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What is the Difference Between Retinoid vs. Retinol?

September 25, 2020 | BY R. Motzell

Few products on the market today actually live up to the boastful marketing claims the manufacturers make about what they can do for your skin. 

“Oh sure, you can fix all of this?” 

That might be what you're secretly thinking when you read an advertisement for a new product that claims to be the fountain of youth for your skin. Every beauty company claims to have that one miracle cure-all product that will plump your cheeks, and leave you with that dewy, radiant glow, but most claims are unfortunately empty. 

But, there are a few products out there that have science behind those claims, and those products contain little things called Retinoids. What are retinoids you ask? Retinoid is the name given to a skin care product that includes an ingredient that specifically mimics the effects that Vitamin A has on your skin when applied topically, or in short, a Vitamin A derivative. There are many types of retinoids including retinoic acid, retinol, retinol palmitate, etc. 

For example, there are six common relatives in the retinoid skin care family. Three are available over the counter, and three require a prescription from a doctor:

  1. Retinyl Palmitate - gentlest OTC
  2. Retinaldehyde - medium OTC
  3. Retinol - strongest OTC
  4. Adapalene - gentlest form of prescription strength
  5. Tretinoin - medium prescription strength
  6. Tazarotene - strongest form available by prescription

Now, it is important to note that the train of thought has long been that you have to go to a doctor to get the good stuff in terms of retinoids, but that simply is not true anymore. Prescription strength, or over the counter -- they all work to accomplish the same goal. 

Retinoids are an effective way to even out skin tone, unclog pores, tighten and firm skin by filling in lines and wrinkles, and reduce the visibility and appearance of damage caused by aging and stressors in the environment. Specifically, they can reverse the effects of dark spots, or age spots, on the skin.

A prescription strength form of a retinoid like Retin-A includes the ingredient retinoic acid, which is the most active embodiment of Vitamin A available. In over the counter versions like retinol, the retinol has to go through a conversion process on the skin cellularly, and after a two-step oxidation process, it becomes retinoic acid. Didn’t realize you were getting a chemistry lesson did you?

What Sets Them Apart?

While retinoids will eventually produce good results on the skin, there are some main differences between the kind you get from your doctor and the kind you can buy without a prescription. 

First, retinoids in prescription strength are super potent and can be very irritating to the skin, especially sensitive skin. Side effects like flaking, peeling, redness and dryness are very common, so it is highly encouraged that people ease their way into incorporating this product into their skin care routine. You will achieve the desired results faster with a stronger formula, but you may not be able to withstand the negative effects that will happen to your skin while your skin is getting acclimated to the product. Basically, it might get worse before it gets better. 

But, don’t give up yet.

Because of this, there are a few things you can do to lessen any irritations as you ease your way into using the product daily. One trick of the trade is using the product every third day (at night) when you first start a topical application process. Try not to add any other anti-aging skin care products to your routine until your skin is well adjusted. Next, try applying a small amount of moisturizer before and after you apply the retinoid to your skin. This may help cut down on dryness and flaking that are common side effects seen in people using retinoids for the first time. Start out with low concentrations of retinoids to see how they will affect your skin, instead of jumping in head first with the strongest product.

If you don’t have major issues with your skin like deep wrinkles or severely dark areas of your face, then start by trying a product that contains retinol. There are many serums and creams available today that contain the active ingredient retinol that work just as good as their stronger counterparts, with the difference being that they will take slightly longer to produce results. 

Retinol isn’t as potent, so in some cases, it might take a couple of months for you to notice the effects, but the truth is that it does in fact work very well. It works so well that it still might cause slight irritations to the skin, especially to highly sensitive or already dry skin.

A newer form of retinoid that is available over the counter is called Granactive. Granactive has been shown to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and can be used twice daily to enhance the speed at which you are able to see results. It can be applied more often due to the fact that there are significantly less risks of experiencing skin irritation with this form of retinoid. The results that you can expect are improvements to skin's overall texture, reduction in roughness and dryness, more even skin tone, and a more nourished overall appearance. 

There is also a new natural alternative to retinoids all together which is called Bakuchiol. This organic plant-based compound comes from the Psoralea Corylifolia plant, and is strengthened with antioxidants and soothing agents. Bakuchiol’s benefits to the skin are almost indistinguishable to retinols overall, but structurally, they have little in common. The main outcomes this natural ingredient has on the skin are the vast skin boosting capabilities that will ultimately reduce the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles. Bakuchiol is milder than retinol and usually does not irritate the skin.

Things to Consider

With all retinoids, one important binding factor is that you have to use them consistently to see the effects they can produce. The addition of any Vitamin A derivative to your skin care routine will help plump and firm your skin. This is especially beneficial for women over 30 because our bodies naturally start to produce less collagen as we age. That is why we start to see things like fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamin A will also help keep skin hydrated, which is another element that starts declining with each passing birthday. Hydrated and plump skin are keys to maintaining youthful looking appearances. 

The best time to start using a retinoid product is actually when you are in your 20’s. This will help proactively address many of the things you will be trying to treat and correct when you are older if you wait too long to start taking care of your skin. The easiest way to treat skin damage is by preventing skin issues before they happen. 

Picking the Right Product

A retinol serum is a great way to easily introduce a retinoid into your skin care routine. A retinol serum should intensively treat the skin and is best when combined with antioxidants like Vitamin E and Green Tea. A potent formula should not only work by rejuvenating your skin, it should simultaneously soothe and calm your skin too, which will lessen the chances of any irritations.

A retinol cream is also a great option to try, and again look for one that utilizes pure retinol, and not a man made version of the ingredient. And, because they can still cause skin irritation, look for a product that incorporates soothing antioxidants like Vitamins E and B and minerals to alleviate any dryness or redness that might occur, especially when first starting to use the product. Green Tea is a natural addition that can calm and soothe irritated skin. Lastly, a retinol cream, when used consistently, can also be very helpful for all the reasons above while adding additional moisturization benefits. 

Wrap Up

yellow petaled flower

It is important to remember to always wear sunscreen when using a product which contains a retinoid. It is not advised to use retinoids when pregnant or breastfeeding because it can have adverse and unintended effects. And, always start slowly, regardless of what strength of product you choose. Over the counter products containing retinol, while they do not require a prescription, still feature very active ingredients that can seem intense for some people. 

Remember the every third day trick and once your skin acclimates, remember to use it everyday!


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