What’s the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids

Updated: Mar. 28, 2022

These two anti-aging powerhouses are similar, yet different. One is stronger and FDA tested, but the other can provide good results over time.

dermatologist doctor products skincare beautypaulynn/ShutterstockWhen hearing about anti-aging skin care, you’re bound to hear a couple of ingredients pop up time and time again: retinol vs. retinoids. They sound similar and both have wrinkle-fighting power, but they aren’t the exact same thing.

Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives that have become “the gold star” in anti-aging skin care, says board-certified dermatologist Edidiong Kaminska, MD, co-founder of Kaminsky Medical and Surgical Consulting Incorporated. Thanks to the fact that these chemicals boost cell turnover, they can smooth fine lines, even out skin tone and age spots, and improve skin elasticity for a more youthful glow. So what’s the difference between retinol vs. retinoids?

Essentially, retinol is just a specific type of retinoid. Over-the-counter (OTC) products usually contain retinol, which is a weaker form, while “retinoids” usually refers to stronger, prescription-level drugs like tretinoin (the generic name for Retin-A), tazarotene, and adapalene. Both retinols and retinoids are among the 14 anti-aging treatments dermatologists actually use themselves.

Think of retinol vs. retinoids like a factory line, suggests Dr. Kaminska. Retinols are the first in line, and they get converted to retinoids, which turn into the final product that actually improves the skin: retinoic acid. “The retinol has to go through multiple conversions before it can be turned into retinoic acid,” she says. Retinoids don’t take as much time to reach that final product, so they’re more intense than retinol.

Because retinol isn’t as powerful, you won’t see results as quickly as you would with a prescription retinoid. “They have the same benefits, it just takes longer,” says Dr. Kaminska. Isn’t it refreshing to hear that from a professional? Check out these other anti-aging secrets most dermatologists won’t tell you for free.

Any type of retinoid you use can irritate your skin and cause side effects like redness and peeling, and the stronger the product, the more likely you are to see those effects. Follow your dermatologist’s instructions, as with any prescription. If you’re starting an OTC retinol regimen on your own, Dr. Kaminska recommends starting with applying just a pea-size amount of product twice a week to help your skin get accustomed to it. If you notice any irritation, drop it down to once a week or dilute the anti-aging lotion with equal parts of a gentle oil-free moisturizer.

One more difference between retinol vs. retinoids is that, as a rule of thumb, a prescription retinoid has to be FDA-approved before hitting the shelves, but you don’t get the same guarantee with an OTC product. “For most prescription products, they’ve gone through the wringer,” points out Dr. Kaminska. “There has to be testing to make sure it actually works.” Of course, that’s not to say that your favorite drugstore brands won’t follow through on their promises—you’ll find a retinoid cream among these OTC products dermatologists say really work.