Here's The Real Difference Between Retinoids And Retinols

Every so often, you'll suddenly start hearing the name of a specific buzz skincare ingredient popping up everywhere. Suddenly, every brand on the market is releasing its very own product highlighting it, and every beauty influencer you follow is crediting their good skin to it. Skincare trend phases come and go, so it can get tricky to figure out what actually works and is here to stay — or what will get canceled and debunked shortly after it goes viral.

Well, the hype surrounding retinoids and retinol has been around for long enough to trust that they will deliver. Retinoids/retinol have become synonymous with anti-aging skincare. While there's no disputing that the ingredient is a fan favorite, the unassuming slash in "retinoids/retinol" makes things confusing. With most skincare ingredients, there's only really one version. Hyaluronic acid is hyaluronic acid, for instance, and that's what it's known as and called in skincare. But in the case of retinoids and retinol, even their biggest fans probably couldn't tell you the difference. There's really no rhyme or reason to which title people opt for, but the truth is that they actually aren't entirely synonymous. Retinoids and retinol have distinct differences, and we're here to finally clear the confusion up. 

What are retinoids?

No matter how limited your understanding of retinoids is, you're likely familiar with the fact that it has something to do with anti-aging. Well, retinoids are actually vitamin A derivatives. There's a lot that retinoids can do for your skin, but one of the most popular benefits it can have is its ability to tackle fine lines and acne, per Healthline. It's not just yet another buzz skincare ingredient that has its moment and passes, retinoids have been proven by studies to visibly reduce wrinkles over time and promote collagen production in your skin, according to research published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.

Skincare products containing retinoids are less common. This more potent form of vitamin A is typically prescribed by a dermatologist in the form of tretinoin. However, you can dip your toes into the powerful retinoid pool by testing out the over-the-counter adapalene gel Differin. Highly-concentrated retinoid products are considered medication, as they pack a serious punch when it comes to curing and healing acne. 

With most retinoid products, it is best to tread lightly. Retinoids are a very strong dose of vitamin A, and you'll typically be recommended to begin by alternating days. However, it's worth the results. Retinoids can improve your skin's texture over time, as well as heal acne and offer anti-aging properties.

What is retinol?

With a name almost identical, it's no surprise that retinol works very similarly to retinoids. Retinol is a form of retinoid; it's just a little more easily accessible and gentler. Retinol is the version of the ingredient that you can easily find in skincare products and can safely use on your skin without any need for a prescription.  The benefits of retinol are similar, although it works differently. Retinol can also improve skin texture and brightness, but it's a little less powerful when it comes to deeply penetrating your skin and smoothing out wrinkles or acne, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Moreover, retinol works slower. You're less likely to see visible results in a short amount of time. In fact, retinol products typically promise results within six months of beginning usage (via Healthline). It may seem like retinoids would be the better ingredients overall, but the more potent form of vitamin A can be too strong for some skin types. It's far from gentle, so retinol is the perfect way to incorporate some of the benefits into your skincare routine if you have sensitive skin.

What is the difference?

If you pay close attention to skincare products on the market, you'll notice that "retinoid" is rarely plastered across a product. Instead, "retinol" is typically used. But why? Well, the difference between the two ingredients is a lot simpler than it seems. They sound similar because they're technically the same; they simply vary in concentration levels.

On this, Dr. Emmanuel Loucas explains to Healthline, "A simple way to think about the difference between the two: The less steps it takes for these products to break down into retinoic acid, the stronger the product." As this form of vitamin A is broken down further, you end up with the less potent but also effective retinol. Dr. Loucas adds, "Retinols are formulated in an ester form which means they need to be degraded into retinoic acid once applied to the skin." 

When it comes to choosing between the two, the main difference you need to take into consideration is different skin types. If your skin is on the drier or more sensitive side then you'll likely do more harm than good if you go for retinoids. Retinols are much less drying and gentler on the skin. Whichever form you choose, bear in mind that the skin will take time to adjust, and this time can include some dryness and flaking. In fact, Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin explains to Byrdie, "Retinoids and retinol can initially cause a process called retinization, which leads to redness, dryness, and flaking, especially when you first start." However, Dr. Levin adds, "It's important to realize you should slowly ease into using a retinoid."