Retinol vs Retinoid: Are They the Same and When Do You Use Them?

For defense against fine lines, wrinkles, acne and maintenance of a healthy glow, retinoids are the gold standard in skincare. You can find retinol in a multitude of over-the-counter skin care products, and retinoids are commonly prescribed for both medical and aesthetic dermatology purposes.

So how is retinol different from retinoids and which one should you use? In this article, we hope to clarify the benefits, strength and efficacy of retinoid products, resulting in the very best possible treatment and outcome for you at Central Texas Dermatology & SkinCare Austin.

Retinoids vs. Retinol: Benefits and Basics

A retinoid is a derivative of Vitamin A, which works to speed up skin cell turnover and accelerate new skin cell regeneration.

On the skin’s surface, the result of consistent topical retinoid use is a healthy glow due to the more rapid sloughing away of dead skin cells, clogged pores and dull skin. Under the surface, retinoids work deep within the skin’s dermis to stimulate collagen and elastin production, resulting in a more youthful appearance and the prevention of fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol is actually a type of retinoid. It is commonly incorporated in over-the-counter skin care products in concentrations of .5 to 1 percent. While retinol is an active ingredient in many cosmetic and over-the-counter anti-aging products, the term ‘retinoid’ is generally used to describe products prescribed by your medical provider.

Retinoids vs. Retinol: Structure and Strength

The strength of an over-the-counter retinol versus a prescription-strength retinoid lies within the conversion of the initial molecular structure.

At the molecular level, the conversion sequence goes from 1) retinyl esters to 2) retinol, which gets converted to 3) retinaldehyde, which gives rise to the final product 4) retinoic acid. This biologically active form, retinoic acid, is what leads to improvement in skin tone, texture, fine lines and pigmentation.

It’s important to note that since retinaldehyde requires only one conversion step to retinoic acid, compared to two steps for retinol, it’s considered more potent and effective.

Retinoic acid in its final form can be much more potent than cosmetic-based retinol or retinaldehyde, resulting in a faster and more powerful outcome, but also carry with it increased side effects, such as redness, irritation, and dryness.

Over-the-Counter Retinoid Options

Patients with dry or sensitive skin may want to choose a high-quality non-prescription retinol over a prescription-strength retinoid to avoid irritation.

One of our very favorite non-prescription products, wonderful for all skin types, is Skinbetter AlphaRet. AlphaRet combines a retinoid with an AHA (lactic acid) to effectively reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles with little-to-no irritation.

Also now available without a prescription is Differin (adapalene) a topical retinoid most commonly used in the treatment of acne, hyperpigmentation and photo-aging. It’s available over-the-counter in two different concentrations, as cream and gel in .1 percent and gel in .3. For acne treatment, it comes in a formulation with benzoyl peroxide, though it should be noted this formulation can cause increased dryness and irritation.

Whether you’re opting for an over-the-counter retinoid or a prescription strength one, you’ll benefit most from incorporating them under the guidance of a dermatology provider.

When recommending products, we take into account your skin type, skin condition, age and your primary reason for use (such as acne vs. anti-aging). Ultimately, we help select the product that will be not only the most effective for your goals but also best tolerated by your skin type.

Prescription Retinoid Options

We prescribe a variety of topical retinoids at our practice for both medical and aesthetic dermatology purposes. A few retinoids we commonly recommend include:


Tretinoin is the first topical retinoid developed and is used in the treatment of acne, photo-aging and hyperpigmentation. Retin-A is a type of topical tretinoin. More recently, microsphere technology has been incorporated to help minimize accompanying irritation. Tretinoin comes in a variety of formulations – gel, cream or lotion – and concentrations.


Trifarotene is a topical retinoid cream for the face, shoulders, chest and back. Prescribed under brand name AKLIEF cream, it works by targeting the retinoic acid receptor located in the skin to reduce inflammation and target acne-causing factors.

When to Use Retinol and Retinoids

We recommend patients incorporate retinoids into their nightly skincare regimen, as these products can cause increased sun sensitivity.

While using retinoids, it’s very important to limit your exposure to tanning beds and sunlight, wear sun-protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to cover treated areas as well as a sunscreen of at least SPF 40.

The best way to learn the ideal retinoid for you and how to best incorporate it into your skincare regimen is to schedule an appointment with one of our providers. Schedule your appointment today by calling 512-327-2227 or by booking online.

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Congratulations to Dr. Trizna on his upcoming retirement July 19!