Three skin care bottles of serum of retinol and hyaluronic acid.

Retinol vs Retinoid – Is There a Difference?


Sarah Barthet


If there is one skincare product that has found its way into almost every woman’s beauty cabinet, it’s retinol. Along with other skincare staples like hyaluronic acid, niacinamides and vitamin C serum, retinol and retinoids are the holy grail of anti-aging and a must-have in any beauty lover’s daily skincare routine.

Here’s the question… is there actually a difference between retinol and retinoids? Who should use which? Can the word be used interchangeably? And if there is actually a difference, which is better? With hundreds of retinol products available on the market, it’s no wonder that the thought of buying them can get a little confusing. The Dukes Avenue guide to retinol vs retinoid is answering all that and more, shedding some light on the absolute superstar of anti aging skin care.

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Dukes Avenue Guide to Retinol vs Retinoids

Retinol vs Retinoid – What’s the Difference?

First things first, they are not the same thing! Whilst the terms are frequently used interchangeably, there are differences that users should be aware of, so as to choose the best option for their skin type. Both retinols and retinoids are a derivative of Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that’s found in everyday household items like carrots and sweet potatoes – and they both come with heaps of benefits when used topically. They work to:

  • reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • accelerate skin renewal
  • increase collagen production
  • reduce age spots and visible signs of sun damage (e.g. sun spots and hyperpigmentation)  
  • regulate oily skin and minimise breakouts
  • reduce inflammation
  • achieve a smoother and more even-skin tone

The difference between retinol vs retinoid is actually simple: retinoid is just the umbrella term used to describe skincare products that contain vitamin A derivatives – and this includes retinol. Retinol is a retinoid, as are lesser known products such as tretinoin (Retin-A), adapalene (Differin), etc. It’s important to remember that the word retinoid describes the product and chemical class, but it does not distinguish between over the counter retinol and prescription products. Retinol is the most popular of the OTC retinoid products, whereas derm-grade retinoids such as tretinoin require a prescription from a dermatologist.

Since retinol is available over-the-counter, it is less potent than prescription methods and may be more prone to degradation when exposed to light and air. In fact, OTC retinoids like retinol typically contain lower concentrations of the active retinoic acid ingredient, starting at .01%.

That’s not to say there is no benefit to using retinol – there definitely is! – but it may take a little more time to see visible results than it would with more potent prescription retinoids like tretinoin (which is 20 times more potent!). Prescription retinoids typically have a higher concentration of at least .5% – 1%. Such products that offer higher potency are commonly used as acne treatment, and are sometimes prescribed for psoriasis.

If looking for a prescription retinoid, it is always best to speak with a dermatologist, who can expertly advise on the best retinoid for the issue at hand. 

Retinol vs Retinoid – Are they Safe?

Retinoids are generally safe and can be tolerated by most skin types” says New York-based board certified dermatologist Dr Melissa Levin. Of course, what suits someone with highly sensitive, dry skin may not be the best option for someone with oily skin, and this should be reflected in the type of retinoid product being used.

Anyone completely new to using retinoids may want to consider starting off with an OTC retinol product with a lower concentration of active retinoic acid, rather than a more potent prescription-grade retinoid. This also applies for anyone with very dry or sensitive skin types, as retinoids that are too harsh for the skin may cause irritation or redness. Oilier skin types, or regular users of OTC retinols, are more likely to handle more potent forms of retinoids. As always, consult a dermatologist if unsure what is best for your skin.

Note: women that are pregnant or nursing should avoid using retinol before checking with their obstetrician.

How to Use Retinol Correctly?

Retinol retinoids are less likely to cause any unwanted side effects if used correctly! Remember that retinoids may cause a little irritation, leading to flaking, dryness and redness. This can all be avoided with a little care! It’s always recommended to read through the instructions of any new skincare product, but here’s a general guide that might come in handy:

  • Anyone new to the world of retinoids should begin with a low percentage (.01% to 0.03%) OTC retinol product, to allow the skin to get used to the retinol before moving on to more potent prescription retinoids.
  • Apply a small amount to the face every three days in the first week of usage, and gradually increase. As the skin gradually begins to tolerate the retinol, this can slowly be increased to daily usage.
  • Some dermatologists (but not all) suggest retinol makes the skin more sensitive to sun exposure as it thins the top layer of the skin. Others suggest this is just a temporary problem. Either way, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so try to use retinol in the evening, after cleansing the face and applying toner.
  • The order in which retinoid product is applied depends on the product being used and its formulation. If using a retinol serum, this should be applied before the moisturiser. On the other hand, if using a moisturiser with retinol, this should be applied after the serum.

If brand new to using a retinol serum, anyone with very sensitive skin might want to consider applying a very thin layer of moisturiser before and after applying retinol to reduce irritation. Similarly, those with sensitive skin may also prefer to wait around 20 minutes after washing the face before applying a prescription strength retinoid cream.

How Long Does It Take to See Results from Retinol? 

This all depends on the strength of the retinoid product being used – since retinol is less potent than prescription retinoids, it may take a little longer to see results. Of course, consistency AND patience are key – dermatologists suggest that it takes at least 12 weeks of consistent use for any noticeable changes in the skin. Remember, the turnover of skin cells takes time!

Can Retinol be Used Under the Eyes? 

It’s a common misconception that retinoids should not be used under the eyes, due to the strength of the products. Whilst it’s true that some irritation may occur, this is likely due to the skin not being used to it. Remember retinoids should gradually be worked into a skin care routine! The under eye area is one of the first places that begins to show signs of aging by way of fine lines and dark circles, so it makes sense that this area would absolutely benefit from the collagen-stimulating effect of a retinoid product!

Dukes Avenue - Hyaluronic Acid Skin Benefits Featured Image

Can Retinol and Hyaluronic Acid be Used Together? 

Retinoids can be quite harsh on the skin, occasionally causing dryness and flaking – this makes hyaluronic acid the perfect partner. Hyaluronic acid is a great humectant, and its water retaining properties will help to keep the skin supple and hydrated after applying retinol.

Vitamin C or Retinol?

Vitamin C and retinol are not substitutes for one another, however should both be included in the optimal skin care routine. It’s best to separate Vitamin C and retinol during a daily routine: Vitamin C should be used in the morning, as its purpose is to protect the skin from pollution, ultraviolet light, and free radicals. On the other hand, retinol and other retinoid products should be used in the evening.

Hands holding glass jar and pipette of vitamin C serum

Niacinamide and Retinol

Niacinamide and retinol are a great combination! Niacinamide encourages ceramide production, which aids in the skin’s resilience against harsher ingredients like retinol. Additionally, niacinamide’s anti-inflammatory properties lower the risk of possible irritation from the retinol. 

Unless using a 2-in-1 product that includes both niacinamide and retinol as ingredients, apply the niacinamide first to help protect the skin and follow on with the retinol serum or moisturiser.

If you’re interested in other ways to prevent fine lines and wrinkles, be sure to check out our article on silk vs satin pillowcases.

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