Retinoids vs. Retinol: What’s The Difference?

Retinoids vs. Retinol: What’s The Difference?

Retinoids and retinol help promote anti-aging in the skin. The main difference between these two approaches comes down to the timeframe in which they work. Retinoids are FDA-approved and often accompany a prescription, while retinol is available over the counter. 

Many people get these two ingredients mistaken or assume they’re the same thing. But, retinoids and retinol are not interchangeable and actually are used for different purposes. 

The two are very similar as they are both a derivative of vitamin A and are both retinols. However, each has a different molecular structure, and that is what sets them apart. The molecular structure in retinoids allows vitamin A to turn over the skincare cells at a faster rate than its retinol counterpart can. 

Retinol, however, can accomplish the same results but at a lower concentration because. This particular molecular structure causes retinol to take longer to lend itself to comparable results.

Retinol is still a very effective product, but the timeline for seeing results will generally take longer than retinoids. Basically, for the most part, retinoids tend to be stronger than retinol. 

What Are Retinoids?

One of the big appeals to using a retinoid is the peace of mind that the Food and Drug Administration approves of them to treat skin. This means that this product has undergone testing in clinical trials. Using a retinoid may require having a prescription for one. 

Using a retinoid may seriously enhance your skincare routine. They are proven to help treat acne, as well as other skin conditions. Using a retinoid helps stimulate the growth of collagen, the speed of cell turnover in your skin, as well as reducing inflammation. Retinoids are usually applied topically but can be taken as an oral medication as well. 

Retinoids are experts in diminishing the appearance of wrinkles, as they stimulate the production of collagen. They soften and improve the skin’s texture, promoting cell turnover and brightening up hyperpigmented areas and dark spots.

Retinoids are a miracle ingredient for skin and definitely something worth looking into in treating a skin condition or just brightening up your natural complexion. 

Retinoid Quick Facts:

  • Antioxidants
  • FDA approved
  • Usually applied topically, occasionally taken orally.
  • Softens the appearance of wrinkles
  • Improve the skin’s texture
  • Promote cell turnover
  • Lightens hyperpigmented areas of skin and dark spots
  • Available over the counter, but more powerful retinoids are more common and require a prescription. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of retinoid, which might make this distinction even more confusing. This is why we’ll dive into their differences a bit further to help clarify what sets these two ingredients apart from each other. 

Though retinol is different from prescription retinoids due to its molecular structure, the main difference between retinol and retinoid lies in their strengths. Retinols usually contain a lower concentration of retinoic acid.

Prescription retinoids have a significantly higher concentration of retinoic acid. This basically means that retinol products are made to work gradually, while prescription retinoids work stronger and faster.  

If you’ve seen retinoids in over-the-counter products, they are likely in an “ester” form. This means that the retinoid has been converted to the active retinoic acid and has a much weaker strength. 

These ester forms may be under the names retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinal ace test. Essentially, the more you convert retinoids, the weaker the product is. 

Additionally, over-the-counter retinol products likely contain a very low dosage of the actual active ingredient. Products that are sold over the counter but contain a prescription retinoid usually contain a very small amount of the actual, active ingredient. 

Retinol is also not approved by the FDA, which can be another distinguishing difference between the two. Even so, retinol is still recommended by many dermatologists and is available over the counter. Retinol can help soften wrinkles, contains anti-aging properties, and be a generally effective tool in treating your skin.

Be wary, though: not all retinol products are created equally. Each retinol product will contain a low concentration of the actual, active retinoid, so each product will vary in degrees of effectiveness. 

So, What Should I Get Between The Two?

For most people, retinol will be absolutely fine. There will be a longer wait for results, but if you are patient, it can be a great option. Retinoids are a more aggressive alternative for those who may be suffering from a more severe type of acne or even scarring. The higher concentration will make for quicker results.

Regardless, talking to your dermatologist is always going to be your best bet when deciding on a product and creating a game plan for your specific skin. 

How To Effectively Use Retinols and Retinoids

It’s recommended that you use retinoids at nighttime unless you aren’t in the sun very often. Avoid going out during the day with retinoids. If you must, wear SPF consistently. 

You might be wondering when a retinoid can even fit into your routine. The answer is: it really depends on what product you are using. If you are using a serum with a retinoid, then the serum goes on under the moisturizer. If you’re using a retinoid moisturizer, then it will go on after the serum. 

Side Effects of Retinol and Retinoids

Generally, the most common and severe side effect of retinoids is skin irritation. Sometimes the use of these ingredients can trigger a process known as “retinization” that may lead to red, dry, or flaky skin.

You may experience these symptoms when you first begin using the products, and then they may begin to fade. Starting with a lower concentrated amount may be a good idea when beginning the use of these ingredients to give your skin a chance to really adapt and react to them. 

If you have a more pale complexion, consider spacing out your retinoid application schedule to be every few days at first. If you don’t notice any negative effects on your skin, you may want to try an increased concentration. You might want to try leading up to using it every night, but see how your skin reacts with a small amount introduced first. 

For mid-range or darker skin, begin using a retinoid only once a week. With hyperpigmented skin, this product may cause redness or irritation that can worsen the evenness of your complexion while also causing inflammation to the skin. If you notice an ashy texture, this is also likely due to the dryness that the retinoid brought on.

If you notice your skin doing fine with using a retinoid once a week, then you may increase the dosage to two times a week and begin the process again. If no irritation or redness, you can lead up to three nights a week, then maybe four.

If you are all fine and good and have no problems at that point, your skin has likely built up a tolerance to retinoids, and you can use it with no problem. 

What Products Can You Use In Conjunction With  Retinoid?

Before you go adding a new ingredient to your skin routine, go take a look at what you use, and what is already working for you. Some ingredients may weaken the effect of retinoids and not generally be effective together. 

That’s why finding a skin routine that works for you is the first step for achieving soft, youthful skin.

In general, avoid these ingredients when using retinol:

  • Benzoyl peroxide 
  • AHA’s
  • Ethyl Alcohol
  • Witch hazel

Who Should Avoid These Ingredients Altogether?

In general, both retinol and retinoids are effective for just about all skin types. Of course, searching for the right product and concentration is important when deciding, especially if you have especially sensitive skin.

You want to choose a product that will be gentle on your skin and be a swift addition to your skincare regimen. 

Retinoids for Dry or Sensitive Skin

If you have never used retinoids before, or have especially dry or sensitizing skin, consider starting with something over-counter and light, like a gel or serum, versus something that’s much stronger when prescribed.

Especially when dealing with dry and sensitive skin, consider trying an over-the-counter retinol before going fully all-in on your new favorite ingredient. 

Retinoids for Oily Skin

If you have oily skin, prescription-strength retinoids may be perfectly effective for you. 

Avoid Altogether

Avoid retinoids altogether if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. They are not thought to be suitable for pregnancy and could cause birth defects. 

MicrodermaMitt: A Skin Care Solution

Many people have had amazing results from using retinoids and have found them to be a miracle ingredient when treating your skin — particularly when given the time to do so. 

However, for others, retinoids and retinals are too harsh on their skin. For those looking for a gentle skin care regimen, consider MicrodermaMitt. We have the products proven by history, loved by science, and shared by our family. 



Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety | NIH 

A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin | NCBI

Does retinol deserve the hype? A Stanford dermatologist weighs in | Stanford Medicine 

Topical retinoid acne treatment approved for OTC use |