The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoid Is Quite Simple

Dermatologists explain.

Cosmetics product design of retinol cream, top view.
Photo: Getty Images

So you're looking to kickstart your anti-aging skincare routine—or maybe you're hoping to elevate it. While many ingredients, such as vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide, can lend to a healthier, more youthful-looking visage, nothing is quite as effective as retinol (and retinoids, as a whole). That's why they're the gold standard in anti-aging skincare.

"There is extensive research validating the topical effects of vitamin A on anti-aging, anti-acne, reduction of hyperpigmentation, and preventative skincare applications since its first publication in 1943," says Genesis Velazquez, a cosmetic chemist and founder of Elitegen Innovation.

And yet, with all the research, one thing still remains wildly unclear to the public: the difference between retinol and retinoids. With that in mind, we chatted with Velazquez, as well as two dermatologists and a celebrity esthetician about the topic. Keep reading for everything there is to know about retinoids.

The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids

The biggest misconception about retinol and retinoids is that they're the same, and that the terms are interchangeable. In reality, Velazquez says that "retinoid" is the term assigned to the overarching category of compounds derived from Retinyl Palmitate (aka vitamin A). "There are dozens of retinoids available in skincare," she adds, noting that all retinoids fall into one of four categories: retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl esters, and retinaldehyde. "Consumers are most familiar with retinol, an over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin A derivative."

According to board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav, MD, OTC retinol is the precursor to retinoic acid. "Both are vitamin A derivatives, but retinoic acid can only be obtained via a prescription and is an active form of retinol," she explains. "Retinoic acid is the only form of the ingredient that is bioavailable to the skin."

In layman's terms, retinoic acid doesn't have to be converted by the skin — it's instantly effective. Retinol, on the other hand, takes longer to work. "The enzymes in our skin have to convert retinol twice (first to retinal, then retinoic acid) before it can be digested by the body (and skin)," Dr. Yadav explains. "That conversion process means retinol is a less active ingredient than prescription retinoic acids."

That doesn't mean that OTC retinol isn't worthwhile or effective. "One major misconception is that 'stronger is better,' which is not true," Dr. Yadav says, noting that it's best to let your skin acclimate.

Celebrity esthetician and trusted skincare expert, Renée Rouleau, adds to this, noting that the slow conversion of retinol makes it more tolerable by more sensitive skin types. "When applied to the skin, retinol converts slowly to retinoic acid," she explains. "It gets delivered into the skin gradually, over a period of hours, instead of all at once like retinoids. Because of this, retinol users often experience less irritation than retinoid users."

How to Add Retinoids Into Your Routine

1. Determine your skin type — and its needs.

According to board-certified dermatologist and Paula's Choice advisory board member, Debra Jaliman, MD, almost everyone can fare well from using retinol and retinoids. That said, she warns that those with eczema or rosacea are more susceptible to adverse effects. "[Vitamin A derivatives] can irritate these sensitive skin types," she says — and Rouleau agrees.

"Retinoid is not ideal for those with sensitive skin," she says, noting that the perfect candidate for a prescription retinoid is "someone who's over the age of 35 with a long history of sun damage; someone who, regardless of age, has pitted, indented acne scars from your younger years; and someone who, regardless of age, has melasma from the sun, heat, pregnancy, or hormones."

Alternatively, Rouleau says that retinol is ideal for sensitive, reactive skin types, as well as those with less sun damage. "Despite being a gentler option, retinol is still effective and can deliver the same results as a prescription with long-term use," she assures us. We recommend trying Drunk Elephant's A-Gloei Retinol Oil ($72, which is also formulated with nourishing virgin Marula oil and ceramides.

2. Select your product.

Since retinol products saturate the skincare market, it's important to know which are worth plucking from the shelves. If you've never used retinol (or retinoids), Velazquez says to start with a low-percentage OTC retinol in the best form for your skin type before asking your doctor or dermatologist for a prescription solution. Where Velazquez recommends a retinol gel or serum for dry skin, she says that a retinol lotion or moisturizer is best for those with oily skin, and a retinol serum or moisturizer is ideal for those with combination skin.

Additionally, be mindful of the product's packaging. Rouleau says that opaque, air-tight packaging is best from a formula efficacy stance, which is why she recommends her brand's Advanced Resurfacing Serum ($86.50, "Retinol is so delicate that it deactivates quickly if the formula inside the bottle is exposed to light—even if it's encapsulated," she explains. "Along with heat and light, oxygen is a major enemy of sensitive ingredients like retinol. The best retinol product will be in an airless container. This packaging keeps the product potent until the very last drop."

3. Perform a patch test.

Even if you think you've selected the perfect product for your skin type, Velazquez says that it is important to perform a patch test to rule out an adverse reaction when applying it to your face, neck, and chest.

4. Start slow — and be patient.

While you might want to slather your skin in retinol (or your retinoid) after a positive patch test experience, Dr. Yadav says not to. "Another common misconception is the belief that applying more of a formula will give you better or faster results — all that will do is give you more side effects like peeling or redness," she says, adding that a pea-sized amount is plenty for your entire face.

Dr. Yadav adds that it's also important to gradually incorporate the products into your routine as opposed to all at once. "Start by using a retinol or retinoic acid once or twice a week to see how your skin adjusts to the ingredient," she instructs. "Once you feel like your skin can handle it, slowly start using it several more days a week." Consider using Shani Darden's Skincare Retinol Reform ($88,, which is a vegan formula that uses encapsulated retinol.

That said, Rouleau says no one should use retinol more than five nights a week — doing so can lead to irritation even in normal skin types.

Speaking of irritation, if you experience any—or if you're hoping to avoid it at all costs—Dr. Yadav says that a sandwich application technique works best when using retinol and retinoids. "Try applying your favorite moisturizer, then layering your chosen vitamin A formula on top before finishing with a final layer of moisturizer," she explains. "Retinol and retinoic acids can be harsh on the skin, especially if you haven't given your skin a chance to acclimate to the ingredient. With a careful regimen, you can better avoid common side effects like redness, peeling, and irritation."

5. Tailor the rest of your skincare routine to accommodate.

In addition to switching up the way you moisturize, Dr. Jaliman says that it's vital to always, always use sunscreen when incorporating retinoids into your routine, as they make skin more susceptible to UV damage (even though they're applied at night).

Rouleau says to also pay close attention to which products you use in conjunction with retinoids. "Use an exfoliating acid serum on opposite nights to maximize results and minimize side effects," she suggests. "Once a week, skip the retinol and exfoliating acid and opt for a hydrating serum. The skin requires a variety of ingredients to [remain] healthy."

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