sensitivity to retinol decreases, your skin should calm down and no side effects should occur, only great skin.

Everyone’s skin reacts differently 

how often should you use retinol red skin irritation

Who Should Skip Retinols and Retinoids?

While beneficial to most skin types, no product is a one-size fits all.

  • People with sensitive skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema cannot tolerate strong topicals such as retinol.
  • If you spend a lot of time in the direct sun without using proper sun protection, it’s best to skip out on this product.
  • Some retinoids are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Overall, unless you fall under these categories and are properly introducing the retinoid or retinol to the skin, you should be fine.

Retinoids are not recommended for pregnant women

retinol for scars pregnant woman black and white

Now you know all you can about the retinoid vs retinol debate. You know what type of product to choose and how to use it, which is really all you need to get started. You are officially on the road to beautiful, dewy skin even during the cold weather.

Clear and beautiful skin

adapalene vs tretinoin woman applying cream

John Griffith

John Griffith is a young, passionate journalist. Writing has been John’s hobby ever since he was a boy. He has worked in some of the UK’s most successful news portals over the course of his professional career but found his forever home at Archzine.