Free High Beam with any treatment in May!

Retinol or Retinoid? Here's How to Choose

Retinol or Retinoid? Here's How to Choose

When it comes to choosing between retinol and retinoid, do you know which one to choose?

It’s less of a battle of retinol vs. retinoid and more of understanding how each works and which one is most aligned with your specific skin care goals. 

Skin Pharm is here to help with everything you need to know about each so that you can make the best choice for your skin. After all, why waste money on products that aren’t going to help you reveal your best skin yet?

What is a retinoid?

To understand what retinol is and how it works, you have to first understand retinoids. While people often use both terms interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing.

When we talk about retinol vs. retinoid, what we’re talking about is vitamin A

You’ve probably heard of vitamin A before. As part of a healthy and well-balanced diet, vitamin A is found in foods like spinach, carrots, and butternut squash. 

However, vitamin A can also be applied directly to the skin for a wide variety of different benefits. In a few cases, retinoids can also be used orally (Accutane, a popular acne prescription, is one example).

That’s where retinoids come in. These are considered “derivatives” of vitamin A, and they are converted into a slightly different product known as retinoic acid so that they can be used in skin care products. 

Essentially, what we call retinoids is more of an umbrella term that also encompasses retinol. The two are related, with a few small but significant differences. 

However, the term ‘retinoid’ is also the term for the more vital options available, many of which need to be prescribed instead of purchased over the counter. An excellent example of a retinoid with years of science behind it is tretinoin, which has been studied since the early 1960s. 

In a few cases, retinoids can also be used orally (Accutane, a popular acne prescription, is one example) while still claiming benefits to the skin.

What can retinoids do?

Now that you know what retinoids are, what exactly can they do?

Retinoids have gained most of their well-deserved reputation for their effectiveness in treating age-related concerns. Much of that is due to their status as antioxidants because the vast majority of aging can be traced back to oxidative stress caused by the impact of free radicals on the body. 

Specifically, many people turn to retinoids to help them fight off fine lines and wrinkles. To do this, retinoids can trigger the skin to speed up its turnover rate, meaning that you’ll be able to see more youthful, radiant skin in less time than it would have naturally happened. 

The process also helps boost the rate of collagen production, which is the number one protein involved in keeping the skin looking firm and smooth.

But retinoids can do so much more than that and deserve just as much credit for the other benefits it provides. The same process that helps the skin look more youthful can also help reduce the visibility of hyperpigmentation or dark spots. 

As the skin continues to turn over, it takes a small layer of that area with each cycle. Over time, those spots begin to fade more and more and may even be able to disappear entirely!

In addition, retinoids can also help with acne-related concerns. Specifically, they are great at helping to unclog pores, which helps reduce the frequency of blemishes. In fact, in many cases, topical retinoids are considered a first-line medication to help people dealing with acne vulgaris. 

What is a retinol?

When discussing retinol vs. retinoid, next up is retinol. 

Retinol is actually its own derivative of the umbrella term retinoid. It has a few minor differences that can make a big difference in its effectiveness, mainly on a molecular level. 

Most of those differences come down to the strength of the product. In general, retinoids have a lower concentration of the active ingredient that benefits the skin the most… retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the real “end game” of both products because it is the most biologically available ingredient to the skin. The retinoids are broken down even further into their “ester” forms, which is why many over-the-counter retinol products boast ingredients like retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde or retinyl acetate. 

They require an additional step to be converted into that active retinoic acid, which is why they are less potent than their prescription counterparts.  

However, when it comes to effectiveness, don’t be fooled. Just because you don’t see results as quickly doesn’t mean that retinoids are less effective. Because they are more gentle on the skin, they work more gradually to give you the results you’re looking for. 

An excellent example of retinol is our Night Watch serum. Meant to be applied at night before bed, this serum features 0.2% retinol along with other powerhouse ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin C, and bisabolol. As you sleep, the serum works to resurface your skin without the irritation that the more powerful retinoids can cause. 

That way, you can see a reduction in fine lines and pore size due to an increase in your collagen production. It’s excellent for people looking for a way to deal with the symptoms of aging skin. 

Where can you buy retinoids?

Retinoids can be found in skin care products nearly anywhere you can purchase them, whether online, at your local drugstore, pharmacy, or grocery store, or at a shop that caters specifically to beauty products. 

However, the most powerful of them will need to be prescribed by a licensed health care provider, with one exception. Adapalene, known by the brand name Differin, is just as potent but available to be purchased over the counter. It is specifically beneficial for acne-related concerns.

So, retinol vs. retinoid. Which is better?

Both! Deciding between retinol and retinoids really comes down to taking a look at your skin care goals. 

For instance, do you have deep fine lines and wrinkles or significant areas of hyperpigmentation or melasma? You may want to have a prescription retinoid prescribed by your healthcare provider. 

Are you trying to keep your skin looking youthful and healthy, or do you have more sensitive skin? You may prefer the more gentle but equally effective retinol options.

Regardless of which of the two you go with, make sure that you introduce them into your skin care routine slowly at first. Even the most gentle retinol can irritate your skin when you start using it. In fact, if you’re first starting, it may be worthwhile to use over-the-counter retinol for a while to get your skin used to its benefits before moving up to the stronger options.

You’ll also want to be sure that you use a moisturizer with both retinoids and retinol. It takes additional energy and water for the skin to speed up the rate that it is turning over its cells, leading to skin that feels more dry than normal. 

Both products can also have the side effects of flaking, peeling, and tightness, especially as your skin adjusts. 

Moisturizing appropriately can help counteract both of those issues and is yet another way to keep your skin looking and feeling as healthy as possible. It’s all a matter of pushing through that adjustment period so that you can achieve the results you want. 

However, if you happen to be pregnant or trying to get pregnant, retinoids should be avoided.

Don’t forget your sunscreen!

Both retinol and retinoids require that you be extra vigilant about your use of sunscreen. Even though both products were designed to be used at night, your skin is more vulnerable than in the morning. 

With your skin focusing so much on renewing itself more rapidly, it is more susceptible to the damage caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Make sure that you always wear sunscreen when leaving the house, especially when you’re going to be in direct sunlight. This will help protect yourself and reduce the risk of premature aging.

To sum things up...

Retinol vs. retinoid might seem like a tricky decision, but it all comes down to how sensitive your skin is and what results you’re looking for. 

Suppose you’re willing to see results a little more gradually. In that case, over-the-counter retinol can give you just as effective results without all of the irritation that comes with prescription retinoids. 

Skin Pharm can help you reach your skin care goals.


Vitamin A - Health Professional Fact Sheet | NIH 

Historical perspectives of tretinoin | PubMed 

Topical retinoids for acne | PubMed


Also in Blog

Patient POV: “I’ve Found My New Favorite Laser Treatment”
Patient POV: “I’ve Found My New Favorite Laser Treatment”

What Is Moxi Laser Treatment + Benefits
What Is Moxi Laser Treatment + Benefits

Skin Care Benefits of Ice Rolling Your Face
Skin Care Benefits of Ice Rolling Your Face