Retinol VS Retinoid -What's The Difference?

What’s the difference between retinol and retinoid?

Are they the same thing? Are they different? Should you use both or just the one?

Argh! When did skincare get this complicated?!

I’m here to make it simple for you. Here’s the difference between retinol and retinoid – and how to choose the best one for YOU:

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is one ingredient. It’s one of the members of the Vitamin A family.

Up until a few years ago, retinol was pretty much the only type of Vitamin A used in skincare products.

Brands use it because it works. It fights wrinkles, treats acne, and even helps to fade away dark spots – without the high irritating potential of prescription forms of Vitamin A, like Tretinoin.

But, it has two major flaws:

  • Irritation: It’s way gentler than Tretinoin, but it can still irritate skin, especially if it’s sensitive or you’re using too much too soon.
  • Unstable: It slowly loses its effectiveness when exposed to light and air (avoid see-through bottles and jars).

To get around these side effects, scientists came out with new forms of Vitamin A, creating a lot of confusion around retinoids in the process.

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It


Struggling to put together an anti-aging skincare routine that reduces wrinkles, brightens the complexion, and gives you a more youthful appearance? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):


What Is Retinoid?

If retinol had a surname, it’s be retinoid.

Retinoid is a catch-all term for all forms of Vitamin A. It’s the family retinol, Tretinoin & co belong to. Here are its most famous members:

  • Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (a.k.a. Granactive Retinoid)
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinol
  • Retinyl Palmitate
  • Retinyl Retinoate
  • Tretinoin

All of them are Retinoids. They all have anti-aging and anti-acne properties that fight both wrinkles and breakouts in 3 ways:

  1. They speed up cellular turnover, the skin’s natural exfoliating process
  2. They boost the production of collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm
  3. They fight free radicals, the nasty molecules that give you wrinkles and dark spots.

Why do we need so many retinoids? Can’t we just stick to retinol and call it a day?

You could. But different retinoids have different strengths. Retinol is one of the most effective OTC, but one of the most irritating, too.

That’s when the other retinoids come in. If you need something gentler, you can opt for a weaker form, like Granactive Retinoid. If you’ve plateaued and need something stronger, you can move up the chain to Retinaldehyde or Tretinoin (prescription only).

Click here for the difference between the various forms of retinoids and how to choose the best one for YOUR unique skin type and needs.

Related: Which Form Of Retinoid Is Right For You?

skinceuticals 0.3 retinol refining night cream

Retinol VS Retinoid: Which One Is Stronger?

It depends on what form of retinoid we’re talking about.

ALL Retinoids must be converted into Retinoic Acid (the active form of Vitamin A) to work their magic on wrinkles and acne.

Prescription retinoids, like Tretinoin, are pure Retinoic Acid. That makes so effective even in the short term, but also highly irritating. If you go down this route, expect serious dryness and flakiness. Check out this post for tips on how to minimise these side effects.

But OTC retinoids, like retinol and retinaldehyde, need to be converted into Retinoic Acid. The conversion goes like this:

Retinyl Palmitate ==> Retinol ==> Retinaldehyde ==> Retinoic Acid

The fewer steps the conversion takes, the better (and faster) it works.

Retinol Esters (the newest type), like Granactive Retinoid, don’t need to be converted at all. Rumour has it, that means they work better than traditional retinoids like retinol and without side effects too.

What about science? Most of the studies on Retinol Esters come from the manufacturers (not exactly the most unbiased source). They prove they’re definitely gentler than traditional retinoids, but I’m still waiting for independent studies to confirm they’re more effective, too.

Related: Your Tretinoin Survival Guide

the ordinary granactive retinoid 5% in squalane 02%

Retinol VS Retinoid: Which One Should You Choose?

It depends on your skin type and needs:

SENSITIVE SKIN

Retinoids and sensitive skin often aren’t compatible. Most forms of retinoids are too harsh and cause severe redness and irritation.

Your best bet are Retinol Esters. We don’t know if they’re as effective for acne or anti-aging, but they’re definitely gentler. And that’s what matters here.

Remember: more effective doesn’t equal better results if you’re getting irritation in the process. Irritation ages skin. Be careful!

Best Picks:

Related: Are They Dupes? The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane VS Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

ANTI-AGING FOR YOUNG SKIN

If you’re still young or just starting on your anti-aging journey, go with retinol.

Stronger than Retinoid Esters yet gentler than prescription retinoids, retinol helps you fight wrinkles, fade away dark spots, and even bust acne.

The trick is to start small. Slow and steady always wins the anti-aging race here. Begin with the smallest concentration you can find a couple of times a week and build both frequency and dose from there.

Best Picks:

Related: How To Make The Most Of Retinol And Minimise Its Side Effects

tretinoin guide

MATURE SKIN AND/OR SEVERE ACNE

Do you have deep wrinkles that just won’t get smaller with retinol alone?

Are you dealing with severe acne that won’t go away no matter what you throw at it?

When OTC skincare doesn’t work anymore, it’s time to go the prescription route.

Prescription retinoids, like Tretinoin, are more effective against wrinkles and acne – and more irritating. That’s why they’re prescription only.

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Accutane For Acne

The Bottom Line

Retinoid is a family of ingredients. All the different forms of Vitamin A belong to it. Retinol is one of the members of this family and the most commonly found in skincare products. Which one you need depends on your individual skin type and concerns.