Derm Knows Best: Retinol vs. Retinoids

Welcome to our new series Derm Knows Best, where a dermatologist takes over the Good Skin Blog to share their expertise on need-to-know skincare topics. This time we’re hearing from board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor Dr. Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD. Read on as she tells us the difference between retinoids and retinol and how each can benefit your complexion.

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds that are derivatives of vitamin A. They have a range of important biological functions. On the skin, retinoids help normalize cellular turnover, stimulate collagen, and reduce excessive pigment production. They’re also anti-inflammatory. Retinoids can be used topically or taken orally, with the latter being prescription medications used to treat acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions. Topical retinoids have gained tremendous popularity over the years. Initially studied for use in acne, it has shown to be one of the most effective ingredients to improve signs of aging skin

Dr. Jenny Liu

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Types of Retinoids

Prescription tretinoin (retinoic acid) is considered the gold standard in retinoids. Along with tretinoin are adapalene (found over-the-counter) and tazarotene (a prescription), which also function as retinoic acid. All three are FDA-approved treatments for acne. While tretinoin is the most studied ingredient for slowing signs of aging, there is strong data suggesting both adapalene and tazarotene are helpful as well.  

Retinoids vs. Retinol

One of the main issues with prescription retinoids is their side effects: things like dryness, burning, and skin peeling. Although this retinization process occurs in the first month of use, many individuals (despite trying!) are still not able to use prescriptions regularly. So then came the birth of cosmeceutical retinol. Over-the-counter retinol really stemmed from the desire to create a topical vitamin A that’s effective for aging skin but is less irritating, as mature skin tends to have a compromised skin barrier at baseline.


Retinols and retinaldehydes need to be converted to the active form of vitamin A (retinoic acid). As this conversion only takes place in metabolically active cells, it lessens the irritation, but also potency. However, we have good research demonstrating retinol and retinaldehydes are effective for improving skin aging, but less so for acne. 

The Best Retinoids for Skin Results

Another downside to retinoids is they are inherently unstable which makes formulation challenging and usage restricted. Many retinoids can easily be degraded by light and other oxidizing ingredients. The pursuit for an effective and stable formulation minus the irritation is manifested by various retinoid derivatives such as retinyl retinoate, granactive retinoid (formulated in the Smooth Landing Advanced Retinoid Eye Balm), hydroxypinacolone retinoid, and most recently: bakuchiol 

Bakuchiol (formulated in Press Restart, along with encapsulated retinol) is a plant-derived molecule shown in few studies to potentially have similar benefits as retinol. These ingredients are far less studied compared to tretinoin and retinol but do give hope that one day in the future, there may be just the perfect formulation that can address concerns of aging, acne, and hyperpigmentation without all the undesired effects.

Read how, when, and how often to use retinol in your skincare routine and shop retinol products below.