Retinol Vs. Retinoid: The Similarities & Differences

Retinol vs. Retinoid: The Similarities & Differences

When you’re young, your skin is in a very rapid state of renewal. Healthy new cells make their way to the surface quickly as depleted cells are discarded. Over time, depleted skin cells start to shed slowly, unevenly. Subtle changes in skin texture gradually increase, and fine lines begin to form.

Whether you start noticing the first subtle signs of skin aging in your mid-20s or late 40s, you might naturally wonder which of today’s most popular skincare ingredients could help revive your complexion. While investigating your options, you’ve likely found numerous sources suggesting retinol or retinoids. That’s when things can get confusing.

Although it often seems like the terms are used interchangeably, retinol and retinoids are two vastly different sides of the same coin. If you’ve been considering your options, it’s important to understand the similarities and differences.

How Might Retinol or Topical Retinoids Benefit My Skin?

Retinoids and retinol, both derivatives of vitamin A, activate specific enzymes in your skin that speed skin cell production. As the rate of skin cell formation increases and new cells make their way to the surface, both types of vitamin A help increase collagen production and break the bonds holding dead cells in place. When worn depleted cells are discarded faster, the fresh, vibrant cells they’re hiding are free to take their place.

Retinoids have been around since 1971. The first topical retinoid, tretinoin, was a prescription acne treatment, a stable form of retinoic acid that reduced oil production and helped keep blemish-prone skin clear. The dermatologist who discovered the treatment eventually noticed the anti-aging potential of tretinoin after prescribing the medication to some of his older patients.1

Retinol, the precursor to retinoic acid, was first isolated in the 1930s. But researchers soon discovered the vitamin A derivative was highly unstable. It was quickly broken down by sunlight and oxygen. Eventually, science prevailed. Retinol has been used in anti-aging skin care products since the 1980s.2

Should I Try Retinol or Retinoids? Which is Better?

Once you understand what these vitamin A derivatives could do for your skin, it’s only natural to assume your complexion would benefit from the most potent product you can find. But not so fast. Retinoids are an FDA-approved treatment for specific skin conditions. But skincare products made with retinol are also shown to change the way skin functions. Taking a closer look at the specifics could help you determine which popular option might be your best bet.

Retinoids (Prescription Only)

By nature, retinoids are antioxidants. Although your skin needs antioxidants to help neutralize free radicals, not all retinoids have the same benefits or are administered the same way. Most are applied topically; some are taken orally. But all retinoids require a prescription. A retinoid prescription might be your best option if you have oily, blemish-prone skin or have already used skincare products made with a moderate amount of retinol.

Retinol (No Prescription Required)

Skincare products made with retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, or retinyl linoleate can be just as effective as retinoids for smoothing texture and preventing wrinkles, but they take longer to work. The retinol needs time to convert to its active form (retinoic acid). Because it works slowly, retinol is less likely to cause irritation. Retinol-infused products could be the better choice if you have sensitive skin or have not used a vitamin A derivative in the past.4

How Do I Work One of These Products Into My Skincare Routine?

The best way to add any retinoid to your skincare routine is gradually, and only at night. Using retinol or a prescription retinoid during the day greatly increases your risk of sunburn and sensitivity. But even nightly use requires wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen by day.

When using any retinol or retinoid for the first time, most skincare experts recommend choosing a product with the lowest concentration you can find and using only a pea-sized amount. Many also suggest using the product only once for the first week to see how your skin might react. Retinol and retinoic acid are well-known for causing dry skin, redness, flaking, peeling, and breakouts.

If all goes well after a single application during the first week, try twice weekly for a few weeks, then move up to three times per week, and so on. The goal is to work your way up to nightly use. But stay alert, particularly if you have medium-toned, dark, or unevenly pigmented skin. Retinoid-induced irritation and redness can trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.5

Can I Continue Using My Other Skin Care Products?

You may need to alter your skincare routine a bit while using retinol or prescription retinoids, not only the products you’re using, but also the timing. For example, it’s usually best to applya prescription-strength retinoid about 20 minutes after washing your face to help reduce the risk of irritation. You might be able to use retinol sooner, but they both need to be applied once your skin is thoroughly dry. It can also be helpful to wait about 30 minutes after application before layering other skincare products.6

If you’re currently using alpha-hydroxy acids or benzoyl peroxide, it’s important to know that retinoids and retinol don’t always play nice! The combination of products can increase your risk of irritation while rendering the vitamin A derivatives less effective. Since these products are chemical exfoliants, avoid gritty scrubs. You might also want to rethink using any products made with witch hazel, ethyl alcohol, or vitamin C.7,8

Can I Use Retinol if I Have Sensitive Skin?

Severe reactions to retinoid use can be quite uncomfortable. If you have sensitive, reactive skin, you might want to consider testing the product on a small area for several days before applying retinol to your entire face. You could also get better results using a fragrance-free cream or lotion with very low retinol concentrations, a product specifically formulated for sensitive skin. If you have questions or concerns about using prescription retinoids or retinol, consult your healthcare provider or dermatologist.

Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?  What Else Could I Try?

Retinol and retinoids could help smooth rough skin, improve firmness, soften fine lines, or help keep your skin blemish-free. They can also cause redness, peeling, flaking, and discomfort. If you like the idea of using skincare products to revitalize your skin but can’t quite justify the risk of dryness or irritation, maybe you’d prefer traveling a different path. Instead, consider investing in plant-powered skincare products infused with hemp-derived CBD.

CBD (cannabidiol) is an active plant element classified as a cannabinoid. Based on what the research shows so far, CBD interacts with important receptors found on nearly every type of skin cell, including the receptors regulating skin cell formation, turnover rates, and collagen production.9

BOTA® CBD skincare products are made with plant oils and other botanicals selected for specific skin concerns. To learn more, we invite you to read our Complete Guide to Natural Skincare. Then browse our selection of plant-powered toners, serums, and moisturizers. All BOTA™ CBD-infused skincare products are third-party tested, cruelty-free, and made with natural ingredients that are kind to your skin.



  1. Dermastore. I Webster. (2021) Understanding Retinoids: A Brief History.
  2. 111Skin. (2021) The History of Retinol.
  3. Reader’s Digest. M Laliberte. (2019 May 13) What’s the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?
  4. The Derm Review. (2019 April 24) Retinol vs. Retinoid: What’s the Difference and Which is Better.
  5. Byrdie. L Metrus, K McCarthy. (2020 May 08) Retinol vs Retinoids, When to Use Each and Why.
  6. Differences Between. (2021) Differences Between Retinol Before or After Moisturizer.
  7. Into the Gloss. (2021) Which Ingredients to Mix – & Which Not to Mix.
  8. Health. M Burry. (2018 May 14) 3 Skincare Products You Should Never Use with Retinoids.
  9. Molecules. (2019 March) Cannabinoid Signaling in the Skin: Therapeutic Potential of the “C(ut)annabinoid” System.


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