The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids You Didn't Know

The gold standard ingredient in anti-aging skin care, retinol is a superstar that helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, sun damage, dull skin—the list goes on. Dermatologists and skin care professionals alike place it on a pedestal. But there's more than one type of retinol ingredient on the market, which can create some confusion when you're trying to figure out what is best for your skin and which products have what in them. Here's everything you need to know so you can make sure your skin looks younger and better than ever.

"When we talk about retinol, retinoids and retin-A, what the skin is actually using is retinoic acid," explains New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. "Retinoic acid is an extremely effective cell-communicating ingredient that has the ability to connect to almost any skin cell receptor site and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell. It also functions like an antioxidant that can interrupt the free-radical damage process that causes wrinkling and other signs of aging. Moreover, it has been shown to increase collagen production and help fade discolorations from sun damage, and there is emerging research pointing to its potential for building elastin."

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The difference between retinol and retinoids is that over-the-counter products contain a form of retinol in ester forms (vitamin A derivatives) like retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, etc (you'll typically see these names on ingredient labels). "These need to be converted into retinoid acid by the skin at the cellular level in order for the skin to use it. Basically, the more conversions it takes for an ester form to get to the retinoic acid form, the weaker it is," adds Dr. Engelman. That's why so many people turn to dermatologists and plastic surgeons to get prescription-based retinoids (under the names Retin-A and Tretinoin), which contain higher concentrations of retinoic acid compared to OTC options that typically only have 0.5–2 percent concentrations.

"Biochemically, retinoids and retinol do exactly the same thing—it may just take longer to see results with retinol-based products because they are weaker," says Dr. Engelman. With continued use of either ingredient, you can see an improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, skin tone and texture, as it is strengthening your skin barrier. "You will notice that your skin is able to defend against other environment assaults better. Skin does become tolerant to the initial effects of retinol/retinoids over time, so even sensitive skin can be 'trained' to tolerate them."

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New York dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD, says patients with more severe sun damage or comedonal acne will get better results with a more potent prescription retinoid like Tazarotene or Tretinoin. "But, if you have very sensitive skin, you may do better starting with a mild OTC retinol product."

A couple tips if you're a retinol newbie: Ease into it and be sure to only use the product at night. "Start slowly, incorporating it into your evening regimen (sunlight deactivates retinoic acid so you can't use it during the day) every other day. "This lets your skin gradually acclimate to the more potent level of the product," says Dr. Engelman. "You can also mix it in with your usual moisturizer or facial oil to buffer the irritation (redness, flaking, etc.) that can often come along with using retinol." And if waxing is your go-to for hair removal, Dr. Waldorf says not to use a retinoid two to five days before and after getting a wax. 

Another important thing to note when using an OTC or prescription retinoid is that you don't need too much. "More is not better—a pea-size amount for your full face is all you need," says Dr. Waldorf. "I also recommend using your retinoid on the tops of your hands, your neck and your chest regularly, too."