The skincare ingredient that reigns supreme as the holy grail of anti-aging is retinoids. The reason for this long-standing position at the top is because it is the ultimate multitasker. Retinoids are clinically proven to stimulate new collagen, decrease inflammation, and speed up cell turnover and in doing so help minimize wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne.

But how do retinoids differ from retinol?

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to these two terms. Some people use the terms retinoids and retinol interchangeably, but that isn’t accurate. While there are some similarities, there are also some defining characteristics that make them very different from one another. Below we will explain the differences between these two ingredients.

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. When used in skincare products, they get converted into retinoic acid to treat a variety of skin concerns and conditions. Genesis Velazquez, a cosmetic chemist and founder of Elitegen Innovation says that the term retinoid is used as a blanket term to describe a large category of compounds derived from Retinyl Palmitate, also known as Vitamin A. “There are dozens of retinoids available in skincare,” she adds, noting that all retinoids fall into one of four categories: retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl esters, and retinaldehyde.

But each of these categories varies in strength. The only one of the four categories that directly affects the skin is retinoic acid, the purest form of the ingredient and is only available with a prescription—except for Differen, a potent, prescription-strength treatment for acne. The other types of retinoids used in over-the-counter products are still effective (and in some instances more suitable for certain skin types) due to the fact that the skin has enzymes that naturally convert the retinol into vitamin A.

Retinoids were originally used to treat acne and unclog pores and are still used for these purposes today. Most retinoids are applied topically. But some, like Accutane, which is used to treat acne, is taken orally. However, somewhere along the line, the remarkable anti-aging effects of this compound were discovered. Due to its ability to increase cell turnover and lighten dark spots, retinoids are proven to improve the texture and tone of the skin.

Some retinoids also help combat the symptoms of inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis by regulating skin cell growth. The most unique aspect of retinoids is that they work on the deeper layers of the skin and communicate with skin cells to make new ones.

What Is Retinol?

As we stated above, retinol is a type of retinoid that is often used in a variety of over-the-counter skincare products. Retinols can still be effective but the results just take longer to see and may not be as visually dramatic when compared to their prescribed counterpart, retinoic acid. Retinol has much lower concentrations of the active retinoic acid ingredient. “Prescription retinoids have a much higher concentration of the active ingredient. Over-the-counter retinol products are less intense than prescription products and “work more gradually,” explains Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist based in New York and the founder of Entière.

If you read the ingredients on skincare products, you may have seen retinol under a variety of names including retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinyl acetate, which are all in ester forms. Levin continues, “It takes more steps for these ester forms to be converted to the active retinoic acid. The more conversions, the weaker the product.”

Another issue with retinol is that it is a highly reactive molecule that can break down and lose its potency when it is exposed to air and sunlight (which is why sunscreen is a must when using retinoids of any type). There are retinol products formulated to minimize the exposure to these elements so they don’t degrade prior to being applied to the skin. Some retinol formulations may also have a time-released delivery that allows the ingredient to penetrate more deeply into the skin.

Retinols can offer some of the same anti-aging benefits as retinoids with sustained use over time. Furthermore, if a person has sensitive or reactive skin, retinols can offer a gentler formulation that delivers similar results without the irritation that retinoids can cause.

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to see why there is so much confusion surrounding the differences between retinoids and retinols. Hopefully, this article clarified the subject. When it comes to determining who will benefit from over-the-counter retinol versus a powerful prescription-strength retinoid, it will depend on the individuals’ goals and skin type. If they are younger and want to get a jump on preventing future damage, retinols will most likely suffice.

Retinols may also be more appropriate for individuals with sensitive skin. But, if someone has begun to show signs of aging in their 30s and beyond, a prescription for retinoic acid may be the best bet.