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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. And hey, this could take months, but good skin doesn’t happen overnight. So, baby steps, eh?

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 in 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 can deactivate retinoids. They do this by changing the pH of the skin, thus stunting the conversion reaction of the derivatives into retinoic acid. Not to mention, this works both ways, where the retinol may impair the function of your acids. All in all, mixing your products is a big waste of money.

Further, retinoids on their own are very strong, so mixing them with exfoliators like AHAs and BHAs can lead to a host of skin irritation issues.

TRY: The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalene

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. Not only does this mean your retinoids won’t be deactivated by the sun—it also means that your chemical exfoliants can get your face prepped for a smooth makeup application. 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. It was probably true when the skincare formulations were a little less sophisticated, but nowadays there’s no reason that your skin should be more sensitised to the sun with the use of retinoids or retinol.

What will happen, however, is that sunlight will deactivate the ingredient on your skin. We advise that you leave your retinol for your nighttime skincare routine instead (and make sure you’re layering on the SPF in the day).

READ: Here's the real reason why SPF30 is good enough for our skin

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. There is the chance, however, that you may find that your skin stops improving as it gets desensitised. In this case, you probably just need to get a stronger prescription.

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 vegan plant extract that may tickle your fancy. Enter stage left: Bakuchiol.

Jam-packed with anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and antioxidant properties this ingredient has a similar function to retinol with regards to increased cell turnover. In fact, an article in the British Journal of Dermatology stated that “bakuchiol is comparable with retinol in its ability to improve photoageing and is better tolerated than retinol.”

TRY: Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil

For more skincare tips, check this out.