Retinoids vs. Retinol Benefits: What's The Difference?

Written by: Rebecca Eaton



Time to read 7 min

If you've found yourself using the words “retinol” and “retinoids” interchangeably, guess what? You’re certainly not alone. 

While retinol and retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that offer impressive anti-ageing and acne-supporting benefits, believe it or not, these two powerful ingredients aren’t the same thing (despite retinol being a retinoid). 

So, retinoids vs retinol benefits — which one is best for your skin type, and how do they differ? Keep reading! 

The quick guide:

What are Retinoids?

What they are:

‘Retinoid’ is simply an umbrella term that refers to four common Vitamin A derivatives: Retinoic Acid, Retinol, Retinaldehyde, and Retinyl Palmitate. 

While ‘retinoid’ is the title given to a larger category, in the skincare world, it often refers to high-strength face creams, serums, and gels that require a prescription. As the four common retinoids vary in potency, prescription-strength retinoids generally refer to products containing retinoic acid — the most active and potent retinoid and the most irritating. 

Prescription-strength retinoids are more powerful than other forms due to their  structure, resulting in a more concentrated, more efficacious and faster-acting product. 

What they do: 

Retinoids are high-strength Vitamin A derivatives clinically proven to help treat acne, reduce the visibility of wrinkles and fine lines, and ease a range of skin issues (i.e., psoriasis). Retinoids play an important role in helping to stimulate collagen production, speed up skin cell turnover, and reduce inflammation. 

From anti-ageing properties to acne-supporting benefits, here are a few of the common ways retinoids can help improve skin health and appearance: 

  • They increase the production of collagen and elastin, which reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. 
  • They boost new blood vessel production, which helps improve skin tone. 
  • They increase collagen production, which also helps to minimise the appearance of age spots. 
  • They help increase skin cell turnover. 
  • They unclog pores and remove unwanted bacteria and excess oil build-up, thus reducing acne breakouts. 
A lady applying face serum to her face

What is Retinol?

What it is:

Retinol is a type of retinoid. While prescription retinoids are a highly potent, fast-acting anti-ageing elixir, retinol is a lower-strength solution that works at a slower rate, meaning it’s available to purchase over the counter. 

Retinol needs to be converted into retinoic acid once applied to your face. As it requires additional steps to break down, this process slightly weakens the product’s strength, ultimately offering a slower and gentler route to the same end goal. Simply put, the more conversions an ingredient requires, the weaker and gentler the overall product. While this might sound like a negative, it’s far from it — retinol benefits are still undeniable. Keep reading to learn more. 

What it does: 

Much like retinoids, retinol benefits are also similar, including reducing fine lines and wrinkles, neutralising free radicals, minimising the appearance of hyperpigmentation, improving skin texture and tone, and more. 

While retinol may be used to treat mild acne and scarring, any severe acne cases generally rely on a stronger prescription-only retinoid product. 

Retinoids vs. Retinol Benefits: What’s the Difference?

Retinol and Retinoid’s primary differences may already be clear; however, there’s a little more to know to fully understand how they work and which is most suitable to your skin type. Even though all retinol is retinoids, retinoids aren’t only retinol. Let’s take a closer look at what makes them unique:

Note: It’s important to understand that this comparison refers to prescription-strength retinoid products and over-the-counter retinol products. 

1. Product strength and speed

As mentioned, the primary difference between retinoids and retinol is the product’s potency. As retinoids contain a higher strength of retinoic acid than retinol, it can turnover skin cells much faster, thus delivering quicker visible results. 

On the contrary, retinol’s molecular structure means it cannot be easily absorbed into the skin; thus, it must be broken down into retinoic acid once applied. While still delivering the same visible results, this conversion slows down the overall process and potency. Simply put, retinol is less intense and works gradually to deliver essentially the same benefits — which can offer unique advantages for certain skin types and conditions.

2. Prescription vs over-the-counter 

As retinol products do not contain retinoic acid (remember, this process occurs when applied to your skin), they are a low-strength alternative that can be purchased over the counter, making them a more convenient option. While it’s easy to assume that the product’s potency dictates its overall benefits and efficacy, this isn’t quite the case with retinoids. In fact, retinol’s low-strength nature can make it particularly beneficial for certain skin types, i.e., sensitive skin. However, it is important to note that ingredient quality and concentration can vary dramatically across brands, meaning you may not be investing in the best over the counter option if you don’t have adequate knowledge. 

On the contrary, prescription retinoids offer a fast and powerful alternative to achieving skin goals. As they’re a higher-strength product, they most often require a prescription from a doctor or dermatologist, which can add potential barriers and accessibility issues for some people due to the cost and convenience factor. Additionally, their potency may make them too irritating for certain skin types and conditions. 

3. Not all skin types or conditions will thrive from both 

While most skin types and conditions can benefit from using a retinol or retinoid product under the proper guidance, there are a few factors to consider when understanding the subtle differences between retinoids and retinol.

If you’re a first-time user, we recommend a low-strength over-the-counter cream or serum over a prescription-strength alternative, which may cause irritation and redness. For an even gentler option, we actually recommend opting for retinyl palmitate — one of the other four types of retinoids. Believe it or not, retinyl palmitate is the gentlest of all options, making it an excellent alternative for newcomers or those with dry or sensitive skin types. You’ll find this ingredient in the following products:

On the contrary, if you’re susceptible to excess sebum (i.e., oily skin) or have experience using prescription-strength retinoid skincare, you will likely be fine using a more potent retinoid product. However, we recommend following your skincare professional’s guidance. 

Lastly, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, all retinoid products — including retinol — should be entirely avoided altogether.

A lady holding a face serum dropper and bottle

A few considerations when adding retinoids or retinol to your skincare ritual

Retinoids, whether using a more potent form like retinoic acid or a gentler form like retinol or retinyl palmitate, have certain factors that impact their efficacy and results if not followed. When adding one of these anti-ageing game-changers to your skincare ritual, consider the following points:

1. Start slow and consider your skin tone 

One of the most common side effects of using a retinoid or retinol product is the risk of irritation. Often referred to as “retinization,” many people will experience redness, dryness, and even skin flaking when they begin using one of these products. As such, it’s important to introduce such products slowly, allowing your skin adequate time to build up tolerance.

While we recommend following your skincare professional’s advice, as a general rule, we suggest applying your retinoid product every third night for those with lighter skin tones and weekly for those with medium to darker skin tones. From there, you can adjust your frequency according to how your skin adapts to your new ritual. 

It is particularly important for medium and darker skin tones to be cautious where hyperpigmentation is more common. The potentially irritating side effects of retinoid products can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Secondly, it can also give the skin an ashy tone due to the drying properties of retinoids. 

2. Add it to your evening ritual

Unfortunately, sunlight and retinoic acid aren’t two peas in a pod. Retinoic acid makes your skin more sensitive to the adverse effects of UV rays, and sunlight degrades the efficacy of retinoic acid. The end result? It can potentially do more harm than good. 

As such, we recommend slotting this incredible product into your evening skincare routine. Otherwise, if AM is your preferred option, apply a broad spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen daily. We only recommend daytime use for low-strength retinoid products.

3. Skincare product order 

As retinoids and retinol are added to various skincare products, the order in which you should apply it will depend on the product type you’re using. For example, suppose you’re using a retinoid serum, such as Dr Tanya’s Night Repair Serum or Dr Tanya’s Eye Lift Tightening Serum. In that case, this should be applied after you’ve cleansed your face and before moisturising. Likewise, a moisturiser should be applied after serums or washing your face (if no serums are used). 

Likewise, it’s important to consider what ingredients you’re stacking together as retinoids don't play friendly with all products. For instance, benzoyl peroxide may deactivate specific retinoids. As such, always consult your skincare professional before committing to new skincare rituals to ensure you aren’t cancelling the benefits. 

The recap

While retinol and retinoids have many similar benefits, it’s safe to say their distinct characteristics are what truly make them unique. From product strength and result timeframes to convenience and accessibility, retinoids and retinol products have several differentiating factors. 

Retinol may be a retinoid, yet retinoids aren’t all retinol. Retinoids are a high-strength prescription skincare solution, while retinol is a slightly weaker alternative that needs to go through further processes to break it down once applied to the skin. While offering largely the same benefits, retinol works slower than retinoids and can be purchased over the counter due to its lower-strength formula.

Yet both options offer several benefits and advantages, and thus should be chosen according to your skin type and condition.