When it comes to skin care products, ingredients you might hear a lot about are retinoids. These compounds have pro-aging and skin rejuvenating properties.

Retinoids are products of vitamin A. Many different types of retinoids exist — one type is called retinol.

Knowing more about retinol and retinoids can help you make informed decisions about using these products and which ones might be best for you.

Retinol is a kind of retinoid, made from vitamin A.

It is often used in skin care products because retinol is a precursor to retinoic acid, per 2017 research. Retinoic acid has been shown to have anti-aging effects on aged human skin in a lab.

While other skin products remove dead skin, the molecules in retinol go under the top layer of your skin to reach the middle layer, called the dermis.

Once in the dermis, retinol neutralizes free radicals to boost elastin and collagen. This helps plump up the skin, reducing the way wrinkles and fine lines look. It can also help treat severe acne and scarring.

Retinol is often used topically to help repair skin and keep it looking youthful.

When retinol is used on human skin, it is eventually converted to retinoic acid. However, when retinol is used topically, it has fewer side effects than retinoic acid.

But keep in mind that a higher concentration of retinol is needed to have the same effects as topical retinoic acid.

If you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, do not use products containing retinol or retinoids. Using products with vitamin A may harm a fetus.

Retinoids are compounds that come from vitamin A or those that look like and act like vitamin A. They can be both natural forms of vitamin A or synthetic (human-made) forms. They are often used in skin care, cosmetics, and medicine.

Retinoids may help:

  • reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production
  • stimulate the production of new blood vessels in the skin
  • fade age spots
  • smooth rough skin

Examples of retinoids include:

  • retinol, which is available over-the-counter (OTC)
  • retinoid esters, also available OTC
  • retinoic acid, known as Retin-A, which is prescription only
  • isotretinoin, known as Accutane, which is also prescription only
  • adapalene, known as Differin, 0.1%, which is available both OTC and prescription — it is not a retinoid but functions much like one on the skin

Prescription retinoids include:

  • tretinoin (Retin-A)
  • tazarotene (Avage, Tazorac)
  • adapalene (Differin)

There is also an over-the-counter, less potent version of adapalene.

Retinol is a form of retinoid that can be found in OTC topical creams. These can improve the skin but are not as strong as prescription creams, so they tend to be less irritating as well.

Retinoids can dry out and irritate your skin, so it’s recommended that you use them every other day and slowly work up to every day. It’s also important to wear sunscreen when using retinoids because they may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Talk with your doctor before using retinol or retinoids.

Because of the risk of side effects like skin irritation, redness, and peeling skin, it may be best to ease into using a product by applying OTC retinol every other day or so. This helps your skin get used to the product.

If you aren’t seeing the results you want with retinols, talk with your dermatologist about switching to retinoids.

If you have dark skin, you may want to talk with your doctor before using these products.

Dark skin may have more risk of damage and irritation. Plus, reactions to ingredients or products can lead to hyperpigmentation, or dark patches.

However, retinols can also help fade and heal dark, irritated spots. Talk with your dermatologist about whether a product with retinoids is right for you and how to introduce it into your routine without irritating your skin.

Pregnant people or those trying to become pregnant should avoid retinol and retinoids in skin care products because they may increase the risk of birth defects and miscarriage.

So, if you are using retinol and thinking about starting a family, talk with your doctor. Some doctors prefer their patients to be on oral contraceptives while using retinol to prevent harm to a developing baby or avoid miscarriage.

Before using retinol or retinoids, tell your doctor about any medications or supplements you are taking, as well as any other products you are using.

Avoid using any other products containing retinoids if you are using a retinoid or retinol cream.

Look at the labels of your pro-aging or acne medications to see if they contain either of these. When you use more than one product with these ingredients, it may increase your risk for side effects.

If you are using retinol or retinoids, talk with a dermatologist about products you might want to avoid. Because these compounds can cause side effects like peeling skin or dryness, you want to avoid any products that will make those side effects worse.

Both retinol and retinoids are effective products to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles and improve the appearance of skin.

While they are generally safe for most people, talk with your doctor before using these topical creams, especially if you plan on becoming pregnant, think you might be pregnant, are currently pregnant, or are breastfeeding or chestfeeding.

While retinol and retinoids are very similar, the two products do have differences — and knowing about each one can help you make the decision that is best for your needs.