Retinol vs retinoids: 5 Key differences explained

Understanding the nuances between retinol and retinoids can be a game-changer for your skincare routine.

These two terms are often tossed around in the beauty industry, sometimes interchangeably, but there are significant differences that can impact your skin’s health and appearance.

This article aims to clear the confusion and provide you with the knowledge you need to make informed choices about your skincare.

Armed with this information, you will be able to choose the right vitamin A derivative that aligns with your skin’s needs and your skincare goals.

Whether you’re a skincare newbie or a seasoned enthusiast, this guide will help you navigate the world of retinol and retinoids with confidence.

What is the difference between retinoid and retinol?

Understanding the differences between retinol and retinoids can significantly impact your skincare choices [1]. Let’s break down these differences to help you make an informed decision.

1. Chemical structure

Retinoids are a family of compounds derived from Vitamin A. This family includes various forms, from the gentler retinol available over the counter to stronger prescription forms like tretinoin. The structure of each retinoid determines its potency and how the skin can use it.

Retinol is a specific type of retinoid. It’s not active on its own and needs to be converted by skin enzymes into retinoic acid, the active form that can influence skin cells.

This conversion process makes retinol less potent and more suitable for sensitive skin or for those who are new to retinoids.

Other retinoids, such as tretinoin, are already in a more active form when applied to the skin.

This means they start working faster and are more potent, but they can also be more irritating, especially for sensitive skin types.

So, when choosing between retinol and stronger retinoids, think of it as picking between a gentle introduction and a more direct approach to skincare.

Your choice depends on your skin’s sensitivity, your experience with retinoids, and the results you’re looking for.

chemical structure

2. Potency and effectiveness

The second major difference between retinol and other retinoids is their potency and effectiveness. This aspect is crucial to consider when deciding which product to incorporate into your skincare routine.

Retinol is known for its gentler approach. It’s less potent, which means it’s kinder to your skin [2]. This makes it a great option for those just starting with retinoids or for people with sensitive skin. 

However, this lower potency also means that the results might take longer to become noticeable. Retinol works gradually, improving skin texture and reducing signs of aging over time.

Stronger retinoids, such as tretinoin, pack a more powerful punch. They’re more potent and work more quickly [2].

This means you might see results faster, particularly if you’re dealing with more severe skin concerns like deep wrinkles or pronounced acne. 

However, the trade-off is a higher likelihood of side effects, such as irritation, redness, and peeling.

It’s a balance: retinol offers a gentler, slower path to improved skin, while stronger retinoids offer quicker results but with a higher chance of irritation.

Your choice depends on what your skin needs and how much it can tolerate. Remember, with both retinol and stronger retinoids, consistency is key to achieving the best results.

3. Side effects and skin tolerance

The third distinction between retinol and stronger retinoids revolves around side effects and skin tolerance.

This is a critical factor to consider, as it directly impacts your comfort and the overall health of your skin.

Retinol typically causes fewer and milder side effects compared to stronger retinoids. Common reactions include slight dryness, mild peeling, and a bit of redness, mainly when you first start using it. 

These side effects usually subside as your skin gets used to the product. Its gentler nature makes retinol a preferred choice for those with sensitive or reactive skin types [3] or for those who want to avoid the more intense side effects of stronger retinoids.

Stronger retinoids, like tretinoin, are more likely to cause noticeable side effects. These can include significant peeling, dryness, redness, and increased sensitivity to sunlight. 

Some users might experience a ‘purging’ phase, where acne and skin texture temporarily worsen before improving.

These side effects reflect the potent nature of these retinoids and their more immediate impact on the skin.

When deciding between retinol and stronger retinoids, consider your skin’s current condition and how it reacts to potent ingredients. retinol is a safer bet for sensitive skin, while stronger retinoids might be more suitable for resilient skin types or for those seeking more dramatic skincare results.

4. Availability and forms

The fourth difference between retinol and other retinoids is their availability and the forms in which they come.

This distinction is crucial as it determines how easily you can access these products and incorporate them into your skincare routine.

Retinol is widely available in various over-the-counter skincare products. You can find it in serums, creams, and even some moisturizers [4].

Its accessibility means you can easily incorporate it into your routine without needing a prescription. 

Additionally, retinol products come in different concentrations, allowing you to choose a strength that suits your skin’s sensitivity and needs.

Stronger retinoids, such as tretinoin and adapalene, are typically available by prescription only. This is due to their potency and the potential for more severe side effects.

Their forms are usually more limited, often coming in creams or gels with specific dosages. 

This means you’ll need to see a healthcare provider to access these products, and they’ll guide you on the appropriate concentration and application.

The choice between over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids depends on several factors, including the severity of your skin concerns, your skin’s tolerance, and whether you prefer the convenience of over-the-counter shopping or the customized approach of a prescription treatment.

5. Usage and application recommendations

The fifth and final difference to consider between retinol and other retinoids is how they are used and applied. This is important because the right usage ensures maximum benefits while minimizing potential side effects.

Retinol usage is relatively straightforward. If you’re new to retinol, start with a low concentration and apply it a few times a week, gradually increasing frequency as your skin adjusts. Apply it at night, as retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. 

Also, always follow up with good sunscreen during the day. Since it’s gentler, retinol is suitable for use on most parts of the face, including around the eyes, though caution is advised.

Prescription retinoids require more specific guidance. Your dermatologist will instruct you on how to use them [5], typically starting with a lower frequency to gauge your skin’s reaction. They are also applied at night, and sunscreen is a must during the day. 

Due to their potency, they might not be suitable for use around sensitive areas like the eyes.

With both retinol and stronger retinoids, a small amount goes a long way. Be patient, as it can take several weeks or even months to see visible results.

Remember, consistent and correct usage is the key to achieving and maintaining the benefits of these powerful skincare ingredients.

When should you apply retinol in your skincare routine?

When should you apply retinol in your skincare routine?

Integrating retinol or other retinoids into your skincare routine can seem daunting at first, but with the right approach, it can be a smooth and beneficial experience. Here are some tips to guide you through the process:

  • Starting with retinol: If you’re new to retinoids, retinol is a great starting point. Opt for a low concentration and apply it once or twice a week initially. This gradual introduction allows your skin to adjust without overwhelming it.
  • Nighttime is key: Apply retinol or prescription retinoids at night, as they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Plus, skin cell turnover is higher at night, making it the perfect time for these products to work their magic.
  • Sun protection is a must: Always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, even if it’s cloudy. Retinoids can make your skin more prone to sunburn and sun damage.
  • Moisturize well: Retinoids can be drying, so pair them with a good moisturizer. Apply the moisturizer after the retinol or retinoid to help soothe and hydrate the skin.
  • Be patient: Results won’t appear overnight. It can take several weeks or even months to see significant changes. Consistency is key.
  • Listen to your skin: If you notice excessive dryness, redness, or peeling, scale back on the frequency. Everyone’s skin reacts differently, so find a rhythm that works for you.
  • Consult a professional for stronger retinoids: If you’re considering prescription-strength retinoids, consult with a dermatologist. They can recommend the right product and concentration for your skin type and concerns.

Integrating retinoids into your skincare routine is about finding a balance that works for your skin.

Starting slow, being consistent, and adjusting based on your skin’s response are the best ways to enjoy the benefits of these powerful ingredients.

Closing thoughts

Remember that the journey to great skin is personal and unique to everyone. Whether you choose to incorporate retinol for its gentleness or opt for prescription-strength retinoids for their potency, the key lies in understanding what works best for your skin.

The path to healthy skin involves trial and error. What works for one person might not work for another, and that’s perfectly okay. Your skin is unique, so treat it with care, patience, and respect.


What is the difference between retinoid and retinol?

Retinoid is a broad category of Vitamin A derivatives, including retinol, which is a specific, milder type of retinoid available over the counter.

Is it OK to use retinol every night?

Yes, it’s generally okay to use retinol every night, but start with less frequent application to allow your skin to adjust and avoid irritation.

Which works faster, retinol or retinoid?

Prescription retinoids typically work faster than retinol due to their higher potency and direct form of Vitamin A.

How can you tell if retinol is working?

You can tell retinol is working if you see gradual improvements in skin texture, reduced fine lines, and a more even skin tone over several weeks to months.


The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.