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If ever there were a hero ingredient in our skincare routines, it would be retinol. The buzzy topical is clinically proven to treat both acne and wrinkles because of its ability to stimulate epidermal turnover and reveal fresh, healthy skin cells. But it’s a bit more complex than that: For starters, we often interchangeably hear the words “retinol” and “retinoids” to describe this skin savior, but it’s important to know that both terms aren’t one in the same. Think of the words more like cousins instead of clones—they’re related but different.
To learn a bit more about what sets these terms apart, we connected with Melissa Levin, MD, of Downtown Dermatology in Manhattan. Below she breaks down each, how to use them, when to use them, and which other products in our routine might actually make them less effective.
“Both retinol and retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that ultimately get converted into retinoic acid,” explains Levin. “‘Retinoids' is essentially a basic umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinols and prescription retinoids.”
“Retinols, which are readily available over the counter, contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient,” says Levin. “Prescription retinoids have a much higher concentration of the active ingredient, so they are readily available for the skin to use.” In other words, retinol is what you’re used to using in your regular serums and creams, whereas retinoids can only be prescribed by a doctor (except for Differin, the first OTC retinoid).
“The major difference between retinol and retinoids,” Levin continues, “is that retinol works more gradually compared to retinoids due to their difference in molecular structure and how they are processed in the skin. Over-the-counter retinols are in ester forms such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinyl acetate. It takes more steps for these ester forms to be converted to the active retinoic acid. The more conversions, the ‘weaker’ the product.” Levin explains that while retinoids and retinol do exactly the same thing, it typically takes longer to see results from retinols compared to retinoids.
Additionally, OTC retinols are often combined with other ingredients, such as moisturizing ingredients, to minimize dryness/irritation, add antioxidants, or brighten the skin. This makes them more palatable to the skin, but it also means that some products may have trace amounts of retinol in the bottle.
When Should You Use Each?
For both retinol and prescription retinoids, Levin recommends that you only use them in your nighttime routine, as sunlight deactivates retinoic acid. They should be applied to clean, dry skin after toner (if you use toner, that is).
Who Can't Use These Ingredients?
“Most skin types can tolerate a retinol or retinoid,” says Levin, “but you have to make sure to choose the right retinol/retinoid product and that you are using a nonirritating gentle skincare regimen with a moisturizer and a gentle cleanser in addition to your retinoid/retinol.” Working with a dermatologist will determine whether you’re a candidate for retinol or if your skin requires the strength of a retinoid. They can also help recommend a safe routine (we love these moisturizers and these cleansers.)
Levin adds, “Retinoids and retinols can initially cause a process called ‘retinization,’ which leads to redness, dryness, and flaking, especially when you first start. It’s important to realize you should slowly ease into using a retinoid.” To avoid this, she recommends starting off by applying a retinoid every third night. “If your skin isn’t irritated after two weeks, increase to every other night for another two weeks. If your skin is still tolerating the retinoid, go for every night!” Another tip to ensure tolerability is to apply with a moisturizer. Apply a pea-size amount of the retinoid first, wait a few minutes, and then apply a moisturizer to combat any dryness or flaking. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should avoid using retinols and retinoids altogether. A small percentage of patients are super sensitive and sometimes have a very difficult time tolerating a retinoid.
“If you have more sensitive or dry skin, I recommend starting with an over-the-counter retinol or Differin gel, which is more tolerable than other prescription retinoids. If you have more oily skin or have tried retinoids in the past, then prescription strength retinoids such as tretinoin, atralin, retin-A, retin-A micro, tazarotene, fabior, or tazorac can be tolerated but still need to be slowly up-titrated.”
Which Products Can't Be Used in Conjunction With Retinol and Retinoids?
Did you know that some products can actually have reverse effects on retinoids? “Benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids can deactivate certain retinoids such as tretinoin, so be careful with layering product and make sure to discuss your routine with your dermatologist,” says Levin.
The bottom line: Speak with a dermatologist to determine if your skin can tolerate retinoids or if retinol is a safer bet, remember to apply them only at night, and sandwich it with a gentle cleanser and moisturizer.