Retinol vs. Retinoid: The Difference & Does It Really Matter Which One You Use? 

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.
Beauty Bottles on Plexiglass

Image by Marc Tran / Stocksy

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 opt for this—it's the most general, sure, but it covers all the bases.

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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.

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 or those who want help with signs of skin aging. 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.
  • 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; if you have more sensitive skin, you may need to find one that comes buffered with hyaluronic acid or ceramides.
  • In general, derms do not recommend using a retinol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding as an extra precaution.
  • Anyone with a compromised skin barrier—like if you have eczema or severe rosacea—should proceed with caution with any form of retinoid, as many find it too irritating.
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How do you use either?

You use both the same way: On clean, freshly rinsed skin at night. You can then follow with a hydrating cream or other serums. (In fact, you can check out how to layer products correctly here.) Do not mix retinoids with too many products as it may inactivate the ingredient—AHAs can cause this issue, so it's best not to use them together. As the ingredient causes photosensitivity, they are not recommended for daytime use—only use as part of your nighttime skin care routine.

Finally 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, and burning. 

The takeaway.

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.

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