Retinol vs Retinoid: What’s the Difference?

woman applying retinol serum to cheek with dropper

You probably worry about aging even though it’s a normal process if you're like most people. Your skin is where it’s most obvious and so you try to reverse this process really hard. While your skin concern is important, it’s your biggest organ after all, a topical experience won’t improve it much unless you lead a healthy lifestyle that includes an awareness of those elements you come into contact day after day along with a wholesome well-balanced diet.

Learn to listen to your body so you can age gracefully. Who knows, you might actually enjoy it. Did you know that food contains most of the vitamins and minerals that can help you along this journey? Take topical retinoid and retinol, the subject of our article, for instance. What are they? What makes them different? Let’s take a look.

Your body is constantly shedding the dead skin cells of the epidermis, your outermost layer of skin. This skin cell turnover results in the production of collagen. This is the molecule responsible for the smoothness and elasticity of your skin. However, this process starts to slow down as you age so it’s important to give it a boost.

This is because elements like the sun and dry air can cause a lot of damage to it. You must to do some additional work like using creams, exfoliating scrubs, and masks to keep it in good shape as it has a hard time regenerating on it’s own as time goes by. The power of a vitamin A derivative like retinol and retinoid might just be what you need. Let’s see what they’re all about!

Woman washing face with foaming facewash

Retinol vs. Retinoid and Their Role in Collagen Production

Retinol and retinoid are common ingredients in cosmetics and supplements. They’re quite similar and the difference is actually quite simple: retinol is just a weaker version of retinoid which, in turn, is a derivative of vitamin A. Scientists successfully isolated it at some point because they found it quite beneficial in the treatment of all kinds of skin problems like acne and psoriasis. This is due to its properties that promote the regeneration of dry skin cells which in turn stimulate the production of collagen.


Before getting into the difference between retinol and retinoid, it’s important to know how collagen works and why it’s so important. Collagen is a protein that literally binds your body together. It’s quite abundant in animals and makes up the structure or framework of your cells and tissues.

There are at least 28 types of collagen and type I accounts for 90 percent of the collagen in your body. It’s mainly composed of a variety of amino acids such as glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. These aminos make the three strands that form the triple-helix structure that’s quite characteristic of collagen.

Collagen forms the connective tissues between your bones, so it’s the binding agent in your skin cells. As you can imagine, it’s also present in the skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage of many animals. It's the structure of your tissues so it plays an important role in cellular processes.

Furthermore, the connective tissue cells, known as fibroblasts, produce and maintain collagen. However, the production slows down as you grow older and impairs the function of your fibroblasts. These changes, along with the loss of elastin, another important structural protein, lead to the most common signs of aging: sagging skin and wrinkles.

Your body produces collagen but you can also obtain it from certain parts of poultry, fish, and other meats. If you’re a vegan or don’t have access to these for whatever reason, then you can resort to oral and topical collagen supplements. You can get these in powder capsule and liquid form, and the best way to take it is to add it to your beverages and meals. Many creams and lotions also contain this substance and are a popular option for decreasing the appearance of wrinkles, moisturizing, and joint pain.

Another use of collagen is in the medical field as healthcare professionals use it along with collagen-based materials in the treatment of wounds. As for the beauty industry, some companies add collagen to their moisturizers as the properties in this regard are unbeatable.

Put simply, your body would fall apart if you didn’t have collagen. So, the lack of it can worsen many conditions, arthritis, for example. There are many supplements on the market but the best way to obtain them is by getting them directly from animal foods that can naturally stimulate your body to produce more. The highest sources are the ears, the feet as well as the skin and bones.

cartoon diagram showing the difference of collagen fiber structures between young skin and aged skin


This is an umbrella term that refers to many types of vitamin A derivatives such as tretinoin and adapalene. You can find these in topical creams, gels, and pills, either in prescription form or over-the-counter. They can unclog pores, remove bacteria, and help shed your skin, all crucial for healthy skin.

The mechanism of action of retinoids is to increase the production of collagen and stimulate blood vessels as it promotes healthy skin and reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. Furthermore, it aids in the treatment of acne and hyperpigmentation and can clear some scars as well.

We already mentioned that retinoids are stronger than retinol and that most are only available with a prescription. Adapalene is the exception though it’s a powerful ally you can find it over-the-counter to deal with your unsightly acne. It’ll boost your collagen and elastin production and even reverse sun damage and reduce the appearance of pores.

As you can see, a topical retinoid is so good at removing the epidermis; it could easily irritate your skin. Thus, start slowly and build up some tolerance for them if you’re using them for the first time during your skincare routine. The best time to apply this substance is when you’re ready to retire for the night. Not only because it’s easier to monitor your reaction but also because doing so at that time decreases your chances of sun exposure.

Remember, your skin becomes even more sensitive to sunlight when you use this substance. Be sure to wear sunscreen or protective clothing if you’re going to use it during the day.

closeup of cream being applied to acne on a cheek


This is the name of a less concentrated retinoid that contains less retinoic acid. One of the best-known skincare ingredients currently on the market, this over-the-counter retinoid is a derivative of vitamin A, used in anti-aging products and those that can treat acne.

It’s actually perfect for those who want to use these products for the first time, especially if they have sensitive skin. There are other more easily available over-the-counter so you can find the ingredient in all kinds of skincare products.

As you can imagine, an over-the-counter retinol product isn’t the same as a prescription retinoid, the latter is more potent. It’s definitely the strongest over-the-counter version if you compare it with retinaldehyde and retinyl palmate, other retinoids. This substance has many potential skincare benefits but you must consider the side effects.

Retinol doesn’t remove dead skin cells. Instead, its small molecules go deep, beneath the outer layer of skin, into the dermis. It helps neutralize free radicals once it’s there and this in turn boosts the production of collagen and elastin. This is great because it plumps the skin and reduces the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and enlarged pores.

This substance is sometimes used to decrease acne-related scarring so the doctor will probably prescribe a different acne treatment to decrease inflammation and control or prevent bacteria. Retinol has an exfoliating effect on the skin so it does help improve texture and tone. As we said, it can do more than decrease the appearance of wrinkles, expression lines, and sunspots; it can also improve skin texture and even skin tone.

Keep in mind that you must use it every day to obtain maximum benefits and several weeks will go by before you see a significant improvement. Also, retinol is approved by the Food and Drug Administration but it doesn’t mean there are no side effects. People who use retinol do experience dry and irritated skin at the beginning. This is why you begin to apply it every third night and work your way up. You may use it every day if there are no side effects or if the excessive dryness or peeling goes away.

Always visit your dermatologist if you’re concerned about the degree of irritation. In fact, you might want to consult them before you start using it. Acne or eczema flare-up, skin discoloration, photosensitivity to UV light, swelling, blistering, and stinging are the most common side effects. You might want to know that applying retinol half an hour after washing your face will reduce irritation.

In addition, use only one retinoid product at a time as your risk for side effects increases when you use two or more. Always read the product labels, especially if you want to use a combination of those labeled as anti-aging and for acne as they likely contain retinol. Also, always apply this substance at night to avoid sun or light exposure, as it may worsen some of the drying and irritating effects of retinol, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Not only that, sun exposure puts you at risk of age spots and wrinkles, the same reasons why you may be using retinol. You can, fortunately, reduce those risks by wearing sunscreen when you’re outside. Using this substance could also worsen eczema and rosacea so don’t use it if you suffer from any of these. In addition, consult your doctor about the risks of retinol if you’re pregnant or are planning to be in the near future.

The proper way to apply retinol is to wash your face, dry it, and apply it. Then, apply a moisturizer after a few minutes. Finally, always do a patch test before applying any new substance to your face.

Retinol may not be as strong as other retinoids but is effective in skin regeneration and wrinkle reduction treatments. As with other retinoids, you should only use it at night because it makes your skin more photosensitive — sensitive to the sun. It might take longer for you to build up resistance given that’s not so strong but start little by little until you can upgrade to a retinoid, like tretinoin.

graphic of a pill capsule broken open, Retinol A written on the side

Adding Retinol or Retinoid to Your Routine

Ok so, you now know that retinol is a retinoid and that the difference is in the level of concentration of retinoic acid in them. It’s time to tell you how to add these ingredients to your healthcare routine. There are many things to consider before picking what’s right for you so read carefully.

Most people can tolerate retinol and retinoids but these substances could irritate some types of skin. Especially those with skin conditions like rosacea and eczema as they’re more susceptible to negative effects. So, don’t use it if you have extremely sensitive skin, a history of sun damage, or if your acne scars are way too pronounced. Furthermore, it’s neither suitable for pregnant women nor for those undergoing hormonal treatment.

Closeup of skin irritation on a young woman's cheek

Choose a Product

There are many, many products with retinol in the market so do your homework to select the best one for you. As we mentioned above, start with a product with a lower concentration of retinol if you’ve never used it.

Your doctor or dermatologist can prescribe one with prescription-strength after evaluating your condition and needs. Always do a patch test before you apply a new substance to your face, it’ll help you rule out a possible bad reaction.

Wait For the Results

You might be tempted to use more product than the instructions suggest because it might speed up the results, right? Wrong, this is a common misconception that might actually worsen your condition. A little bit can cover your whole face so it’s all you need. Don’t use retinol every day, every other day at most as it could lead to irritation.

Healthy food for balanced diet concept - a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts

Ways to Prevent Collagen Loss

Well, you can’t really prevent age-related collagen loss, only slow down the process by minding your diet and adjusting your lifestyle overall. For one, smoking and drinking excessively negatively impact your collagen production. The same goes for a diet high in junky ultra-processed food packed with edulcorates, transfats, and refined flours.

Avoid or at least reduce your intake of these foods and beverages and increase your consumption of nutrient-packed superfoods. Not only to support collagen maintenance but for overall health. A healthy lifestyle that includes a nutrient-dense diet packed with vitamin C and maybe even smoking and alcohol use in moderation could help delay the age-related decrease in collagen and detain the development of wrinkles for a few more years.

For instance, you need a diet low in advanced glycation end products. These are proteins or lipids that become glycated as a result of exposure to sugars and skipping them can greatly benefit you. These compounds are basically toxins and accumulate in your skin, stiffening your valuable collagen which in turn stiffens the inactivate proteins in charge of collagen repair to get rid of them.

Limit your intake of hot dogs, bacon, fried foods, and grilled meats as these contain the highest amounts of advanced glycation end products, according to research. In contrast, include lots of quality protein along with fruits and vegetables. These don’t only contain collagen-supportive and protective nutrients but also help protect your collagen storage and prevent damage and subsequent loss.

In addition, use sunscreen every day and limit your exposure to the sun, wear a hat and other protective clothing if you must spend time outside. Also, refrain from artificially tanning in any indoor equipment designed for that purpose.

Furthermore, repetitive facial expressions like squinting often lead to fine lines so wear sunglasses. Of course, remain active, a simple 15-minute walk around your neighborhood will suffice. Cleanse your skin twice a day, gently, without scrubbing, and use a moisturizer every day. Finally, skip any skincare products that contain harsh chemicals and might burn or sting and lead to skin irritation.

In short, maintaining a healthy lifestyle by avoiding cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption and following a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods can help protect you against collagen loss and damage.

Growing older is a privilege and an experience worth having so celebrate it. Be grateful for what you have regardless of what you’ve lost. Treasure everything and everyone that brought you joy and be thankful for those who’ve challenged you because they provided you with many learning experiences.

You can use all kinds of creams and lotions to look young but only when you lighten up and look at the bright side of life will you actually feel younger. This is because being young is more about attitude than the number of years you’ve been here on Earth.

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