Retinoid vs Retinol: What’s the Difference?

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Retinoids and retinol are anti-aging skincare staples. Clinically proven to tackle wrinkles, acne, and more, one, or both, will have a place in your routine.

The words “retinol” and “retinoid” are often used interchangeably. But the two are certainly not the same!

Though they are very similar, the differences are important to note if you’re looking to integrate one into your skincare routine.

In the debate of retinoid vs retinol, which should you use?

In this article, we’ll look at their differences, how they’re used, and any possible side effects.

Before we get into the retinoid versus retinol discussion, let’s take a look at what they are.


What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a derivative of vitamin A, converted into retinoic acid. It’s designed to accelerate skin cell division and promote new cell growth while actively thickening the top layer of skin. Tretinoin is a well-known retinoid

Retinoids work deep in the skin’s dermis layer to stimulate elastin and collagen production, which helps with issues such as thinning skin and visible signs of aging.

Retinoids have many benefits and generally come in a cream or gel form.

Its benefits include care for fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, acne, and psoriasis. The acid helps unclog pores and reduce inflammation.

If you’re looking to get your hands on a retinoid cream, you’ll most likely require a prescription (but not always, more on this later). This is due to the high amount of retinoic acid. 

What is Retinol?

The Ordinary Retinol 1%

Retinol is a retinoid subtype. They work similarly, but their biggest difference is that retinol can be purchased over the counter, no prescription needed.

Whether in a cream or a serum, retinol has a lower strength than a retinoid. This means it can take longer to notice its benefits.

Retinol is gentler on the skin. That means that there will be fewer side effects! Plus, you can get it at any beauty supply store or ol’ Uncle Amazon.

This particular subtype is in ester form, which means it takes more steps for it to convert to the active retinoic acid.

Whether in a cream or a serum, retinol has a lower strength than a retinoid.

It is often combined with other ingredients to help further hydrate and brighten the skin.

Retinoid vs Retinol

Yeouth Retinol serum

When it comes to retinoid versus retinol, which should you choose? 

Before implementing either into your skincare routine, you should consider your skin type and goals.

Minor Issues

Retinol Eva Naturals

If you’re looking to treat a minor issue, such as light acne or preventative anti-aging care, then retinol is probably best for you. It’s also ideal for you if you have sensitive skin.

When looking for the right product, start with something less powerful. Ingredient lists should always tell you the percentage of retinol it contains.

Start with the lowest percentage, and work your way up.

Before putting anything on your face, patch test on your hand, inner arm, or neck. Retinol is highly reactive and can easily irritate. Test the product before applying it all over your face.

Aim to use your new retinol product two to three times a week to start. If your skin can tolerate it, then work up in frequency if you desire.

Once you’re ready to switch to a stronger product, start by alternating your previous retinol with your new one so your skin can adjust. 

Start with the lowest percentage, and work your way up.

Retinol can take weeks, and sometimes even months, to make a visible difference in your skin, depending on what you’re treating. 

Bigger Problems

Differin Retinoid

A retinoid should be considered if you want quicker results or have an issue more severe. If your skin isn’t sensitive and can handle a harsher cream, requesting a prescription is your next step.

Keep in mind that even if you don’t have sensitive skin, you’ll still want to avoid jumping into the deep end. Try to avoid using it nightly when you first get your product, and still patch test before first use.

You can start with a higher concentration of retinol or a lower retinoid concentration and work your way up from there.

Note that most retinoids require a prescription. There are some products, like Differin Gel , that are available over the counter. Differin is a non-prescription Retinoid, though it is at a low 0.1% concentration.

Purging the Bad Stuff

Whether you choose retinol or a retinoid, there is a risk of side effects. While they don’t happen to everyone, it’s important to be aware of them.

You may run into issues with dark spots after using retinol. And keep in mind that your skin may purge after the first few uses, no matter which you choose. This is because of the increased cell turnover, which can clog pores and worsen breakouts.

When it comes to retinol, this is known as the “Retinol Uglies“.

Nice name.

Fortunately, “the uglies” won’t last too long, and eventually, your skin will begin to clear.

Because retinol is the gentler product, side effects are less likely but still possible when using high concentrations.

Keep these side effects in mind as you implement a retinoid into your skincare routine. This way, you can keep your eye out for unusual irritations that may mean you have an allergy to one or more of the ingredients in your product.

If you’re experiencing any of the side effects listed below, it may mean that you’re overusing your product.

To help relieve the irritation, reduce the frequency of use or avoid using the product until the issue clears.

Mild irritation, redness, and burning

Because retinol and retinoid are both acids, irritation can occur. 

You may get what’s known as “retinol burn” no matter which you start using. This usually occurs after the first use and doesn’t last.

Because your skin cells are changing their behavior to promote cell division and faster growth, there may be a bit of time between ridding its old cells and producing new ones, causing irritation or burning.

If you have medium or dark skin, it is usually recommended that you use your retinoid only once a week to start. 

The reason for this is that irritation and redness can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. If your skin burns and begins to peel, this can cause your complexion to look ashy.  

Sun Sensitivity

There’s a reason most retinoids come in dark bottles and should be kept away from the sun. UV light can deactivate retinoids, so they should always be kept in a cool, dark place.

Retinol causes your skin cells to turn over faster and produce new skin cells. This means that those brand-new cells are easy to burn. Protect your skin when you’re using retinol!

The key to using a retinoid safely is broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF. Apply generously and reapply if you’re swimming or sweating throughout the day.

Aim to implement sunscreen as part of your daily skincare routine, even if you’re staying indoors. UV rays can still reach you, even if you’re hiding indoors all day.

If you can, try to stay out of the sun as much as possible to avoid burning. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your summer to its fullest! But maybe avoid your retinol a day or two before hitting the beach.

Dryness and Flaking

The result of an increased cell turnover rate is flaking and dryness. This side effect often happens during the purging stage.

Unfortunately, alongside increased acne, you may find your skin is peeling.

This is a perfectly normal occurrence, if not an annoyance. It shouldn’t last more than a month and can usually be combated with a heavy moisturizer

If you find that your skin has been peeling for longer than a month and a half, you may want to reduce use or seek professional guidance.

To help reduce the peeling, your skin must stay moisturized and hydrated. Including a heavy moisturizer or even a hydrating serum is the key to keeping the dryness at bay.

You can also try using a moisturizer before your retinoid. This may reduce the product’s benefits, but not by much. This way, your skin has a barrier between it and the retinoid.

Remember, you don’t need a lot of retinoid to benefit from it.

A pea-sized amount is all your skin needs.

How And When To Use Retinol and Retinoid

Beauty Bioscience Retinol

Because of its sensitivity to light, your retinoid product should be added to your nighttime skincare routine.

Apply a pea-sized amount to your dry skin after washing your face with a gentle cleanser. If you need an extra layer of moisture, use your moisturizer first, then the retinol.

Always make sure to apply sunscreen the next day.

See also: When to Start Using Retinol.

What Products Should I Avoid Mixing With Retinol and Retinoids?

Since retinoid has a high pH balance, there are certain ingredients you should avoid when using it. Combining your retinol with products containing these ingredients may irritate your skin or reduce the efficiency of the products.

Vitamin C

Retinoids act at a higher pH balance than vitamin C. This would mean that neither product would work optimally.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide can cause retinoids to oxidize, which would make it less effective.

Exfoliators such as AHA or BHA

Alpha and beta hydroxy acids can be extremely irritating to the skin and should not be used in conjunction with a retinoid.

If you wish to use an AHA or BHA, use your acid of choice on a night you haven’t applied retinol.

Drying agents

Because retinol is so drying, aim to avoid drying agents such as toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers.


Retinol and Retinoids are similar products, but tackle different goals and work in different concentrations. Retinoids are generally stronger but require a prescription. Retinol is weaker but takes longer to work.

Depending on your specific needs and time frame, retinol is probably the best way to start. If you feel that you need more than what a 1% retinol can provide, you can dive into the world of prescription retinoids!

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).