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Retinol vs. Retinoid: When To Use Each

Take a walk down the skincare aisle at your local beauty store, and you’ll likely see two ingredients listed repeatedly: retinoid and retinol. Although these two ingredients sound very similar, there are key differences between the two.

Believe it or not, retinol and retinoid are not the same — but they can both lead to significant skin improvements.”

  • Shani Darden, Celebrity Esthetician

Both retinol and retinoids are fixtures of progressive anti-aging skincare – but what are they, and what do they do? Read on to learn more about these powerhouse ingredients and what makes them different.

What Is a Retinoid?

Retinoid is the overarching name for a family of topical skincare ingredients based around vitamin A. These retinoids primarily work to even the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, dissipate dark spots, and target blemishes.

Retinoids support youthful-looking skin and smooth skin texture, meaning they may reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They also gently exfoliate the top layer of skin to lighten the appearance of dark spots and blemishes. Retinoids can also help unclog stubborn pores and encourage collagen production.

Although they have recently gained popularity, retinoids have always been highly effective and proven. In fact, retinoids were first approved for topical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1971. The first retinoid to gain FDA approval was tretinoin, a prescription-strength retinoid.

Other prescription-strength retinoids include:

  • Tazarotene
  • Trifarotene
  • Isotretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Alitretinoin
  • Bexarotene

Dermatologists often use these extra-strong retinoids to help particularly blemish-prone skin fight off pimples.

Because prescription retinoids are so strong, they can cause side effects like dry skin, redness, and even skin irritation. If you’re considering using a prescription-strength retinoid, schedule an appointment to discuss it with your dermatologist. They can help you find the right retinoid for your skin and properly work you up to regular use.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid and is diluted enough to use in over-the-counter skincare products. Retinol has all of the appearance-brightening properties of other retinoids but is gentle enough to use in a more informal setting.

Retinol works at the cellular level to increase collagen production, which leads to a brighter, more youthful appearance. It also helps gently clear out clogged pores to help prevent blemishes.

Although it is one of the lightest retinoids, retinol also has some of the widest applications out of the other retinoids. retinol can improve the appearance of dark spots, blemishes, and wrinkles all at once.

Retinol shows up in many over-the-counter skincare products, such as my Retinol Reform. My award-winning serum combines retinol and lactic acid to give you glowing, even-looking skin in as little as 14 days.

When Should I Use Retinol vs. Retinoids?

So, when do you use each? The answer comes down to your skin, the results you’re looking for, and your dermatologist’s recommendations. 

If you have sensitive skin that is prone to irritation, then prescription retinoids might not be a good fit for you. Retinoids are quite powerful, and even the weakest prescription-strength retinol can cause a reaction in sensitive skin.

In this case, retinol is a better option. Retinol is much easier on sensitive skin than prescription-strength retinoids and will provide similar results over a greater period. However, if your skin can handle it, prescription retinoids might be just the thing to help you get even-looking skin. 

If you are looking to target a specific skin issue like blemishes or fine lines, you may want to consider a broader retinoid. Retinoids are often designed to quickly target specific issues, whereas retinol has more broad applications.

Finally, contact your dermatologist. Your dermatologist should know your skin needs inside and out and can help give you personalized advice to fit your skin. If you need a prescription retinoid, your dermatologist will be the one to prescribe it for you.

How Should I Use Retinoids?

Since retinol is a type of retinoid, they both require some of the same precautions. Read on for some of our expert tips if you want to get the most out of your retinoid.

Start Slow

Whether you’re using a retinoid or retinol, one of the most important ways to protect your skin is to start slow. Even over the counter retinol serums are stronger than other skincare ingredients, and your skin will need time to adjust to these powerful ingredients. 

To prepare your skin for retinol, start off using it every other night. If you have sensitive skin, you may even want to start by using your retinoid twice a week. 

Slowly build up to nightly use, and keep your eye out for any signs of irritation such as redness, dry skin, or irritation. If you see any signs of irritation, take a break from the retinol and focus on skin soothing ingredients to balance the skin. After a short break, you can begin to slowly reintroduce the formula again. 

Use Sunscreen

Since retinoids remove the top layer of skin, your skin is more sensitive to sunlight than normal. You may be more prone to sunburn and sun damage, which can include fine lines, dark spots, and more. Ironically, these are exactly the issues that retinoids are typically prescribed against, so protecting your skin is essential to get all of the skin-smoothing, anti-aging benefits of a retinol.

Extended sun exposure can reverse the effects of retinoids, so it’s important to protect yourself against the sun. Use sunscreen like Supergoop! Play Everyday Lotion with SPF 50, which is lightweight and designed to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.

It’s worth noting that you’ll also need to invest in a deeply hydrating moisturizer since retinoids can cause dry skin. I recommend iS Clinical Reparative Moisture Emulsion, which is designed to combat dryness by infusing hydration deeply into your skin.

Don’t Mix Ingredients

When using retinoids, it’s best to avoid other strong ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). These include glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, and salicylic acid. Strong ingredients like these can cause irritation in the skin or lead to overexfoliation. 

My Retinol Reform formula does include lactic acid, but she uses encapsulated retinol so that you can have the best of both ingredients. The retinol is kept separately from the lactic acid, so they can each work their magic.

Give it Time

You may be tempted to apply loads of products or start nightly use to see faster results, but these products take time. Retinoids are incredibly powerful, but even the strongest retinoids require time to yield results.

Retinoids produce results in the long term, so give your skin time to reap the benefits. My Retinol Reform combines both Lactic Acid to provide immediate brightening and smoothing benefits along with retinol for longer term cellular turnover, collagen boosting benefits. These products work by transforming your skin from the inside out, so it will be a bit before you see those outer results.

Wrapping It Up

Although retinoid and retinol sound similar, they are quite different. Retinol is gentler than a retinoid yet still very effective.

Retinoids are more common in dermatologist prescriptions. Both products target blemishes, fine lines, and dark spots, and both require similar precautions.

For more of my skin tips, check out my blog and follow me on social media. I can’t wait to help you get the skin of your dreams!



Retinoid or Retinol? | American Academy of Dermatology

Retinoids, Topical | American Osteopathic College of Dermatology

Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological Treatments | PubMed Central


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