Retinols and retinoids are both derived from vitamin A and continue to be a gold-standard ingredient recommended by dermatologists, estheticians and skincare professionals for damaged, aging or acne-prone skin. Vitamin A is part of the family of antioxidant vitamins (along with vitamins C and E) and fights off cell damage from free radicals and repairs damaged cells. In skincare, vitamin A products (retinols and retinoids) generate skin cell growth, promote collagen and elastin build-up (therefore thickening the skin), minimize the appearance of acne and acne scars (although it is not anti-bacterial), address pores and even out age spots and discolorations. Although retinols and retinoids are from the same source, their performance differs slightly due to concentration, yet produce the same end results: smoother, thicker, clearer skin. If you’re ready to incorporate a retinol or retinoid into your skincare and want to know the differences, here are the types and formulas:

Type 1

  • Retinol – the lowest concentration and mildest form of a retinoid. Retinol is the over-the-counter (OTC) version of a retinoid and is found in facial serums and anti-aging creams. Retinol is an ideal level to begin with since levels tend to go as low as .01% and up to 1.5%. Retinol is converted into retinoic acid, which penetrates the epidermis and goes to the dermal level where collagen and elastin live. Since retinol is a milder form, results and improvement can take approximately 6-12 weeks. Retinol is also available in even less-concentrated forms called pro-retinols:
  1. Retinly palmitate – typically used in eye creams.
  2. Retinyl acetate
  3. Retinyl linolate

The end results will be the same as a retinol but, again, will take longer due to its lower concentration.

Type 2

  • Retinoid – the FDA first approved the retinoid tretinoin (Retin-A) back in 1971 for acne treatment. Dermatologists noticed that, along with clearing acne, tretinion also produced softer and brighter skin with fewer lines. Therefore, Retin-A continues to be prescribed to treat acne not just for anti-bacterial purposes, but also to promote exfoliation and cell turnover in a non-textured, non-microbead form. Retin-A is available in a gel or lotion formula and is prescribed to address fine, deep-set lines, discoloration from sun damage and age, promote new blood vessel formation, minimize the appearance of pores and decrease pre-cancerous skin spots called actinic keratosis. The three strengths of retinoids are: 
  1. Tretinoin – Retin-A is the most prescribed formula. Considered a “first-generation” retinoid.
  2. Tazarotene – the strongest concentration and a “third-generation” retinoid.
  3. Adapalene – the mildest concentration and also a “third-generation” retinoid.

Retinoids are available by prescription only and work faster and stronger than a retinol. Retinoids contain smaller molecules that penetrate the epidermis and treat the dermal layer to promote collagen and elastin build-up. Since they are prescription-grade, retinoids may cause dryness, redness and flaking and dermatologists recommend transitioning slowly into regular use. According to dermatologist Leslie Baumann, MD, use retinoids every 2-3 nights for the first two weeks, then, if no irritation or reaction occurs, use every night. Retinoids have also been prescribed to individuals with psoriasis and warts (when other wart treatments have not worked).

Other guidelines when using retinols or retinoids:

Since retinols and retinoids unveil a new layer of skin, protect your investment by remembering the following guidelines:

  • Always use an SPF 30, no less, and re-apply every few hours if spending a lot of time outdoors.  Remember that the lights in the office building emit UV rays, so be sure to put SPF on even when going to the office!
  • Avoid using 3-5 days before any waxing or threading treatments.
  • Check with your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Dryness and flaking may occur, which is a good sign as it is sloughing off the dead skin, revealing healthy, fresh new skin.,
  • Be aware of any allergic reactions, such as redness, bumps or inflammation, and discontinue use if these don’t clear.  To clear up the inflammation, use .5% hydrocortisione cream mixed with aloe 50/50 and apply twice a day until the inflammation has cleared. It should clear up within 2-5 days
  • It’s best to use retinols/retinoids at night since the new, resurfaced skin can become sun sensitive during the day. For drier skin types, follow with a moisturizing product and SPF 30 during the day...

When it comes to purchasing a retinol skincare product, look for packaging that’s opaque and, if possible, aluminum, as these materials block out air and light (vitamin A is air- and light-sensitive).  Avoid retinol in a jar form since extra light can make the retinol unstable.