What’s The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

By Lela Lankerani, MD December 8, 2014 28 Comments

retinol vs. retinoids

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.


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

  1. Darlene says:

    Very interesting and helpful post!

  2. Sherry says:

    How do get retinoid?

    • 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. 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!

    • Augusta says:

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

  4. 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. Jennifer says:

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

  6. 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.

      Thanks,
      WD Staff

  7. 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: http://www.livestrong.com/article/76800-list-skin-care-ingredients-shouldnt/).

      We hope that helps!

      Thanks
      WD Staff

  8. Colleen says:

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

  9. 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.

      Thanks,
      WD Staff

  10. 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!

      Thanks,
      WD Staff

  11. Gracey says:

    Nice information …

  12. 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. 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.

    Thanks,
    WD Staff

  15. 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!

      Thanks,
      WD Staff

  16. Suzanne says:

    Hello
    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?

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