Retinol vs. Retinoids: When to Use Each and Why

They're not the same thing.

woman applying face moisturizer

Caroline Tompkins/Refinery 29 for Getty Images

If your skincare regimen doesn't include a retinoid product, your skin may be seriously missing out. Retinoids are clinically proven to treat acne, wrinkles, and a host of other skin issues, thanks to their ability to stimulate collagen growth, speed epidermal turnover, and decrease inflammation.

Some people throw around the words “retinol” and “retinoids” like they're interchangeable, but these are not the same. Think of retinols and retinoids as cousins, not clones—they're related but different.

To learn a bit more about retinol vs. retinoid, we spoke to top dermatologists to break down what these ingredients are, how and when to use them, and which other products in our routines may make them less effective.

Keep reading to learn the need-to-knows about retinol vs. retinoids.

Meet the Expert

  • Melissa Levin, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist based in New York and the founder of Entière.
  • Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist in Miami, Florida, and the founder of Dr. Loretta skincare products.

What Is a Retinoid?

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that are converted into retinoic acid for use in skincare. “'Retinoid' is essentially a basic umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids," Levin explains.

Retinoids are sold just about anywhere you can buy beauty products—drugstores, pharmacies, grocery stores, and beauty boutiques—and can cost as little as $5 or hundreds of bucks. They're also skincare powerhouses that have been used and rigorously studied for decades. Many retinoids are applied topically, but some—such as isotretinoin (Accutane)—are oral meds.

Retinoids are antioxidants and have a stellar rep as wrinkle-fighters; they promote collagen growth beneath the skin, diminishing wrinkles over time. TBH, though, smoothing wrinkles only scratches the surface of what retinoids can do.

Retinoids are proven to improve skin's texture and tone by increasing cell turnover and lightening dark spots. Some retinoids, like Retin-A Micro (tretinoin), help get rid of acne by unclogging pores. The retinoids Fabior and Avage (tazarotene) treat psoriasis by calming inflammation and regulating skin cell growth.

The most powerful retinoids are available by prescription only, with one exception: Differin (adapalene). Differin is an amazingly potent but well-tolerated acne treatment and the only prescription-strength retinoid to be sold over the counter.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid used mainly in over-the-counter products instead of prescription medications. Although retinol is super effective, it's different from prescription retinoids on a molecular level.

The big difference between retinol and retinoid—specifically, prescription retinoid—is strength. “Retinols contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient," Levin says. "Prescription retinoids have a much higher concentration of the active ingredient." OTC retinol products are less intense than prescription products and "work more gradually."

"Over-the-counter retinols are in ester forms," Levin continues; you may have seen retinol on ingredient labels under the names 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.”

In OTC retinol products, retinol is usually combined with other ingredients to hydrate and brighten the skin. Although these products are gentler on the skin than prescription retinoids, they may contain teeny-tiny amounts of the active ingredient.

dr. loretta concentrated firming moisturizer

Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Moisturizer ($70), formulated with retinoic ester

Who Can't Use These Ingredients?

“Most skin types can tolerate a retinol or retinoid,” says Levin. “You have to make sure to choose the right retinol/retinoid product and that you are using a non-irritating, gentle skincare regimen." (We love these moisturizers and cleansers).

If you're new to retinoids, Ciraldo recommends starting with an over-the-counter gel, serum, or lotion instead of a prescription-strength product.

Levin agrees with Ciraldo: “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 oily skin or have tried retinoids in the past, then prescription-strength retinoids can be tolerated.”

If you're not sure which one is best for you, have a chat with your dermatologist. And if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid using retinoids altogether since they can cause birth defects.

When & How to Use Them

The number one most common side effect of retinoids? Irritation. “Retinoids and retinol can initially cause a process called retinization, which leads to redness, dryness, and flaking, especially when you first start," Levin says. "It’s important to realize you should slowly ease into using a retinoid.”

If you have light skin, Levin says to kick off your retinoid regimen by applying the product every third night. “If your skin isn’t irritated after two weeks, increase to every other night for another two weeks," she advises. "If your skin is still tolerating the retinoid, go for every night.”

Have medium or dark skin? Start using your chosen retinoid just once a week, Ciraldo suggests. "If you have more hyperpigmented skin, this redness and irritation can lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation," she says. "You also run the risk of getting an ashy appearance to your skin, which reflects dryness from the retinoid."

If your skin tolerates the stuff, you can increase the application to two nights a week in week two, three nights a week in week three, and so forth. "If all is fine, after a month, you can go to nightly since typically skin builds a tolerance to retinoids with continued use," Ciraldo explains.

Levin recommends that you use retinoids in your nighttime skincare routine. (Sunlight degrades retinoic acid). However, Ciraldo adds that "you can use a retinoid product, like low-concentration retinol or retinoic ester, in the daytime if you are faithful to SPF use in the morning."

If you have a multi-step skincare routine, when should retinoids be applied? According to Ciraldo, it all comes down to the formulation. "If you are using a retinoid serum, it goes on under the moisturizer, and if it is a moisturizer, it is usually directed to go on after a serum or toner."

If you're using a prescription-strength cream like tretinoin, apply it 20 minutes after you've washed your face and before any other products "to minimize irritation," according to Ciraldo.

What Products Can't Be Used With Retinoids?

Before you add a retinoid to your regimen, take a look at your existing skincare routine; some ingredients can make retinoids less effective and way more irritating.

“Benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids can deactivate certain retinoids such as tretinoin," Levin says. "Be careful with layering products, and make sure to discuss your routine with your dermatologist."

Ciraldo adds, "I highly recommend reading ingredient labels and avoiding using products that contain ethyl alcohol or witch hazel, both of which cause redness and irritation and will exaggerate these responses from the retinoid."

The Bottom Line

For most adults, retinoids are safe, amazingly effective ingredients to add to a skincare routine—and the benefits only increase the longer you use them. "The younger you start, the more preventative it will be in terms of reducing the formation of lines and wrinkles," Ciraldo says.

Pick a gentle retinol product to start or talk to your dermatologist to see if you're a candidate for the stronger stuff; then, slowly work up to using it as part of a gentle skincare regimen.

The Best Products With Retinol

If you're new to retinol, The Inkey List Retinol comes with an accessible price tag and a surprisingly high amount of active ingredients. The squalane-based serum is formulated with two types of retinol that buffer irritation with time-released delivery.

the inkey list retinol serum
The Inkey List Retinol $10
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PSA Midnight Courage Oil combines rosehip oil with two percent retinol and bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative that stimulates collagen production.

psa midnight courage night oil
PSA Midnight Courage Night Oil $38
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Ciraldo uses retinol in her own line of skincare products. Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Moisturizer packs retinoic ester, antioxidants, and hydrating jojoba and castor seed oils.

dr. loretta concentrated firming moisturizer
Dr. Loretta Concentrated Firming Moisturizer $70
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Sweet Chef Beet + Retinol Nightly Firming Mask is a no-rinse retinol sleeping mask at an affordable price point. Antioxidant vitamins C and E from beet root extract protect skin from free-radical damage, while squalane and hemp seed oil moisturize.

sweet chef beef + retinol nightly firming mask
Sweet Chef Beet + Retinol Nightly Firming Mask $23
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The user-friendly Peace Out Retinol Eye Stick allows you to target fine lines and wrinkles around eyes with a mixture of retinol, anti-aging peptides, squalane, and soothing plant extracts.

peace out retinol eye stick
Peace Out Retinol Eye Stick $28
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Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  2. National Library of Medicine. "Historical Perspectives of Tretinoin." October 1986.

  3. National Center for Biotechnology Medicine. "Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne." June 5, 2017.

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