If you’ve recently perused the latest skincare products, you’ve probably come across the ingredients retinoids and retinol. In the beauty industry, these terms get thrown around and used a lot interchangeably.

Plenty of people get these two ingredients confused – and with good reason. So even though they sound the same, they’re not the same thing at all.

Retinoids and retinol can help boost your skincare routine, so let’s dive into the differences between these types of vitamin A and help you identify the best choice for your skin.

Retinoids vs. Retinol: What is the difference?

Retinoids and retinol are vitamin A derivatives that are converted into retinoic acid for use in skincare products. Retinoid is an umbrella term for prescription retinoids and over-the-counter retinol. 

These skincare powerhouses are known as stellar wrinkle fighters, but they can also be used to help improve the skin’s texture and tone, treat acne, and improve psoriasis. 

The primary difference between retinoids and retinol is strength. Retinoids contain a higher concentration of the active ingredient retinoic acid and commonly require a prescription. In contrast, over-the-counter retinol products are less intense than prescription-strength retinoids and work more gradually. So, you must be more patient to see the same results. 

How Retinoids Work

Retinoids help regulate various cell functions by binding to the retinoic acid receptor (RAR) or retinoid X receptor (RXR) proteins that send information to the cell to either turn on or turn off various functions. 

Retinoids can help accelerate the rate of cell division on the skin’s surface, boost new cell growth, and increase the turnover rate of skin cells. In addition, retinoids help stimulate collagen and elastin production in the dermis layer of your skin.

RAR and RXR proteins naturally decrease over time, leading to thinning skin and visible signs of aging. Meaning that regular retinoid use can help boost receptor proteins helping tackle everything from reducing fine lines and acne to decreasing sun damage and inflammation.

Moreover, the development of various retinoids has allowed practitioners to manipulate specific receptor proteins depending on the desired outcomes. For example, the retinoid Tretinoin directly activates RARs and indirectly activates RXRs. But, the retinoid Tazarotenic acid is more selective and only bonds to some RARs but not to RXRs.

Retinoids for Skincare

There are countless prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) topical products that contain retinoids.

Clinical research has shown that prescription-strength retinoids are effective for treating acne, but keep in mind that they contain higher concentrations of the active ingredients and can cause more skin irritation. OTC retinol is available in a wide variety of products, but products can contain low concentrations of the actual retinoid, making them less effective over time.

Some of the most common retinoid products are

Retinol. Retinol is one of the most effective OTC retinoids available. It works by increasing skin cell turnover and reducing the breakdown of collagen. Making retinol a very effective anti-aging ingredient to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Retinols are also more gentle on the skin and can reduce irritation and flaking experienced with strong, prescription-strength retinoids. 

Tretinoin (Retin-A). Tretinoin, commonly known as Retin-A, is one of the most popular and heavily researched prescription topical retinoids used to treat fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and hyperpigmentation. Although Retin-A can be very effective at stimulating collagen production, it can cause peeling and irritation.

Isotretinoin (Accutane). Isotretinoin, commonly known as Accutane, is an oral medication used to treat moderate to severe acne. Accutane treats acne by shrinking oil glands and decreasing the growth of acne-causing bacteria on the skin. 

Adapalene (Differin). Adapalene, commonly known as Differin, is a manufactured retinoid designed to be less irritating than tretinoin. This retinoid was previously only available with a prescription but is now available as a topical ointment over the counter. 

Tazarotene (Tazorac). Tazarotene, commonly known as Tazorac, is the strongest prescription-strength topical retinoid.

Side Effects of Retinoids

Although retinoids are helpful for many common skin concerns, they are not without risk. 

Side effects of retinoids may include:

  • Dryness and irritation
  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Redness and peeling
  • Skin discoloration 

Who can benefit from using a retinoid?

Most skin types can tolerate retinoids or retinol, but choosing the right product based on your skin type and concerns is important. 

If you’re new to retinoids, it’s usually best to start with an over-the-counter gel, serum, or lotion applying the product every other day to ensure you tolerate it. Retinoids may not be a good choice if you struggle with skin allergies, dryness, redness, or inflammation.

Prescription-strength retinoids can be beneficial if you have oily skin or have previously tried retinoids. But, you should only consider a prescription-strength retinoid if your dermatologist advises.

It’s important to note that if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should avoid using retinoids altogether because research has shown that they can cause birth defects.

How to Use Retinoids

It’s always best to introduce retinoids slowly into your routine to help limit any side effects. Follow these simple steps to introduce any type of retinoid into your skincare routine:

  1. In the evening, after cleansing and drying your face, apply a pea-sized amount of retinoid product to the face and neck.
  2. Apply a moisturizer on top if using a retinoid serum. 
  3. You can wait 3-4 days before reapplying to see how your skin will react.
  4. If you had minimal to no reactions, a retinoid product can be used every third night for two weeks. 
  5. If, after two weeks, you continue to tolerate the retinoid well, increase your use to every other night for another two weeks.
  6. If you continue to tolerate this new routine, you can begin applying the retinoid every night.

Retinoid products may only be necessary for dry or sensitive skin every third or fourth night. You might never need to use the product more regularly. 

Also, remember that retinoid products should be used at night because sunlight degrades retinoic acid. If you use a retinoid product during the day, ensure it is a low-concentration retinol and that you follow it with sunscreen.

Heal Your Skin from the Inside and Out

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