Skip to main content
Medically Approved

Retinols versus retinoids — what’s the difference?

twitter share buttonfacebook share buttonlinkedin share buttonemail article button
They both treat wrinkles, acne and other skin issues, but they aren’t the same.
Written by Emily Shiffer
Updated on November 1, 2022

It’s almost impossible to watch TV these days without seeing an ad for a retinol skin product. And your dermatologist may also have suggested adding retinoids to your skin care routine. While retinols and retinoids are often touted for their anti-aging benefits, they also promote healthy skin. So there are reasons to use them beyond reducing fine lines or wrinkles.

The 2 compounds are similar but not the same. Retinoids and retinols both come from vitamin A. They can help with everything from signs of aging and sun damage to acne and psoriasis. But they differ in strength. Retinoids tend to be stronger and are often available only by prescription. Retinols — which are a type of retinoid — are weaker and are widely available over the counter (OTC).

Here’s what you need to know about retinoids and retinols and when to use them.

Using a prescription retinoid? Look for it on the Optum Perks discount app before you head to the pharmacy. You could find medication coupons for up to 80% off.


Retinoids work by increasing the rate of skin cell division and new cell growth. This thickens the surface of the skin. They also work deeper in the skin to increase the production of collagen and elastin. Collagen and elastin are proteins that keep skin plump and looking young. They naturally decrease with age.

Retinoids can also decrease skin discoloration from sun damage. And they prevent acne by keeping pores from getting clogged, says Hadley King, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Retinoids can help psoriasis by reducing inflammation and shedding of skin.

Recommended reading: How to tame your teenager’s acne.

What are some types of retinoids?

There are many retinoids available, including:

  • Tretinoin. Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is the most potent treatment. It’s available only by prescription. It comes in the form of a gel or cream. (Brand names include Retin-A®, Renova® and Refissa®.)
  • Adapalene (Differin®). This product is largely used to treat acne because it helps keep pores clear. “It’s available in 2 strengths, 0.1% gel and 0.3% gel. They both only used to be available by prescription. “But now the Food and Drug Administration has approved adapalene 0.1% gel as an OTC treatment for acne,” says Dr. King. Although marketed for acne, it’s effective for anti-aging as well. “And the price point is excellent,” says Dr. King. “Many clinical trials have found that it has a lower risk of skin irritation than some other retinoids.”
  • Tazarotene (Tazorac®, Fabior®, Arazlo®). This medication is mainly used for acne and plaque psoriasis, though it also has anti-aging benefits. It comes in several strengths. And it’s available in the form of gel, cream, foam or lotion.

Recommended reading: Tips for healthy skin.

Pharmacists looking at medications.

Save up to 80% on your medications

Get prescriptions for as low as $4 with our free discount card, redeemable at over 64,000 pharmacies nationwide.

Get free card

Side effects of retinoids

Topical retinoids aren’t always tolerated. “There’s an adjustment period where your skin adapts to retinoids,” explains Dr. King. “During this time, your skin may become irritated. This can result in dryness, peeling, redness or a burning sensation. These symptoms generally go away by the fourth week of use.”

To avoid these side effects, she suggests you start with a pea-sized amount for your whole face, every other night. And use moisturizer after you put on the retinoid.

If that goes well, Dr. King says you can up your retinoid use to every night.


Retinols are weaker and gentler versions of retinoids. They contain lower strengths of retinoic acid. You can get them OTC in products such as moisturizers and eye creams.

Dr. King says retinols work in the same way as retinoids, but it takes longer to see results. It could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

On the plus side, she adds, they often cause less skin irritation. So they’re a good choice for people who can’t tolerate retinoids.

So which one should you use? Consider your skin type and the severity of the issue you’re trying to treat. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may want to start with a retinol. Then you can slowly transition to a retinoid. When you’re ready for something prescription-strength, talk to your skin doctor about which type might be best for you.

And if you’re heading to the pharmacy, remember to use your free prescription discount card. You could save a lot of money.

Additional sources:
Retinoids and retinol: American Academy of Dermatology Association
Trentinoin: Mayo Clinic