Retinol vs. Retinoid: The Difference & Does It Really Matter Which One You Use?
Of all the skin care ingredients we love and slather on until the last drop, there are a few that tend to get a bit more attention than others. Vitamin C comes to mind, as does hyaluronic acid or salicylic acid. Then there's what's been dubbed the "gold standard" of healthy aging ingredients, and it goes by many names—well, sort of.
Called Retin-A, retinol, retinoid, or a few other versions, this star skin care item is a derivative of vitamin A. And it garners as much confusion over its moniker as it does praise for its efficacy. The most common terms people refer to it as are retinol and retinoid.
Here, we explain the distinction between the two.
What is retinoid?
We'll start with retinoid since this is the broadest. In fact, it is technically the blanket term for the entire category of vitamin A derivatives. This class of derivatives bonds with "retinoid receptors within skin cells," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. This "activates genes that upregulate collagen production. Besides stimulating production of new collagen, retinol enhances cell turnover. This means it sheds dead and damaged cells that make the skin look dull." Read: All the things you come to know and love about the healthy-aging active.
Retinoids can include both OTC (over-the-counter) and prescription-strength options (like the aforementioned Retin-A as well as its generic counterpart Tretinoin). If you don't know what to call whatever version of vitamin A derivative you are using, you can safely say "retinoid"—it's the most general, sure, but it covers all the bases.
What is retinol?
Retinol, while a type of retinoid, is strictly the OTC version. This means it's less potent, but also less irritating and usually more affordable. It also doesn't require a trip to your dermatologist's office for a prescription—you can just check out some of our fave retinol and retinol alternatives instead.
Retinols are also usually buffered with other hydrating or soothing actives; since they come in commercial lotions and creams, people tend to think of them as more sensorial appealing than their more clinical counterparts.
Vitamin A derivatives have a plethora of skin-healthy claims attached to their name.
- Promotes collagen production. This effect was observed in a human study, where retinol treatment stimulated collagen production1 in mature skin, helping decrease the appearance of wrinkling.
- Increases cell turnover. Retinol speeds up the lifecycle of the cell2, which improves cell turnover.
- Treats acne. As retinol interacts with the skin cell's receptors, it beneficially alters the genes involved with inflammation and cell growth. This reduces the formation of microcomedones3, or skin pores clogged with sebum, bacteria, and dead skin cells.
- Improves fine lines, tone, and texture. Retinol's ability to support cell turnover, exfoliation, and collagen production, becomes especially useful as we age—tending to pigmentation concerns, wrinkles, and uneven texture.
Who should use each?
Vitamin A derivatives run the full spectrum of tolerability. Some people simply cannot use even the lightest and gentlest of options, while others can jump right into full-blown prescription strength without much pause. Generally, however, a few common practices and guidelines:
- Prescription retinoids are typically prescribed to those with moderate to severe acne. Of course, you must visit a dermatologist to get the prescription, and thus they'll be able to better evaluate your skin before making a specific recommendation. Typically tazarotene is prescribed to those with acne (or even psoriasis) as it’s a gel.
- You may also consider getting a prescription strength option if you would like to treat age spots, fine lines, or other signs of aging. Tretinoin (in strengths from .25-.5%) is typically prescribed for aging concerns as it’s a cream base.
- Since retinols are OTC, they are usually not as irritating or potent. Generally, more people can use these. However you may have to guess-and-test to see if the option you picked up is right for you.
- If you have oily skin, you may be able to tolerate an extra-strength serum or treatment: Differin, a type of adapalene, is an affordable option that used to only be available through a prescription, but is now available at most drug stores.
- If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may need to find one that comes buffered with hyaluronic acid or ceramides.
Who shouldn't use them.
Retinols or retinoids are not for everyone—in fact many people out there find they can not tolerate the ingredient. To start, derms do not recommend using a retinol4 if you are pregnant or breastfeeding as a precaution.
Those with sensitive skin or an inflammatory skin disease should proceed with extreme caution. This includes anyone with eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis. See, those with sensitivities and are prone to inflammation inherently have a compromised skin barrier, and likely cannot tolerate the potent ingredient.
Additionally, those who with sensitized skin may find it too irritating. What do we mean by this? Well, if you've recently over-exfoliated, otherwise damaged your barrier, or are simply going through a more sensitive time period, you'll be be wise to hold off use until your skin gets back to a more calm state.
Finally, some people simply do not like the ingredient, and can never get themselves past the the introductory reaction phase. Or they simply opt for more hydrating ingredients as their skin care du jour. This is to say: Even if derms hail this as a superstar ingredient, if you find it's not for you—don't sweat it,.
Usage: Tips & advice on when & how to use them.
Retinol, we must note, does come with detailed instructions. (A simple, easy-to-use ingredient, this is not.) Here, exactly how to incorporate it into your routine. And if you're looking for more info after, check out our guide to retinol usage.
How to use them:
You use all forms of retinol the same way: On clean, freshly rinsed skin at night. You'll want to use them on freshly washed skin so they are making direct contact—and thus able to penetrate the skin cells and get to work. You can then follow with a hydrating cream or other serums. (In fact, you can check out how to layer products correctly here.) Most derms will recommend using them once every other night or every third night when you start—slowly working up use as you go.
And remember: “A little bit goes a long way especially for prescription strength. A green pea size amount distributed to the four quadrants of your face,” says board certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.
When to use them:
Always use them in the evening. As the ingredient causes photosensitivity or photostable, they are not recommended for daytime use. Photosensitivity is when your skin is more susceptible to burns and sun damage. Obviously this is concerning, as not only does UV exposure lead to serious health concerns—but can also induce photoaging. Always wear SPF during the daytime when you have a retinol in your routine.
What not to mix them with:
Do not mix retinoids with too many products as it may inactivate the ingredient—most notably AHAs and BHAs can cause this issue. Not to mention, using both retinol and a chemical exfoliator will be far too damaging to your skin.
Additionally, you likely shouldn't use vitamin C and retinol at the same time (again: it may make ingredients inactive). We recommend vitamin C as your day active, and retinol in the evening.
Not to make this more confusing, but some new products are formulated with both retinol and vitamin C in the same juice—in this case it was likely made in such a way that these ingredients do not mess with each others' efficacy.
A note about the phasing in period:
As you are using it, you may find you have a phasing-in period (sometimes called the "retinoid reaction" or retinoid-induced dermatitis). "Localized skin irritation—often redness and dryness—is the most common side effect of [using] retinol," explains board-certified dermatologist Melanie Palm, M.D., MBA. Other possible side effects include peeling, itching, burning, and purging if you have any clogged pores.
When this happens stop use for a few days before trying to introduce it back into your routine again. This phasing in period can take anywhere from 2 weeks to several months.
Natural retinol alternatives.
A common question that comes up is are there natural alternatives—and the answer comes in the form of bakuchiol (pronounced either "buh-koo-chee-all" or "back-uh-heel"; the internet can't seem to decide). The botanical is shown in research to deliver many of the same skin-rejuvenating perks minus the side effects.
It is a type of antioxidant compound called a meroterpene phenol,5 and it's most abundantly found in the seeds and leaves of the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia), which is native to India. And well before its recent surge in popularity, it actually had a long history of use6 in traditional ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for its ability to treat a variety of skin conditions, including vitiligo and eczema, thanks to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiproliferative, and antimicrobial properties.
But back to its efficacy as a retinol dupe: In one 12-week, triple-masked study, half of the participants were assigned to use a topical treatment containing 0.5 percent retinol, and the other half were assigned to use one containing 0.5 percent bakuchiol. Researchers found that both groups experienced significant but equal improvements in lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, and skin firmness with an overall reduction in photo-aging. The bakuchiol group, however, experienced less dryness, scaling, and irritation. Quite the ingredient, no?
Now, you may also see vitamin A oils (such as rosehip seed) hailed as natural alternatives. While these are great oils to include into your routine, they do not increase cell turnover in the same way that retinols or bakuchiol have been shown to.
While derms and skin care fans seem to adore this active, that doesn't mean it's well understood. A prime example? The confusion over the many names. But all you need to know is that retinoids are the umbrella term, and retinols are what you can pick up at the drug- or department store.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.