Retinoid Vs. Retinol: Really, Whats The Difference?

Retinoids and retinol often pop up in the same conversations. But knowing the difference can help you pinpoint the right skin care routine for you — and possibly manage some skin conditions too.

Here’s everything you need to know about each. We also have some dope tips on when and how to add them to your skin care routine.

Retinol vs. retinoids

How do you distinguish between retinoids and retinol? It’s pretty simple.

What is retinol?

Retinol works by penetrating the outer layer of the skin (aka the stratum corneum) and the basal layer of the dermis. It’s used as an ingredient in creams available in stores and online.

Once absorbed, it converts into retinoic acid, which can promote cell growth in the protective epidermal layer of skin and increase the speed at which the skin gets rid of sebum (an oily substance that can cause inflammation in the glands under the skin).

OTC retinol can have a max dosage of 2 percent. Retinoid creams with higher concentrations require a prescription in the United States. Retinol tends to cause less irritation than stronger prescription retinoids but usually takes longer to work.

What are retinoids?

“Retinoid” is the umbrella term for a group of antioxidants that derive from vitamin A. Popular varieties include:

  • retinyl palmitate
  • retinaldehyde
  • retinol (sound familiar?)
  • tretinoin
  • tazarotene
  • adapalene

Retinoids have a ton of street cred in the skin care world. They are a powerful wrinkle remedy and are thought to reduce the visible signs of skin aging. You can get a prescription for stronger retinoids for the treatment of skin conditions like:

  • psoriasis
  • pigment disorders

When to use each

Here’s when retinoids, including retinol, can come in handy. Keep in mind that you def need to talk with a dermatologist before using them — they can have side effects and aren’t the right choice for everyone.


Retinol is mainly known for its benefits for those with mature-looking skin, regardless of age. But it’s also a potent ingredient that can help improve a variety of skin concerns, such as:

  • Skin texture. Thanks to its effect on collagen production and cell turnover, retinol can help smooth out uneven or rough skin texture.
  • Skin protection. A 2019 study found that retinol can help thicken and strengthen the epidermis, the outer layer of your skin. This might help protect your skin from stressors like pollution and sun exposure. But TBH, we need more evidence before we can shout this from the rooftops.
  • Large pores and scars. Retinol may help reduce the appearance of large pores and improve acne scars.
  • Keratosis pilaris. Retinol can help treat keratosis pilaris, a condition that can make the skin bumpy, uneven, or rough.


Stronger retinoid products may be helpful for skin concerns such as:

  • Acne. Docs most commonly prescribe retinoids as a treatment for mild to moderate acne. Prescription retinoids can help unclog pores, which allows topical antibiotic treatments to kill the bad bacteria that lead to a zituation.
  • Psoriasis. Oral retinoids and topical tazarotene can help slow excess skin cell growth and reduce redness and inflammation.
  • Pigment conditions. According to a 2009 review, retinoids can treat pigmentary disorders like postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and actinic lentigines.
  • Certain cancers. Retinoids might reduce your risk of certain types of skin cancer, such as cutaneous T-cell lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma, according to the American Cancer Society. But we still need more research to confirm that this is legit. Some research has also found that topical retinoids can help treat precancerous skin patches called actinic keratoses.

Retinol vs. retinoid for acne: Which is more effective?

Everyone’s skin sitch is unique. But in general, other retinoids tend to be more effective than retinol for managing acne.

This is because most retinol products are available OTC and have much lower concentrations than prescription retinoids. Higher-concentration retinoids may help improve acne symptoms faster and do a better job of preventing future breakouts.

How to use a retinol or retinoid treatment

Here’s a step-by-step guide to using retinol or retinoids.


You can use most OTC retinol creams on the reg. Here’s how to add a cream or serum to your skin care routine:

  1. Cleanse your face with your usual face wash.
  2. Wait for your skin to dry. (This helps minimize negative effects by keeping your skin from absorbing too much of the retinol.)
  3. Apply a pea-size amount of retinol to your fingertips.
  4. Dab it on your chin, forehead, and cheeks.
  5. Gently rub it into your skin in a circular motion.
  6. Finish with a moisturizer.

Pro tip: Retinoids like retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Always use sunscreen. And don’t forget to test the product on a small area of skin before using retinol all over your face. If you’re allergic to any ingredients in a retinol cream, your skin may flare up.


In general, you’ll apply a pea-size amount of retinoid cream to your entire face about 30 minutes after washing the area.

But that’s not always the case. Prescription retinoids can come in cream, serum, or pill form. In some cases, you’re supposed to use them for only a certain amount of time or on a specific area of skin.

Talk with a dermatologist before using these products — they’ll give you all the deets on the process.

How to choose a retinol or retinoid

Here are some factors to keep in mind when looking for a retinoid treatment (yes, including retinol):

  • Strength. If you’re new to retinol, start with a lower concentration — under 0.25 is usually a safe bet. Over time, you can work your way up to more powerful serums and creams if the need arises.
  • Quality. Your skin deserves VIP treatment at all times. Avoid products that are packed with fillers like artificial dyes or fragrances.
  • Price. OTC retinol products can get super expensive. But don’t worry. There are loads of high quality options available in stores or online that won’t break your budget. If your derm prescribes a retinoid treatment, health insurance may cover it.
  • Reviews. Scout online reviews to get the overall vibe of a product.
  • Target area or condition. Some retinoids are geared toward acne, while others are meant to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and support mature-looking skin. Pick a product designed with your specific skin type and concerns in mind.

Some of our fave retinol products are on this list.


Retinol and retinoids are generally safe to use if you follow a dermatologist’s instructions. But there are still some things to look out for.

Who shouldn’t use retinol/retinoids?

You shouldn’t use retinol or retinoids if your eggo is preggo. Retinoid use during pregnancy may increase the risk of fetal development issues, according to the National Institutes of Health. You may also want to avoid them if you’re lactating.

Some peeps have used retinoids to treat sensitive skin conditions like rosacea. But that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Sometimes, the treatment can irritate the skin and make symptoms worse.

P.S. You may want to avoid retinol or retinoids if you regularly use:

  • harsh physical exfoliants
  • drying agents like toners or astringents
  • certain other acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide (unless directed by a dermatologist to use both)
  • chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acid or beta hydroxy acid

What other products can you use with retinol/retinoids?

When using retinol or retinoids, moisturizers are your BFF. Look for ingredients can help your skin draw in more moisture and reduce the risk of flaking or drying, such as:

  • glycerin
  • glycerol
  • squalane
  • ceramides
  • hyaluronic acid

Reminder: You should use sunscreen on the daily. But it’s extra important if you use retinol or retinoids (or any product that makes your skin more sensitive to the sun).


Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, and retinol is a milder preparation that’s available OTC at your local pharmacy or beauty store or online. Remedies that fall under the retinoid umbrella are a popular for treating acne, pigment conditions, and psoriasis and reducing signs of skin aging.

Other retinoids usually require a prescription because they’re stronger. Just be sure to talk with a dermatologist before making any major changes to your skin care regimen.

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