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Retinol vs. Retinoid: Which One to Use for Your Skin Type?

Retinol vs. Retinoid

There’s a lot of confusion on certain substances and concepts.

One of these is the retinol vs retinoids discussion. Two very similar terms, and people often mix them up.

You could easily mess up your skincare regimen as this misunderstanding can prove COSTLY when building your skincare regimen.

So what exactly are the similarities and differences of retinol vs retinoids? Let’s find out and get your daytime/nighttime skincare routine back into shape!

Table of Contents

What are Retinoids?

What are Retinoids

Retinoid refers to a group of chemicals related to vitamin A. They are the go-to product when treating acne.

Retinoids and Vitamin A are clinically proven to solve SKIN ISSUES by doing the following :

  • Reduce and treat acne
  • Smoothen fine lines and wrinkles
  • Lighten dark spots

Retinoids work to stimulate collagen production and increase skin cell turnover in order to achieve these kinds of results.

Some retinoids, like Retin-A Micro remove acne by unclogging the pores. They also contain Vitamin A.

Retin-A, also known as tretinoin, stimulates collagen production to boost cell turnover, making new skin cells in order to remove acne scars.

Cost and Availability

Retinoids are essentially available EVERYWHERE. They can be found in places where you can buy beauty products:

  • Grocery stores
  • Drug stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Beauty boutiques

Their cost, on the other hand, varies WIDELY. They can cost as low as $5 and as high as up to hundreds of dollars.

Retinoids have been a staple in treating skin concerns such as dark spots, and have been heavily studied by nearly every board certified dermatologist.

In most cases, your retinoid will be a topical retinoid, which means they are applied directly onto your skin. However, some such as isotretinoin (also known as Accutane) are taken ORALLY.

As powerful as retinoids are, they have CERTAIN EFFECTS (which will be discussed later), so you can’t get most retinoids over the counter.

Prescription-strength retinoids often have the most potent effects, so it’s best that they require a prescription.

There is an exception though. Differin, a prescription-strength retinoid, is available over the counter. Skincare guru, Hyram, recommends this product.

What is Retinol?

What is Retinol

Retinol is a type of retinoid mainly available as over the counter products instead of requiring a prescription like other prescription retinoids.

In other words, retinol is a part of the larger RETINOID FAMILY that are mainly found over the counter.

So, What Sets Retinol Apart from Other Retinoids?

Retinol differs from prescription retinoids on a MOLECULAR LEVEL. Let’s have a quick crash course on science to be able to understand further.

The ACTIVE INGREDIENT in retinoids is called retinoic acid.

It is the specific substance directly responsible for all the benefits you reap, as well as any of the effects that you may experience.

Most over the counter retinol is found in a chemical form called esters. You may have already seen retinol on your over the counter retinol products.

Look under the ingredient list and look for the following:

  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinyl linoleate
  • Retinyl propionate
  • Retinyl acetate

These ester forms of retinol take more steps to be transformed into the active form of VITAMIN A, retinoic acid. The more steps it takes to get to Vitamin A retinoic acid, the weaker the retinol product.

In over the counter retinol products, retinol is often combined with other skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid and benzoyl peroxide to BRIGHTEN and HYDRATE the skin.

These products are gentler on the skin because the active ingredients are present in small amounts only.

This is why you are able to buy retinol serum over the counter compared to the usual prescription-strength retinoid product.

Encapsulated Retinol: For Sensitive Types

While OTC retinol can be gentler on your skin than its prescription-only retinoids, it doesn’t mean that there are no effects.

Retinol serum can still have UNPLEASANT effects like irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin.

If retinol still gives you uncomfortable side effects, then encapsulated retinol is for you.

  • This type of retinol is delivered to the deeper layers of skin in a capsule. Since you bypass the surface of the skin, you MINIMIZE the common side effects of your regular retinol.
  • Some studies have even shown that encapsulated retinol is most likely more gentle and causes LESS redness, dryness, and irritation.

Encapsulated retinol also has an added benefit of releasing the active ingredients over time. Since the retinol is in a capsule, the retinol is slowly released into your body as the capsule breaks down.

This gives your skin a steady delivery of the active ingredients instead of receiving it all in one go, making it a PERFECT product for those with a sensitive skin type.

If you’re locked in to the retinol vs. retinoid debate, then encapsulated retinol probably moves the needle in retinol’s favor.



Since both retinol and retinoids are forms of vitamin A, they have similar benefits for the skin.

In terms of how Vitamin A achieves benefits such as the ability to REVERSE signs of aging, both work by regulating cell turnover.

Looking at the skin specifically, both have…

  • ANTI-AGING properties that reduce pore size and fine lines and wrinkles
  • Balance uneven skin tones and textures
  • Work to clear acne

SUN DAMAGE accumulates as we age, and this can lead to significant loss of collagen in our skin. They both help regenerate collagen when we use them religiously.

This is the mechanism behind the anti-aging properties of both retinol and retinoids.

Not only can the active ingredient, retinoic acid, reduce skin aging and sun damage, it can also improve your acne and even out your skin tone and the uneven texture of your skin.

Prescription retinoids have been used by dermatologists to treat ACNE, FINE LINES AND WRINKLES, and even PSORIASIS, among other skin issues.

Similarly, retinol has been used in cosmetic products since the 1980s because of the effectiveness of vitamin A and retinoic acid at fighting the signs of aging.

The vitamin A in both retinoid and retinol work to stimulate production of collagen and speed up cellular turnover to brighten dull skin and improve overall skin health in general.

When you use a retinoid, retinol, or Vitamin A derivatives consistently, your skin will look so FRESH, it’s like you turned back time.



The most significant difference between retinol vs retinoids is their POTENCY. This is especially true for prescription retinoids.

As mentioned before, retinol has LESS active ingredients, which means that retinoic acid is available at a much lower concentration.

Prescription retinoids in comparison, have active ingredients at much higher concentrations, so you tend to experience more EFFECTS.

So, how does this difference between retinol and retinoid in terms of strength affect your skin goals?

  • Over the counter retinol products are LESS INTENSE than prescription products, so they take effect in a slower, gradual manner.
  • If you have sensitive skin, better go with retinol in order to avoid possible skin irritation and redness.

When is the Best Time to Use Retinoids and Retinol?

When is the Best Time

When applying topically, both should only be used at NIGHT. The skin is often rebuilding damaged cells at this time, so you get the most out of your product this way.

Just make sure to apply sunscreen, ALWAYS!

We recommend using retinoids and retinol AFTER using your cleanser. A clean skin allows for the retinoids and retinol to be able to do their work in the most effective way possible.

If you have other skincare products you also use at night, then it’s best to apply your retinoids or retinol first. We recommend applying your retinol or retinoids after dinner.

This way, you can use your other skin care products like your eye treatments right before bed as your retinol has had time to work by itself without the other products in the way.

To RECAP, your skincare routine with retinol and retinoids should be something like this:

  • Cleanser (before applying retinol or retinoid)
  • Retinol or retinoid (after dinner)
  • Usual night time skincare regimen (before going to bed)

What are the Side Effects of Retinoid and Retinol?

Side Effects

As discussed before, retinol is less intense than retinoid. With that said, this also means that retinol has less severe effects than retinoid.

The more potent the retinoid or retinol, the more retinoic acid it has. Sadly, this potency is a DOUBLE-EDGED sword – the more effective a retinoid is, the more side effects you are likely to experience.

Side effects you are likely to experience with stronger doses of vitamin A and retinoic acid are the following:

  • Redness
  • Burning sensation on skin,
  • Peeling,
  • Sensitivity to sun
  • Dryness
  • Chapped lips

Tips to Reduce Side Effects

For ALL SKIN TYPES, whether you have an oily, dry or somewhere-in-between skin, we recommend you start with an OTC retinol product to get acclimated to the vitamin first when starting out.

This reduces the chances of irritation and dryness, as this allows you to build tolerance to the retinol as opposed to BOMBARDING your skin with retinoids packed with retinoic acid.

  • Whether you’re using retinol or retinoids, always look out for signs of IRRITATION, like redness or excessively dry skin. If you experience irritation, decrease your usage for the meantime.
  • Or…doing a patch test on your elbow or ear are ideal pre-steps.
  • Eventually, you’ll be able to build tolerance gradually, and be able to use them up to four times a week.
  • Another tip to reduce effects is to use products such as sunscreen and chapstick to prevent and relieve effects. Doctors discourage applying retinoids on thin skin (peri oral, around the nose, near the eyes).
  • As retinoids and retinol promote skin cell turnover, newly formed cells are more SUSCEPTIBLE to the harmful effects of the sun, which can lead to excessively sensitive skin and even sunburn.

In order to combat this, always use sunscreen to give your skin additional protection from sun damage.

Similarly, chapsticks help PREVENT chapped lips from occurring, or RELIEVE discomfort if you already have chapped lips.

Retinoid Conversion Process

Conversion Process

Your skin can only use retinoic acid, as mentioned before.

It binds to the retinoid receptors in our bodies, where it promotes cellular repair in the body. This is how retinoids reduce wrinkles, uneven skin, and acne.

The strongest retinoids, such as tretinoin and isotretinoin, are pure retinoic acid. These will immediately bind to your retinoid receptors right away, and start improving your skin right away.

However, as with the most potent drugs, they can have SIGNIFICANT effects, so they are only available with a prescription only.

Some doctors even require a BLOOD TEST before you start your retinoid treatment. Though, this is for isotretinoin only.

They also ensure that you’re not pregnant as retinoids or retinol are contraindicated in pregnant women.

Less potent, OTC retinoids are converted into retinoic acid by the enzymes in our skin before we get the miraculous benefits of the product.

This can happen in up to three steps.

  • Retinol Esters (like retinyl palmitate) are converted into retinol
  • Retinol is converted into retinaldehyde
  • Retinaldehyde is converted into retinoic acid

From these steps, you’ve probably assumed that retinaldehyde(1 STEP away from becoming retinoic acid) is the strongest, while retinol esters (3 STEPS to become the acid) are the weakest.

And yes, you’re RIGHT! The LESS steps to retinoic acids, the MORE effective it becomes. 

Keep in mind though, that the rate of conversion VARIES from person to person. Some people can convert retinoids to retinoic acid faster than others.

This is also the reason why some people have more SERIOUS effects compared to others. So, be CAREFUL especially when using prescription retinoids!

Final Words

Final Words

While the retinol vs. retinoids debate can be quite confusing, hopefully the information on this article helps clear out any misconceptions you may have had about this.

A brief summary shows…

  • If you’re just building your skin care routine and want youthful, glowing skin, then go for retinol.
  • However, if you have serious issues like severe acne, then you may want to consult a dermatologist and proceed with treatment on your skin using retinoids.

Personally, we feel both are awesome products for all skin types that help you discover the fountain of youth!

Final tip: You can also try incorporating amino acids into your skincare routine to enhance the anti-aging benefits of both Retinol and other Retinoids.

Paola Diaz
Paola Diaz

Hi, I'm Paola! A skin care enthusiast and nature lover. Creating content that promotes proper skin treatment and keeping a healthy glow is my way of sharing with the world how healthy skin can go a long way. I’m a firm believer of natural beauty that radiates inside all of us. All we need is the right kind of nourishment that inspires our wellness from inside out. So it’s really not about physical beauty alone – it’s the beautiful life we can create for ourselves when we connect with our own nature and see there is beauty that shines from every one of us.