What’s The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

Written by Lela Lankerani, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on December 8, 2014 48 Comments

retinol vs. retinoids

Quick Answer: Retinol and Retinoids are powerful anti-aging ingredients that can rejuvenate the look and feel of the skin. Retinol is a form of vitamin C that is found in over-the-counter skin care products. Prescription strength retinoids like tretinoin or retinoic acid are stronger formulations that should only used by individuals who did not realize improvements from retinol. Continue reading to learn more about retinoids and retinol.

During the natural aging process the skin begins to lose its elasticity, resulting in the development of fine lines, wrinkles, and rough feeling skin. The accumulation of sun exposure over the years tends to dramatically accelerate and compound this effect.

Two products that lend themselves to preventing and reversing the signs of aging are Retinol and Retinoids. Retin based skincare products are worth understanding because of their proven ability to reduce wrinkles, increase blood flow in skin, fight acne, increase cellular turnover, boost collagen and even skin tone.

What are Retinoids?

Retinoids are chemical compounds that are related to vitamin A. Retinoids work by initiating the skin to rapidly turn over cells, killing old cells in order to boost new cell growth. They also stimulate collagen production and thicken deeper layers of the skin, which is the source of wrinkles. Finally, retinoids correct pigmentation related issues by sloughing off brown spots and curbing melanin development. The type of retinoid and the percentage strength that is best for you depends on several factors:

  • Skin type
  • Skin condition
  • Your age
  • Reasons for use (some retinoids are better than others for acne or anti- aging)

All of these factors combine in determining what your skin needs and can tolerate. Generally you want to use a retinoid that gives the best result and the least irritation.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that naturally occurs in the skin. It is commonly used in over-the-counter skin care products, normally in concentrations of around 0.05 to 1 percent. When retinol is topically applied to the skin enzymes work to convert it into retinoic acid; which is clinically proven to improve lines, discoloration issues, and revitalize the skin.  Retinol is available in many high quality over-the-counter skin care products from brands like SkinMedica.

The process of converting retinol into retinoic acid can take several weeks. In fact it could take up to 3 to 6 months of daily usage for retinol based products to provide a noticeable difference.

Retin- A (Tretinoin)

Retin-A is the brand name of tretinoin, the first retinoid approved by the FDA over 40 years ago. Retin-A is a prescription drug that when launched was predominantly prescribed by dermatologists to treat acne. However, today the use of Retin-A for skin rejuvenation is commonplace as physicians have noticed how it can simultaneously boost collagen, diminish wrinkles, speed up cell turnover, and smooth the skin.

Retin-A is referenced as being 100 times stronger than retinol. It also has a more immediate effect because it is formulated as retinoic acid; unlike retinols, no conversion by the body is required. As such, many users of Retin-A experience notable improvements in as little as 4-8 weeks.

Retinols vs Retinoids, which is better?

Every individual is unique. As such, patients my find that adding retinol alone to their skincare regimen provides all the results they are looking for. If over-the –counter retinol products prove to be ineffective we may suggest a prescription based retinoid, such as Retin-A. Your dermatologist will examine your skin and prescribe the proper strength for your unique skin type and concerns.

Lela Lankerani, MD

Lela Lankerani D.O. received her undergraduate degree in Biology at Washington University where she graduated cum laude. Dr. Lankerani has published articles in several scientific journals and has presented at national scholarly meetings including the American Academy of Dermatology and American Osteopathic Academy of Dermatology.

48 Responses to “What’s The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?”

  1. Avatar Darlene says:

    Very interesting and helpful post!

  2. Avatar Sherry says:

    How do get retinoid?

    • Avatar Josefina says:

      Great article. Hi there, I’ve been using Retin-A at .05 for wrinkles, along with a Vit C serum and have seen good results (I’ve been using it for about 8 months now). I got it online to save money. It was my mom actually, who suggested I try Retin-A or Differin. She said just search in Google for this keyword “GETRET247” to find the reliable source. You can use this keyword as discount code to get 10% off.

      I found that they sell Differin too. Has anyone tried the Differin for wrinkles and if so what was your experience? Did you like it better/worse than Retin A.

      Thanks……. I’m a bit nervous about switching

  3. Avatar Sherry says:

    Can you get retinoid without a prescription?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Sherry, thanks for reading our post and submitting your question! Retinoids do require a prescription from a physician due to their power. We would encourage you to see a board certified dermatologist. They will examine your skin and prescribe the best treatment for your individual needs!

    • Avatar Augusta says:

      No. The Ordinary sells retinoids for low prices. There are plenty of products on the market that have retinol in them.

  4. Avatar Cuong says:

    Hi Dr. Lankerani, I am a fourth year osteopathic medical student interested in Dermatology and cosmetics. I would love to talk to you more about it if you are able to find the time! I was wondering if 1% OTC retinol is equivalent to 0.025% Tretinoin? Or is any tretinoin, even the weakest one, is better than the highest percentage retinol? Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you!

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Cuong, thanks for your question. I forwarded it to Dr. Lankerani and she provided the following response:

      “OTC retinol must be activated within the skin to covert to all- trans retinoic acid in order to be effective , thus taking time to take exert effect. Therefore retinol needs to be present in higher quantities than rx tretinoin in order to be effective. In general retinol is considered to be 20 times less potent than retinoic acid, so a 1.0% retinol is equivalent to a 0.05% tretinoin.”

      I’ll also send you an email directly to make sure you received the response.

      Thanks again!

      WD Staff

  5. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Thoughts on Differn? As it is sold over the counter now…

  6. Avatar Karen says:

    My dermatologist px Tri-Luma for face pigmentation. (which I have been lax on using but have a prescription I could refill.) My skin care person has suggested I use retinol for skin pigmentation and wrinkles and all the usual that goes along with an aging face of someone who loves being outdoors. After reading this, it seems like Tri-luma is a better, or at least as good as choice as retinol?? What would the advantages of retinol be over Tri-luma if there are any?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for reading our post and submitting your question. The Triluma actually contains a prescription strength retinoid (which is stronger than an over-the-counter retinol and can help with said aging) but it also contains hydroquinoine (bleaching agent) and steroid (lightens skin as well). So those additions combined with an overall higher potency are the advantages over an OTC retinol product.

      Note that Triluma should be applied only to brown discoloration and not all over face, as it can bleach your “normal” skin tone as well.

      I hope that helps, please let us know if you have any additional questions.

      WD Staff

  7. Avatar Belle says:

    Anti aging cream is safe for breastfeeding moms? Thanks

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Belle,

      Thanks for reading our post and for submitting your question! First off, we would recommend that you see a dermatologist, who can look through your health history and recommend the best product for your specific concerns.

      Generally breastfeeding women should stay away from products containing retinol or retinoids as there is a chance those ingredients pose a risk to baby. Additionally there are other ingredients you should shy away from (here is a good article by LiveStrong on this:

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  8. Avatar Colleen says:

    Hello! Thanks for this article. How does the AlphaRet cream compare to a .25% retinol cream?

  9. Avatar Ashley says:

    Great article and thank you for sharing! I’m currently using differin (retinoid) and was wondering if I could add a retinol cream (skinmedica) to my regimen. Can you use retinoids and retinol together? Are they essentially the same thing in different strengths, so it’s not necessary or beneficial to use both? Or do they address different concerns? I’m using differin for acne but want to address anti aging as well. Thank you!

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Ashley,

      Thanks so much for reading our post and submitting your question! It is very difficult to give any advice without seeing you in person and knowing your medical history. The simultaneous use of retinoids and retinol can cause skin irritation and redness, especially for individuals with sensitive or dry skin. Since you are already using Defferin we would highly encourage you to see your dermatologist to discuss adding the retinol cream (or any other product) into your regimen.

      WD Staff

  10. Avatar Sarah says:

    Hi. I have TOPICAL psoriasis on my elbows, and am wondering if the over-the-counter RETINOL products would be best for me. I’ve had it there for most of my life. I’m a 53-year old woman. Do you know of cases where people in that situation have successfully used over the counter RETINOL products in the skincare routine? Any resources or website articles you can forward to me? Looking forward to hearing from you.

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Sarah, We have had some patients who experienced a reduction in symptoms from over-the-counter treatments. However we do not have any sort of publicly available documentation on those patients.

      We would also highly encourage you to see a dermatologist before adding any Retinol product into your regimen, even if the product is OTC. It’s always a good idea!

      WD Staff

  11. Avatar Gracey says:

    Nice information …

  12. Avatar Blaine says:

    Wow this is really good information! I always thought they were one in the same. Also SkinMedica is such a good brand. 🙂 I got my tretinoin online and have been using it for about a week now. I read a ton of reviews online before trying it and saw some really good before and after results so I’m hoping that it will be a miracle product for me. I have been using the lowest strength (0.025%) which seems to be gentler on my very sensitive skin. I’m also using the cream instead of the gel which was recommended to me by my online dermatologist.

  13. Avatar Jo says:

    Hi I’m in my early 30’s and I noticed saggy skin especially on the eye area. Which of these three can help me to get firm skin again especially at the eye areas. The droopy eyelids made me look older.

  14. WD Staff WD Staff says:

    Hi Jo, Thanks for reading our post and submitting your comment!

    You can give an over the counter Retinol product a try first, make sure to do opt for a product specifically suited for the eyes as it is a delicate area. If that does not provide the results you are looking for you may want to consult a dermatologist for more options, like a prescription strength retinoid or an in-office laser treatment.

    WD Staff

  15. Avatar Sv says:

    Thank you for your information, I’m in esthetic field, people have been telling me that using retin-A thins the skin, that’s why they can’t do chemical peeling, dermabrasion or IPL treatments. From what you said, Retin-A should thicken skin instead, so basically people should be able to do those treatments. Am i right?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Sv, thanks for reading our post and for submitting your great question! Retin-A can make the skin more sensitive, especially to the effects of harsh peels or laser treatments. So in terms of if a peel is appropriate while using Retin-A, it depends on the individuals skin and the type/strength of the peel. They may have to discontinue usage prior to their peel. Always best to see a dermatologist for an assessment!

      WD Staff

  16. Avatar Suzanne says:

    Thank you for this article. Very informative.
    I have read that Prescription Tretinoin is more potent, but OTC Retinol penetrates skin better. What are your thoughts on this?
    Also, I find that using tretinoin every night is a bit harsh on my skin, but alternating between tretinoin and retinol every other night works well. Is this ok to do, or are there any reason I should not be using both?
    If I had to choose just one of them (prescription tretinoin or otc retinol) and my skin tolerates both well, which one would you choose, and why?

  17. Avatar Jennifer says:

    I am using Stieva A 0.025% daily on my face. A friend of mine is using 1%retinol and I noticed a huge difference in her skin’s appearance. I on the other hand barely notice any difference in my fine lines and crows feet. My understanding from your article is that my Rx is much more potent than hers. Am I wrong? should I move up in concentration? Looking forward to your response.

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for reading our post and for your great question. Here is a response from Dr. Lankerani:

      A couple of different factors could contribute to the difference in appearance of fine lines after using retinol vs rx tretinoin amongst individuals . The depth of the rhytides may be a factor, as well as having dry vs oily skin. If the Stieva A 0.025% is non irritating, you may to try increasing it’s strength to 0.05% or 0.1% before moving on to a different product. As always we would encourage you to discuss this with your dermatologist or current skin care provider.

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  18. Avatar Jill F says:


    I am a 52-year-old woman and I am trying to figure out if retinol or retinoid is better to slow down the hands of time? I am currently using a 2 1/2% retinol product and I am wondering if switching to a product like Differin, which is 1% retinoid, is better or worse?


    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Jill, Thanks for reading our post and submitting your excellent question! Firstly, we would recommend you discussing this with your dermatologist in person. That’s always a good idea! With that out of the way, you may benefit from sticking with retinol but trying a higher strength. We’ve seen others with similar issues have success with that change.

      But (again) you should discuss with a skin care professional!

      WD Staff

  19. Avatar Owen says:

    Hello! Would you please clear the misconception between retinol and retinaldehyde? I’ve been to different websites of dermatologists and estheticians. And some say retinol is the strongest OTC while others agree that it is retinaldehyde because it’s one step towards retinoic acid. Would you please make a detailed explanation on this or better yet make an article to shed some light. Thank you very much.

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Owen, thanks for reading our post and for submitting your great question! Retinaldehyde is more potent than retinol, we’d agree that it is the strongest over the counter form. Then tretinoin (available via prescription) would be ones step up from retinaldehyde.

      The increased strength of retinaldehyde may be too harsh for some users causing irritation. As always we recommend discussing the use of these products with your dermatologist (or skin care professional) before you try them out.

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  20. Avatar Diana says:

    hey this is so informative. I have problems with cystic acne and im trying to introduce my skin with retinol products. But i read somewhere that retinol isn’t effective as retinoid so which should i try for starter? Is it retinoid or retinol?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Diana,

      As always, we’d recommend seeing a dermatologist to discuss which treatment option is best for your particular concerns.

      In general you may want to start off trying and over-the-counter retinol product. If your acne does not respond then you can ask your dermatologist about trying a more powerful retinoid (or other prescription strength alternatives).

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  21. Avatar Kevin says:

    I am trying to find a good eye serum and cream to use for day =time and one ton use for night time. I am currently using Revision DEJ Revox 7 and DEJ eye cream during the day and Topix Phar. Replenix Enhanced All Trans Retionol eye cream at night. I use Obagi Vitamin C cleanser, Obagi Vitamin C serum on pigmentation and their Vitamin C serum 20% around ,my lips and on my neck and Revision Nectifirm on my neck.
    I was using Tretinoin 1,0% on my forehead lines and hollow cheek area. I was told not to use the Tretinoin 1.0% on my eye area.
    But I don’t see any retinoid or retinol in the DEJ Revox 7 or the DEJ eye cream. I have creepiness on upper eyelids and bags under my eyes.
    I am trying to find the best daytime eye serum and cream as I was told not to use any retinoid or retinol during the day around my eyes. Is that true?
    Can you recommend the best eye serum and cream I can use for creepiness on eye lids and bags under eyes during the daytime? And also do you feel the Topix Pharm. Replenix Enhanced All Trans Retinol Eye Cream, is the best to use around eyes at night?
    Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to email me directly.
    Thanks in advance

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for reading our post and submitting your great question!

      I had a brief chance to pass it by Dr. Lankerani, and she provided the following response:

      “I encourage patients to use retinol/retinoid creams on their eye area at night but to keep in mind that skin is delicate and is prone to irritation if too much is used. During the day, eye creams and serums that contain hyaluronic acid and caffeine can help with hydration and puffiness. One of my favorite medical grade topicals for daytime use is SkinBetter Interfuse eye cream.”

      We hope that helps! If you’re in the Austin area, feel free to call us for an appointment. Dr. Lankerani can assess your needs in person and develop an optimal treatment plan.

      WD Staff

  22. Avatar Malahan says:

    Hi, glad that i saw on this in yahoo. Thanks!

  23. Avatar Best Otc Retinol says:

    Then what are the best OTC retinol?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:


      Thanks for reading our post and submitting your great answer. To start, there are many great OTC retinol products, some of which are better for addressing specified issues. Its always a good idea to see your dermatologist (or other skin care professional) for advice on what is best for you.

      In terms of a great “all around” product, we like SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex ( The 0.25 is a great starter product, with the 0.5 being good for individuals who need more power (and who’s skin can tolerate the 0.25 product).

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  24. Avatar Ireland says:

    I just started on a retinol product (night serum) and am loving the results. I took your advice and glad I did. I hope others hop on board because it really does help

  25. Avatar Celena says:

    I’ve been on OTC retinol products and are going to step up to a prescription retinoid this summer (or at least ask my doc what he thinks). Thanks for this explanation.

  26. Avatar Louise says:

    Can a 1% Retinol (Medik8) serum be used on alternate nights to 0.025% Tretinoin Cream, Many thanks 🙂

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Louise,

      Here’s a reply from Dr. Lankerani

      Yes, she can alternate the retinol 1% with the tretinoin cream without any problems. Both are retinoids, (otc vs rx) so she needs to just be on the look out for irritation and back off, use less or add moisturizer if that happens.

      We hope that helps!

      WD Staff

  27. Avatar Lindy says:

    Tretinoin Cream 0.05 is this effective as a ani ageing
    or should I go for 0.025 ?

    • WD Staff WD Staff says:

      Hi Lindy,

      Thanks for asking a great question! The .05% should be a great concentration for anti-aging. A recent study showed the following:

      After 24 weeks, 79 percent of the people that used the .05% tretinoin cream showed reductions in factors such as fine wrinkling, rough skin and hyperpigmentation (Source:

      As always, we recommend following up with your Dermatologist or skin care provider to discuss what is best for your specific needs.

      WD Staff

  28. Avatar Hayan says:

    Hey there Westlake Dermatology team! Thank you for sharing this informative blog post on retinoids and retinol. As someone who is relatively new to the world of skincare, it can be overwhelming to navigate the different products and ingredients out there. Your article provided a clear and concise explanation of these two commonly used ingredients, which has been helpful in guiding me towards the right products for my skin.

    I appreciate the detailed breakdown of the different types of retinoids, as well as the benefits and potential side effects of each. I was also interested to learn about the differences in how retinol and retinoids are processed by the skin and how that affects their efficacy. Your recommendation to start with a lower concentration of retinol and gradually work up to a higher percentage is a great tip for beginners like me who may be hesitant to try new products.

    Overall, your blog post has been a valuable resource in helping me understand the benefits of incorporating retinoids and retinol into my skincare routine. I look forward to exploring more of your content in the future and continuing to learn about the world of skincare. Thanks again for sharing your expertise!

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