Beauty 101
What's the Difference: Retinoid & Retinol
Rachel Gibbons Beauty Expert
What's the Difference: Retinoid & Retinol

Here's a guide to know everything about this beloved skincare ingredient

Retinol, arguably one of the most talked about skincare ingredient in 2020 and still in 2021, with more people including retinol in their skincare regime. If your skincare regime doesn’t already include retinol or retinoids, your skin is missing out! However, we know that getting into and understanding retinol or retinoid can be quite confusing, I mean the fact that retinol and retinoid aren’t the same thing already proves the point. This assumption is further complicated when some people throw the terms like they’re interchangeable, when they’re not. Think of retinol and retinoids to be siblings or cousins, related but not identical, somewhat similar but also not really. (See the confusion…) 

To help break that assumption, we’re here to breakdown the difference between retinol and retinoid, how & when to use them, and very importantly what to NOT mix with! So, read on to find out.


Here’s a short and simple breakdown of what retinoids and retinol have in common before delving into the differences. Retinoids and retinol are Vitamin A derivatives that are converted into retinoic acid for topical use. Both are antioxidants that well-known to help target wrinkles and fine lines by promoting collagen production. But wrinkle-fighting isn’t the only thing it does. Retinoids actually affects your cell gene expression to boost cell turnover rate, in turn improving the overall appearance of skin texture and tone by lightening dark spots or any pigmentation. They can also help with reducing pore size, decreasing sebum and clearing acne.  



An easy way to help remember is that retinoid is the stronger version of retinol. Usually, to purchase retinoid products, a doctor’s prescription is required as it has the highest concentration, and also means higher chances of side effects. Retinoid isn’t only found in topical treatments, they can appear in a pill-form medication, such as Accutane. Those with oilier or acneic skin types can look towards retinoid as you may find gentler formulas to be less effective.

Retinoid is sometimes used as an umbrella term for any topical product that contains a vitamin A derivative - retinoic acid, retinol, retinol palmitate or retinol propionate. Different types of retinoids and can have an added benefit on top of those stated above. Retin A Micro (aka Tretinoin) unclogs pores and treats acne. Fabior and Avange (Tazarotene) treats psoriasis by soothing inflammation. 


If retinoid is the stronger version, that means that retinol is the weaker and gentler version. Retinol is a type of retinoid that requires conversion to retinoic acid, making them less potent. It is mainly used for over-the-counter (OTC) retinol (not prescription or medications), those we find in “normal” skincare products.

The biggest difference between retinol and retinoids is strength and potency. Retinol has a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient, making them less intense and allowing it to work gradually to let your skin build a tolerance. OTC retinols are usually in ester forms and combined with other hydrating or stabilizing ingredients to weaken the formula. 

In short, retinol is weaker and gentler than prescription retinoids, so first-time users or those with sensitive or compromised skin may find retinol to be better suited. The stronger the retinoid, the higher chances of experiencing irritation. 

How it works

Retinoid typically describes prescription-grade retinoid products that contain retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the most active and potent form of Vitamin A and is the compound your skin can use. Whereas for retinol it has to go through a chemical reaction in the skin to help convert it to retinoic acid for it to actually work, hence why retinol's potency is weaker. 

How & when to use them?

Although retinol and retinoids can be used both AM and PM, we recommend leaving them to PM-use as it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. Please do refer to the product packaging for proper instructions as every product is formulated differently for different uses.  

When first introducing retinol or retinoid into your skincare routine, it is key to ease it slowly into your routine. Maybe use it 2-3 per week, or even once a week, and slowly work your way up to daily use. This could days or even months, all depending on your skin. Or dilute retinol with your moisturizer if it isn’t already in a moisturizer form. 

What to NOT mix with?

Benzoyl Peroxide and AHAs are 2 example ingredients your skin should avoid when using retinol or retinoid. Both can deactivate retinoids, meaning that counters the conversion of the Vitamin A into retinoic acid, therefore, they no longer work. Vice versa, retinol and retinoids can reduce the efficacy of benzoyl peroxide and AHAs.

If your skincare regime must include acids and retinoids, try spacing them out to be used on different days or using retinoids in the PM and acids in the AM. This would ensure that your retinoids aren’t deactivated by the sun.

What to expect?

Sometimes after using retinol or retinoid, you might experience dry or flaking skin. This is completely normal; this phenomenon is known as retinisation. This happens because first time use of retinol or retinoids is very often met with side effects like redness, peeling or dryness because this is just your skin getting used to it. If you are experiencing this invest in a good and very hydrating moisturizer and steer clear of using other harsh acid products.

However, if you feel that the irritation and pain is too much to handle, or that the irritation persist for more than a month, stop immediately and consult a dermatologist for proper care!

Also, VERY IMPORTANT! Pregnant women or those breastfeeding should NOT use retinol or retinoid. A high dose of Vitamin A can harm the fetus. We recommend visiting a doctor if you insist on using retinoids during your pregnancy for best advice.

To summarize: Retinoids are more powerful, their results are seen faster and almost guaranteed. While retinols are less potent and the benefits appear over time with less chances to side effects or sensitive reactions.

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I hope this blog has helped you in any way and if you have anything to add or ask, feel free to join in conversation below! We’ll gladly answer all questions to the best of our ability and help you in any way we can! 

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