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Retinol vs. retinoids: What’s the difference?

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RetinolRetinoidsRetinol vs. other retinoidsAlternativesSummary
Retinol and retinoids are used to treat skin conditions like acne, fine lines and wrinkles, and dark spots. They may seem similar, but they have some key differences.
Medically reviewed by Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD
Written by Suan Pineda
Updated on November 21, 2023

Retinol and other retinoids are substances, usually creams, that are used to treat skin conditions like psoriasis and wrinkles. Retinol is a form of retinoid. Other retinoids include retinoic acid and tretinoin.

The foundation of all retinoids is vitamin A. Retinol is usually milder and available over the counter (OTC), while other forms of retinoids are stronger and are available on prescription. This means different retinoids can cause varying side effects that might be more or less severe, depending on the type and strength.

Retinol 

A close up of an older adult applying a cream to their face. It may be retinol or another retinoid.
Simone Wave/Stocksy United

Retinol is an ingredient derived from vitamin A. Retinol is a type of retinoid that’s applied to the skin to help treat certain skin conditions like acne and wrinkles. Retinol is generally milder than other retinoids, and it’s sold under different brand names, from CeraVe to L’Oreal.

Skin products with retinol are usually sold OTC. 

Benefits

Retinol can help:

  • lower the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines
  • treat acne
  • reduce sun damage
  • treat hyperpigmentation (darker patches on the skin)

How it works

Retinol works by increasing the rate of skin cell regeneration. Retinol also helps neutralize free radicals in your skin, reduce collagen degradation, and boost collagen production. 

When you apply retinol to your skin, your body absorbs it. Then, skin cells convert it into retinoic acid, a metabolite of vitamin A, meaning it helps your body use vitamin A. Retinoic acid itself is available on prescription, but retinol is available OTC.

To see the effects of retinol in reducing fine lines and wrinkles and in helping with acne and hyperpigmentation, it can take 3–6 months of consistent use. 

Side effects

Retinol can lead to side effects, such as:

  • dryness
  • scaling
  • itching
  • burning and stinging
  • redness
  • sensitivity to light

Retinoid overview 

All retinoids, including retinol, are derived from vitamin A and comprise several types of compounds that help with skin conditions. There are six classes of topical retinoids: tretinoin (Atralin, Avita, Retin-A), adapalene, trifarotene, alitretinoin, bexarotene, and tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac).

Retinoids, simply put, are the prescription form of retinol. In other words, retinoids are compounds derived from vitamin A that are much stronger than retinol — retinoids are about 20 times stronger than retinol, according to an older 2006 research.

Retinoids can be applied to the skin directly in the form of creams and serums or taken by mouth in the form of pills and capsules.

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Benefits

The benefits of retinoids include:

  • reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • treating acne
  • reducing skin pigmentation
  • softening skin texture
  • unclogging pores
  • treating psoriasis
  • treating dark spots (melasma)
  • treating sun damage

How they work

Retinoids work by increasing the rate at which skin cells divide and regenerate. Retinol generally works more slowly because it needs to be transformed into retinoic acid before it can become active.

Apart from increasing cell turnover, retinoids can raise the production of collagen and stimulate the production of blood vessels on the skin. Retinoids can also exfoliate your skin, cleaning clogged pores.  

Unlike retinol, retinoids don’t need to be converted into retinoic acid when applied or ingested — it works directly on your skin cells.

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Side effects

Topical retinoids can cause very similar side effects as retinol. These include:

  • dryness
  • skin flaking
  • redness
  • burning
  • sensitivity to sunlight

If you’re prescribed oral retinoids, you may experience the following adverse effects:

  • dry eyes
  • dry mouth
  • dry skin 
  • increased liver toxicity
  • hair loss 
  • bleeding in the gums and nose
  • muscle pain 

Retinol vs. other retinoids

OTC retinol and prescription retinoids share key similarities and differences.

Similarities

  • Origin: They are both derivatives of vitamin A.
  • Conditions they treat: Retinol and other retinoids can help treat acne and reduce fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and sun damage.
  • Some side effects: Retinoids, including retinol, can cause itchiness, dryness, and sensitivity to sunlight.

Differences

  • Conditions they treat: Stronger prescription retinoids, like retinoic acid, can also be used to treat other skin conditions like psoriasis and melasma.
  • Side effects: Because prescription retinoids are stronger, they can cause more serious side effects like headaches, burning, muscle pain, and hair loss.
  • Availability: Retinol is available OTC, while stronger retinoids are available with prescription.
  • Strength: Prescription retinoids tend to be more potent than retinol.
  • Effectiveness: You can see the results of retinol over a longer period (between 3 and 6 months), while prescription retinoids act faster. 

Alternatives

There are alternatives to retinoids depending on the skin condition you’re seeking to manage and treat.

  • Acne: Besides retinol and retinoids, you can treat acne with topical medications that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. A healthcare professional may also prescribe oral medications like tetracycline (Achromycin V).
  • Wrinkles: Options to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines include topical antioxidants (vitamin C lotion and serums), collagen, chemical peeling, laser treatment, microdermabrasion, and natural remedies. Talk with a healthcare professional before to learn more about the benefits and risks of each of these options. 
  • Hyperpigmentation: Dark patches and spots on the skin can be treated with chemical and laser peels or treatments called dermabrasion and microdermabrasion.
  • Other skin conditions: Retinoids are also used to treat psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune skin condition that causes itchy and inflamed skin. Some options to treat psoriasis include topical corticosteroids like fluocinonide (Vanos), oral medications like methotrexate (Trexall) or cyclosporine (Neoral), and light therapy. 

Summary

Retinoids, like retinol or retinoic acid, are used to treat skin conditions like acne, wrinkles and fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and sun damage.

Retinoids are derived from vitamin A, and they cause similar side effects like dryness, itchiness, and redness of the skin. Prescription retinoids may cause stronger side effects.

While retinol is available OTC due to its less potent formulation, healthcare professionals may prescribe stronger retinoids, which can lead to more serious adverse effects like muscle pain and hair loss.

If you have a skin condition like acne or would like to try retinol or other retinoids to reduce the appearance of fine lines, talk with a healthcare professional first to consider the best option for your needs.

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