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When it comes to retinol and retinoids, plenty of people get a little confused — but with good reason. These two anti-aging ingredients aren’t entirely different. In fact, retinol is a type of retinoid.

However, retinoid most often describes more powerful prescription products, while retinol generally refers to weaker over-the-counter (OTC) formulas.

As board certified dermatologist Dr. Ramya Kollipara from Westlake Dermatology, Dallas, TX, explains, “OTC [products] are still effective but take more time and constant use to work.”

She adds, though, that “they tend to be less drying.”

So when should you use prescription retinoids over the weaker retinols? And is it possible to safely use both?

Read on to get the details about the two skin care powerhouses.

A derivative of vitamin A, retinoids can tackle everything from fine lines and pigmentation to acne and psoriasis. They achieve this by boosting the turnover rate of skin cells.

We reached out to board certified dermatologist Dr. Karyn Grossman from Grossman Dermatology in Santa Monica, CA, for more insight.

She explains that retinoids can accelerate the rate of skin cell division and new cell growth. In short, they change how your skin cells function.

Applying retinoids topically, she goes on to explain, helps increase cell division on the surface of your skin, which helps thicken the top layer of skin.

She notes that retinol and other retinoids also work deep in the skin’s dermis layer to stimulate collagen and elastin production. These skin proteins naturally decrease with time, leading to thinning skin and other visible signs of aging.

Boosting their production, then, allows retinoids to offer pro-aging support, not to mention fight sun damage and help reduce the appearance of pores.

Additionally, retinoids can unclog pores, removing the bacteria that contributes to acne breakouts, and reduce the inflammation and shedding associated with psoriasis.

The most powerful retinoids — tretinoin, for example — are only available via prescription due to their higher strength of retinoic acid. But you can buy products with weaker strengths, like 0.1% adapalene, over the counter.

Most retinoids come in the form of topical creams or gels.

You’ll also find weaker forms like retinol in traditional skin care products —more on that below.

“Retinols are a subtype of retinoids,” explains Dr. Emmanuel Loucas, board certified dermatologist and director of New York’s SINY Dermatology.

They work in the same way as prescription retinoids but contain lower strengths of retinoic acid.

“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.”

“Retinols are formulated in an ester form,” Loucas adds, “which means they need to be degraded into retinoic acid once applied to the skin.”

This makes them even weaker.

That said, retinols can certainly still help reduce the appearance of fine wrinkles and treat milder forms of acne and hyperpigmentation. It’ll just take longer before you notice these effects.

The upside? They tend to cause fewer side effects, and you can buy them over the counter — no prescription needed.

Before making a decision, you’ll want to consider your skin type and the severity of the issue you’re trying to treat.

“Retinols are recommended for anyone with dry skin as they tend to be less drying and are frequently formulated with hydration ingredients,” Kollipara explains.

People with sensitive skin types will generally also want to start with a less powerful retinol formula.

If you fall into any of the above categories, Grossman recommends trying retinol 2 to 3 times a week. After around a month, you can gradually increase the frequency to daily use.

“Once you tolerate a gentle product,” she explains, “you can work up to a stronger product by alternating it in over time.”

Of course, you’ll have to be patient with retinol, since it can take anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months to notice a difference. If you’re hoping for faster improvement from severe acne and other skin conditions, a more potent prescription-strength retinoid may offer faster relief.

Depending on your skin type, you may be able to tolerate stronger retinoids right away. Just keep in mind that Grossman still recommends starting slow.

According to Grossman, common side effects of retinoids include:

  • mild irritation
  • redness
  • sun sensitivity
  • dryness
  • flaking
  • burning

She goes on to explain these signs often suggest product overuse or an overly aggressive skin care routine.

Plus, the higher the dose or concentration, the greater the chance of experiencing side effects.

Easing your way into retinoid use, then, can help you reduce your chances of experiencing these side effects.

Again, people with any skin type can use retinoids, though experts recommend those with sensitive and dry skin start with a lower potency.

Learn more about creating a personalized skin care routine.

However, Grossman cautions, “You shouldn’t use retinoids of any sort if you’re pregnant, lactating, or trying to conceive.”

If you’re allergic to any of the ingredients in a particular product, of course, it’s also best to steer clear.

If you’re ready to add retinoids or retinol to your skin care routine, you might wonder whether there’s a best time to use them.

“Retinoids and retinols should be applied at night after washing your face with a gentle cleanser,” Kollipara recommends.

She advises using a pea-size amount and applying once your face is fully dry to prevent irritation. Applying moisturizer afterward can also help you avoid irritation.

Work your way up slowly, starting with just a few nights a week and only increasing your use once you know your skin can tolerate the product.

And don’t forget to use sunscreen on a daily basis.

Can I use more than one retinoid product?

Considering using multiple retinoids?

Experts say this is best avoided, since, as Kollipara explains, it often leads to an increase in dryness and irritation.

It’s also wise to check the ingredient list of your other skin care products, as retinoids can interact with other formulas.

Grossman notes that certain ingredients, including benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids could deactivate retinoids and render them ineffective.

Combining retinoids with astringents like ethyl alcohol or witch hazel, on the other hand, can dry out your skin and lead to redness and irritation.

If you’d like to treat more severe acne or psoriasis, or feel unsure about what’s right for your skin, you’ll typically want to connect with a dermatologist before trying any form of retinoid.

They can recommend the best product for your skin care needs and offer personalized advice on using retinoids safely.

Remember, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to see noticeable changes in your skin.

If you’re not happy with the progress after 3 months of use, a doctor or dermatologist can provide more guidance.

If you experience any significant side effects while using retinol, or any other retinoids, it’s best to stop using the product and check with your doctor.

Unless a dermatologist advises otherwise, aim to start with a low-strength retinol product.

If you have dry skin, creamier formulas can offer more hydration. If you have normal, oily, or combination skin, you might prefer a thinner gel consistency.

You can buy some types of retinoids over the counter at your local drugstore, while you’ll find others available from popular skin care brands in stores and online.

Differin 0.1% Adapalene Gel, for example, can help treat acne.

Studies have found evidence to suggest adapalene is just as effective as stronger retinoids, but the skin tends to tolerate it better.

Other options for first-time users include SkinCeuticals 0.3 Retinol cream and Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream.

You’ll also find retinol used in various skin care products, including moisturizers and masks. Checking ingredient lists can help you make sure you aren’t doubling (or tripling) up on retinoids.

From reducing the appearance of wrinkles to easing the effects of sun damage to improving breakouts, retinoids can offer plenty of skin benefits.

You might feel tempted to harness those benefits immediately by jumping straight into the deep end with stronger products, but your skin will generally thank you if you dip your toes in with the weaker ones.

For most people, that means starting with a less powerful OTC retinol. If you want to move up to the stronger retinoids, your dermatologist can offer more guidance.


Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.