Retinoids: Which One Is Right For You?

If retinoids weren’t already confusing enough for you, it’s time we tell you that there are multiple types of retinoids.

And trying to navigate which ingredient you should be looking for on the back of a packaging can be totally overwhelming.

We get it, and we’re here to help simplify your life.

Because, let’s face it—you have a million other things to decide on throughout the day, and picking which of the retinoids is best for your skin doesn’t need to be an added stresser in your day.

Before we unload a bunch of retinoids on you, let’s chat about the importance of using a retinoid.

Retinoids Are Your Skin’s Best Friend

retinoids are your best friend
Image via Health

If you have no idea what retinoids are, you aren’t alone.

It may be that you’ve just heard the term “retinol,” which is almost the same thing as retinoids—but more on that later.

If you haven’t started using retinoids yet, boy, are you in for a treat!

Simply put, retinoids is just a fancy term for Vitamin A.  But what they do for your skin is anything but simple.

This Vitamin A derivative unclogs pores, boosts collagen to reduce fine lines, and speeds up cell turnover to even out discoloration and smooth skin.

Best part of all?  Many studies show that retinoids can do this in as little as four weeks.  So if you’re impatient like me, you won’t find yourself wasting away while you wait for results.

Really, no matter what your age, skin type, or goals you’re hoping to achieve, retinoids are an absolute must.

Retinoids vs. Retinol

difference between retinoids and retinol
Image via West Lake Dermatology

As we age, our skin begins to lose its elasticity, which leads to fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and discoloration.

Exposure to the sun over the years, as well, tends to dramatically accelerate this effect.

Both retinoids and retinol are products that lend themselves to not only preventing, but also reversing the signs of aging.

How?  Like we said earlier, these retin-based products reduce wrinkles, increase blood flow in skin, fight acne, increase cellular turnover, boost collagen, even out skin tone, and the list just goes on from there.

But what’s the difference between these two products?

I’ll go into a little more detail, but the biggest differences are that retinoids have to be prescribed by a dermatologist, while retinol products are over-the-counter and can be purchased at any local drugstore.

Retinol also takes longer to see results based on the lower concentration than retinoids.  However, retinol, in most cases, is much more affordable than a retinoid prescription from your doctor.

But if you’re feeling scientific and a bit nerdy and want additional info, here’s the actual breakdown of the two products:

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that naturally occurs on the skin.  This ingredient, when found in over-the-counter products, typically ranges in concentration from 0.05 to 1 percent.

Retinoids, on the other hand, are a chemical compound that is related to Vitamin A, and different strengths of concentration and type of retinoids are prescribed by your dermatologist based on: skin type, skin condition, age, and reason for using it.

The Many Retinoids Available To You

different options of retinoids available
Image via Future Derm

Now that we’ve bombarded you with why you need retinoids and the difference between that and retinol, let’s dive in to the real juicy details.

Before you waltz into your dermatologist’s office and tell him/her to write you a script for retinoids, you’ll want to know the different kinds of retinoids available, and what their specific purpose is.

Because it’s more than just deciding between a retinoid cream or retinoid serum—which you can read all about in our blog post here.

So, let’s break down some of the major retinoids and what they do:

Retinoid #1: Retinyl Palmitate

retinyl palmitate as a retinoid
Image via Skincerely Clare

As the weakest of all the retinoids, retinyl palmitate is a combination of pure retinol and palmitic acid.

Palmitic acid is likely an ingredient you’ve seen in the ingredient list on your cosmetic products, as it’s often used there as a cleansing agent.

Palmitic acid is a fatty acid, and is an antioxidant found naturally in our skin, where is helps protect skin from UV radiation.

Don’t be fooled, though.  Just because you use a retinoid with this in it doesn’t mean you can skip out on applying SPF.

In fact, when using retinoids of any kind, using SPF is an absolute must, as they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

You’ll likely find this retinoid in products labeled as “Vitamin A skincare.”

Many skincare enthusiasts claim that this retinoid is better used as a moisturizing agent versus an anti-aging agent, so if dry skin is one of your main complaints, this may be the retinoid for you!

It’s also worth mentioning that some skincare lines will label their products as a retinol, when what it actually has in it is retinyl palmitate.

This is important since retinyl palmitate is a weaker retinoid than retinol is, so if that is your active ingredient in the product, it’s actually not a retinol at all.

Why?  Retinyl palmitate has to be converted into retinol, which is then converted into retinaldehyde, which is then converted into retinoic acid, with some loss during each conversion step.

So the point is, retinyl palmitate is quite a bit weaker than retinol, so make sure you check the ingredient list if a product claims to be a retinol.

Retinoid #2: Retinol

retinoil as a retinoid
Image via Skinacea

While retinoids and retinol are technically different, retinol is still considered a retinoid, just a much weaker version of it.

In fact, some products that contain retinol have percentages as high as 0.9%.  Compare that to the strongest retinoid, which only goes up to 0.1%.

As covered above, retinol is an awesome anti-aging skincare product that increases collagen and cell turnover, and improves skin’s moisture retention, among other things.

Many skincare experts will recommend only using retinol at night in small quantities (about a pea size), and should never be used with alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs).

While results with retinol take longer than prescription retinoids, this is a cheaper alternative that will ultimately achieve the same results as other retinoids. 

Retinoid #3: Tretinoin

Tretinoin is also referred to as all-trans retinoic acid.  This ingredient is a lipid-soluble molecule that possesses both an acidic component to it, as well as a lipid-soluble component.

What does all that fancy talk mean?  It can address both acne issues and photodamage from UV rays, which is a rare quality in a skincare ingredient.

You may also find that this is the ingredient your dermatologist recommends first.  Why?  It’s the only chemical to date to receive FDA approval for anti-aging and anti-sun damage properties.

As one of the strongest retinoids, you’ll likely see Tretinoin in extremely potent prescription strength treatments such as Retin-A and Renova.

Available as a gel or cream in different concentrations, Tretinoin is available anywhere from 0.025% to 0.1% being the strongest.

Retinoid #4: Tazarotene

fourth type of retinoid, Tazarotene
Image via Forever Healthy and Young

Welcome in the Big Daddy!  Tazarotene is the strongest of the retinoids, and is not found in any skincare product not prescribed directly by your dermatologist.

Some of the prescriptions you’re likely to find this retinoid in is Tazorac, Avage, and Zorac, all applied topically.

Retinoid #5: Isotretinoin

Isotretinoin, which is simply a synthetic tretinoin, is available in both topical and oral forms.

We have an entire blog post dedicated to topical retinoids, so make sure you check that out here if you’re interested in more information on that specific topic.

Doctors often prescribe isotretinoins as oral medication for severe acne, and can be found in products such as Accutane, Roaccutane, Accure, and IsotrexGel.

So if acne is your chief complaint that you’re hoping to correct, this ingredient may be your best bet to achieve killer results. 

Other Types of Retinoids

Retinaldehyde is another retinoid that is available over the counter.  So this ingredient, retinol, and retinyl plamitate are the only true retinoids that you can use without getting a prescription first.

Adapalene is found in many prescription-based retinoids, such as Differin, which is the prescription most often prescribed initially to patients due to it’s range in concentration and gel or cream form.

It is also found in Epiduo, which contains both Adapalene and benzoyl peroxide, among other prescriptions available.

Otherretinoids.jpg alt “other types of retinoids available”

Now that we’ve broken down the many different retinoids available to you, let’s chat the best way to incorporate them into your skincare routine, and some expectations of what you might experience.

How to Use Retinoids

how to use retinoids

Before we jump into how to actually use retinoids, it’s worth mentioning that these products are definitely not for everyone.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or even thinking about becoming pregnant, you’ll want to steer clear of retinoids, even if you’re just applying them topically.

These products have been linked to birth defects when taken orally, so it’s best to just avoid them altogether during that phase of life.

For almost everyone else, however, incorporating retinoids into your skincare routine can be very simple.

And if you’re 26 years old or older, using a retinoid is an absolute must to keep your skin looking young, healthy, and glowing.

When it comes to deciphering which retinoid is best for you, the general rule of thumb is to go with the strongest retinoid you can tolerate with the least amount of irritation.

Some redness and drying is bound to happen as you are turning over new cells and incorporating a new product.  However, it should never hurt to use retinoids.

If you skin is only capable of handling retinol, then stick with that.  There’s no need to subject your skin to a stronger formula just to achieve results quicker.

You may want to consider asking your dermatologist for a sample of the retinoid you’re considering using.  Trust me—dermatologists always have samples looming in their office.

The safest best, however, is starting with a retinol and seeing how your skin reacts.

There’s no use getting a dermatologist appointment (we all know how long it takes to get in) for a different retinoid if your skin does just fine on retinol!

Just keep your skin type in mind when selecting a retinol.

Unlike prescriptions retinoids, retinol is not marketed to clear up acne.  So you’ll want to make sure to avoid oil-based retinols that may clog up your pores, especially if you have oily skin to begin with or are more acne-prone.

As you begin you hunt for a retinol, should you choose to go that route, you’ll be amazed at just how many are on the market, and how most of them are targeted toward specific skin types.

In other words, you’re in good hands!

Once you’ve applied your retinoid of choice, some dermatologists recommend allowing the product 20 minutes to sink in before applying your moisturizer.

While this can run the risk of drying you out, many skin experts think this is the most effect way to use retinoids.

Final Thoughts On Retinoids

retinol and retinoids 101
Image via Renée Rouleau

Just a few last things to keep in mind when using retinoids:

Make sure you’re using the proper amount of product.  More product does not equal faster results.

In fact, you’ll likely juts irritate your skin.  There are even horror stories on the Internet of people with skin so dry, it starts bleeding when they crack a smile.

Don’t be that person.  If the instructions say to only just a pea size amount once a day, make sure that’s exactly what you’re using.

You may also want to ease in to using retinoids.  For example, once you select the one best suited for your skin, many dermatologists will recommend using it two nights on, one night off.

This can help you avoid irritation and dryness by giving your skin room to breathe in between treatments while it’s getting used to the product.

Also, as we mentioned above, make sure you’re wearing SPF, especially during those summer months.

Retinoids make your skin much more sensitive to the sun, and you could do much worse damage by exposing your face to the sun when on a retinoid.

Finally, once you’ve been on a certain retinoid for about six months, you may want to consider changing it up.

Whether you increase the concentration or move on to a stronger retinoid altogether, this is an effective way to help you achieve your skin goals.

Retinoidsconclusion.jpg alt “conclusion on retinoids discussion”

So, there you have it!  As nerdy as it may be, you probably know as much as you ever wanted to know….and then some… about retinoids.

Whether you’re hoping to get ahead of the game by preventing signs of aging, or you’re looking to undo some of the damage you did in your younger years, retinoids are the magic ingredient that cures all.

Introducing retinoids into your weekly skincare routine will leave you with skin you thought only celebrities could achieve!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author ()

Jessica Jones is the Executive Editor of At age 23, Jessica began seeing a few fine wrinkles and decided to make it her life's mission to stop them in their tracks! When she's not trying out the newest retinol creams, Jessica can usually be found at the gym, or at happy hour!