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What's the difference between retinol and retinoid? Here's everything to know about skincare's favourite ingredient

What's the difference between retinol and retinoid? Here's everything to know about skincare's favourite ingredient

Skincare saviour

Text: Redzhanna Jazmin

Retinol, retinoids—which is it? Today we’re delving into this cult-favourite skincare ingredient and answering all of your burning questions

There’s no doubt that you’ve heard of 'retinol' or 'retinoid' at one point or another—these are both big buzzwords these days, brimming with the promise of clearing your acne and reversing your photoaging. The twist? Unlike some of the claims on the beauty market, this particular promise is far from empty; it genuinely works.

Retinoids are a common ingredient in skincare that affects your cell gene expression to boost collagen production and epidermal turnover, therefore plumping skin and reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. In addition, it also has a skin brightening effect, helping to improve skin tone and the appearance of dark spots (such as acne scarring).

However, there's a lot of confusion surrounding the ingredient, so we thought we'd tackle some misconceptions and myths floating around.

Are retinoids and retinol the same thing?

The answer is, well, almost. Both retinoid and retinol are vitamin A derivatives that eventually get converted into retinoic acid—the metabolite that is responsible for all of the wonderful anti-ageing and acne-blasting effects.

So, what’s the difference? Well, retinol is simply a weaker version of retinoid; it contains a lower concentration of the active ingredient, retinoic acid. On top of that, the active ingredients are diluted down with other moisturising and stabilising ingredients that further weaken the formula. As a result, it works more gradually, slowly converting the dormant forms of the retinol (they tend to be esters) into the active retinoic acid. Because it’s such a slow-burner, this makes it suitable for over-the-counter products like your standard serums and creams.

Retinoid, on the other hand, has a far higher concentration of the active ingredient, therefore making it more potent on the skin. While it is stronger and more effective, it needs to be prescribed by a doctor as the risk of side effects are also greater. Retinoids aren’t also necessarily topical, either—Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane, is an oral drug used to treat acne and it is (you guessed it) a retinoid too. 

READ: All the different types of acne, explained—and how to treat them

I’ve just started using retinoids and/or retinol. Why is my skin flaky and dry?

This, friends, is known as retinisation. Unfortunately, a common side effect of retinoids and retinol is irritation, and in your first few weeks on retinoids, you’re likely to see redness, peeling, and dryness. Not to panic, though—this is just your skin getting used to the ingredient.

To deal with the painful process, just invest in a good moisturiser and you should be good to go! You should also steer clear of super harsh cleansers in the meantime—if you didn’t have sensitive skin before the retinoids, you definitely do now, and you should be treating it accordingly. That means easing up on the harsh skincare routine and opting for gentle skincare instead.

READ: Do you really need a different moisturiser for day and night?

Another key is to ease into the retinoid routine: Start using it maybe two to three times a week, and slowly work your way up to daily use. You want your skin to build up a tolerance. Mind you, this could take months, but good skin doesn’t happen overnight. So, baby steps, okay?

If, however, the redness persists for more than a month, you should consult a dermatologist to see if you need to weaken your prescription (or try a new routine!)

TRY: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

Can you mix retinoids and retinols with hyaluronic acid?

Yep—in fact, this is encouraged. Hyaluronic acid is great for water and moisture retention, which is an absolute must when it comes to toying around with retinoic acid.

In addition to a moisturiser enriched with hyaluronic acid, you’ll also want antioxidants and anti-irritants thrown into the mix to aid the soothing process.

TRY: REN Clean Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream

Are there any ingredients I should avoid while I use retinoids and retinol?

Yes, there are. Benzoyl peroxide and AHAs are two examples of ingredients that don't play well with retinoids for the sole reason that they potentially cause excess dryness and irritation. 

If, however, you simply must have all your skincare goodies, try spacing them out between routines. Specifically, keep your retinol to the evenings and your acids to the mornings. Alternatively, you can apply them on alternate days to avoid mixing the ingredients.

READ: Guide to chemical exfoliants: What are they, how to use them and how much is too much?

Will it make my skin more sensitive to the sun?

This is actually the biggest myth about retinoids and retinol. According to Board Certified dermatologist and content creator Dr Andrea Suarez (better known by her YouTube handle, Dr Dray), "tretinoin (a retinoid) actually confers a photoprotective advantage to the skin inhibiting the UV-induced up regulation of collagen destruction."

As it turns out, what doctors assumed was photosensitivity in the '70s was actually just irritationa common side effect of retinoids. "Tretinoin does often cause an irritant dermatitis when you first start it and this can make your skin very sensitive overall, however it is not a true photosensitivity," continues Suarez. She also notes that sunscreen and sun protection is still a necessity with retinoid use, but there is "no  need to fret over the use of tretinoin or other retinoids while on a sunny vacation."

READ: Sunscreen 101: Your guide to all things SPF (and PA++++)

Can you use retinoid and retinol during pregnancy?

No. A high dose of Vitamin A during pregnancy can be harmful to your foetus. In fact, if you get an oral prescription for Isotretinoin (Accutane), your doctor will warn you that you absolutely cannot get pregnant as the medication can cause birth defects.

Do the benefits of retinol plateau after six months?

We’re not sure where this myth came from, but all of you retinol and retinoid fans out there will be pleased to learn that there is no evidence to show that retinoids stop working after six months of use

Can you use it even if you don’t have acne?

Yes! As we mentioned, retinoids and retinol aren’t just great for combatting acne, they also work wonders in the anti-ageing department. So, if you have a few fine lines you’re concerned about, try adopting retinoids and retinol into your skincare routine.

Is there anything less irritating I can try?

Good news: If retinoids and retinols aren’t for you, there’s a better-tolerated plant extract that may tickle your fancy. Enter stage left: Bakuchiol.

Jam-packed with anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties, this ingredient, while not a "retinol alternative" as some brands have claimed, has shown great promise as a standalone ingredient (and has even been used alongside retinol in some formulations!). It works on a different receptor, but has a similar function to retinol with regards to increased cell turnover.

If your skin doesn't tolerate retinol well, we'd recommend first visiting a dermatologist to explore your options. If not, however, you could also try bakuchiol out to see if it suits your needs.

TRY: Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil

For more skincare tips, check this out.