Do You Need Retinol or Retinoids? Ask your Dermatologist

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that many swear is a fountain of youth for its ability to ease skin hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, accelerate collagen production and minimize acne and other breakouts.

And then there are retinoids, which are coveted for the same reasons.

It’s easy to grasp the difference once you know that retinol is a form of retinoid.


Any product that contains retinoic acid, a form of vitamin A, is a retinoid, but the term is usually reserved for prescription-strength products with higher concentrations. They’re typically found in creams and ointments, though some are available as pills.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved a retinoid for prescription use, tretinoin (Retin-A), in 1971, and it was followed by others including adapalene, tazarotene, acitretin and bexarotene. They are used to treat many conditions including acne, psoriasis, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and some forms of skin cancer.

Side effects can include excessive drying, redness, flaking and irritation, especially for those who have dry or sensitive skin. They can also leave your face more vulnerable to sun exposure, so night use and extra daytime protection are recommended.


The anti-aging power of prescription retinoids garnered huge interest from professionals and patients, ultimately leading to approval of a less-potent version, retinol.

Retinoids with concentrations of 0.1% or less of retinoic acid are known as retinol and can be purchased over the counter in an uncountable number of products. Retinol also has many skin care and anti-aging benefits but it can take considerably longer to see results compared to prescription retinoids.

There also are fewer side effects that cause milder if any irritation or sensitivity. Many doctors recommend using retinol products first to see how well they are tolerated before trying the stronger versions.

Which one?

Those dealing with severe acne or psoriasis or want to make quick work of wrinkles and sunspots should speak to a dermatologist for prescription retinoid recommendations. Those who are pregnant or have conditions like eczema or rosacea should check with their doctor before using any retinoid.

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