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What’s the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

Dr. Nancy Shannon

Medically reviewed by Dr. Nancy Shannon, MD, PhD on August 31, 2021

Both retinoids and retinol are powerful skincare products, used to combat everything from acne to wrinkles. Retinol is a specific type of the broader category of retinoids, but the words have different meanings when you see them on a skincare label. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between retinol and retinoids. In other words, all retinols are retinoids, but not all retinoids are retinols. 

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from Vitamin A. Retinoids are converted to retinoic acid, the active ingredient that is the most scientifically proven way to reverse and prevent fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration and other signs of sun-related aging. They also have powerful acne-fighting properties. They work by speeding up renewal of the skin’s top layer and increasing your skin’s production of collagen, hyaluronic acid and blood vessels. Retinoid is the term for the class of chemicals that can cover both over-the-counter and prescription treatments.The term “retinoid” encompasses a number of different formulations, which are usually classified into 4 distinct groups, known as generations. 

The first generation, non-aromatic retinoids, contains some of the most common retinoids such as retinol, tretinoin, and isotretinoin. The second generation, mono-aromatic retinoids, contains the oral retinoid acitretin used to treat psoriasis. Retinoids of the third generation are known as poly-aromatic, the most notable among them being the popular over-the-counter acne medication adapalene. The first fourth generation retinoid, trifarotene, was approved for use as a treatment for acne by the FDA in 2020.

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The most effective retinoids are only available by prescription, and include adapalene, tretinoin, and tazarotene – which are pure retinoic acid. Retinoids work by encouraging the top layer of skin to shed aging skin cells more quickly. This keeps dead skin cells from collecting inside pores, preventing the formation of acne. Retinoids also strengthen and rejuvenate deeper layers of skin by boosting collagen production; which can prevent fine lines and some wrinkles and reverse some signs of sun-related aging.

What Is Retinol?

As previously mentioned, retinol is a first-generation retinoid that has many of the same properties as the others listed above. One of the big distinctions between retinol and other retinoids is that retinol is comparatively mild (due to lower concentrations of the active ingredient retinoic acid) and therefore can be found in many over-the-counter formulations, whereas most other retinoids require a prescription.

Like other retinoids, retinol works by penetrating below the surface of the skin where it promotes the production of collagen and elastin. These two proteins help keep your skin looking healthy by reducing lines and wrinkles. Retinol also exfoliates by encouraging high rates of cell turnover, ensuring that the cells on your skin’s surface aren’t collecting in or around your pores.

What Do Retinoids and Retinol Treat?

Though retinoids are most commonly prescribed for the treatment of acne, they can also help combat a number of other issues such as:

  • Acne scarring
  • Wrinkles
  • Sun damage
  • Roughness
  • Large pores
  • Uneven skin pigmentation or melasma 

Which Are Right For Me?

Retinoids can be game changers for the way you take care of your skin, but they’re not a one-size-fits-all category of products: you need to find the ones that will work best for you. 

Retinol will be a starter retinoid for many, given its mild strength compared with other retinoids. Because retinol doesn’t require a prescription, it’s easy to get in a number of different product types: gels, creams, lotions, and so on. If standard retinol isn’t doing enough to clear up your acne or dampen your wrinkles, that may be an indicator that you need to move onto a retinoid of greater strength.

A popular retinoid for transitioning up from retinol is adapalene 0.1% gel, a third-generation retinoid that can come both over-the-counter and through a prescription. Like retinol, adapalene is relatively mild compared to other retinoids, making a good treatment option for weak to moderate cases of acne. This retinoid was previously prescription-strength prior to becoming OTC.

For more severe cases, stronger retinoids may be required. At Nurx our medical team typically prescribes tretinoin for mild to moderate acne or to treat sun-related aging. Most doctors will recommend starting with weaker retinoids before moving onto stronger ones, as the latter can cause powerful skin irritation. Even weaker retinoids such as retinol can cause some skin irritation, though it usually subsides after a few weeks of continuous use. 

There is also an oral retinoid called isotretinoin, more commonly known by the brand name Accutane, which is sometimes prescribed for the treatment of severe acne (but not used for anti-aging purposes). 

Deciding which retinoid is best for you depends on both the severity of what you’re trying to treat and the overall sensitivity of your skin. Stronger retinoids tend to produce more dramatic effects, whether for fighting acne or reducing signs of aging, but sensitive skin may not be able to cope well with the irritation caused by more powerful formulations. 

Navigating the world of skin treatments can be tough, but we’re here to help you do so. Get in touch with a member of our team of experts today in order to learn what your options are. 

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