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The Difference Between Retinol & Retinoid

Yes, there is a difference between retinol and retinoids and it’s important for your skin that you know the difference!


The skincare market is overloaded with products advertising the next new ingredient that’s going to "change your skin and it’s quality forever and for the better”.

Choosing skincare can, therefore, seem like an overwhelming and pressurized experience, as well as an expensive one.

But when you care about your skin’s vitality and health, it’s easy to jump on board with persuasive brands and their clever targeted ads, trusting that what they’re saying is applicable to you. It’s also easy to get jumbled over what each ingredient does (When it comes to Cel products, we’ve broken down what each of our key ingredients do here).

In the world of skincare, there are three relatively new kids on the block with very similar names: retinol, retinoids, and retin-A. Confusing, huh? That’s why today we’re taking a look at what sets these three apart, and which one your skin really needs…

What are Retinoids?

So, 'Retinoids' is the name for the group that many beauty products are formed from. It’s a chemical class! So, it’s not actually a lone ingredient per se…

Retinoids are all derivatives from Vitamin A which is essential for the body’s cell rejuvenation, repair, and renewal, hence why retinoids are lauded as fighters against aging, acne, and argued as vital for boosting that desired healthy glow.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a low concentration of a retinoid, that is available in over-the-counter products and usually gentler on skin.

Over-the-counter retinols are in ester forms such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinyl acetate. It works gradually when applied topically, and is added to skincare products to aid in promoting skin renewal, brightening skin tone, reducing the appearance of blemishes, and boosting collagen production in the skin.

What is Retin-A?

Retin-A is a prescription-only retinoid. There are a variety of different concentrations that can only be obtained from an authorized medical professional.

It’s also known as tretinoin.

When Retin-A is used it typically stings or slightly burns the skin, as it rapidly accelerates your skin’s cell turnover. It’s usually prescribed to help fight conditions like acne, and it’s advised you use a moisturizer alongside using Retin-A as it can dry out the skin.

When should I start thinking about using Retinoid products?

Your mid-twenties can be a great time to begin thinking about introducing an ingredient group like retinoids into your skincare regime. This is when the aging process starts to occur (crows feet, laugh lines, and at times, sunspots).

So, starting to use ingredients like retinoids before they start to become deeper and more obvious can help in slowing this process down.

What things should I consider when using Retinoid products?

Side effects when using retinoids can include:

  • irritation
  • sun sensitivity
  • dry skin

If you have sensitive skin or suffer from rosacea or eczema, these side effects can be more severe and include:

  • intense flaking
  • burning
  • red skin

Quite simply, if you do have sensitive skin and conditions like rosacea or eczema, retinoids might not be for you.

But, don’t worry! There are plenty of other amazing ingredients and products on the market targeting the same things that retinoids combat! For example, if you want all-natural, 100% Rosehip Oil is rich in Vitamin A which retinoids are derived from, and another alternative is epidermal growth factor (EGF) serums which also target the signs of aging and speed up cell turnover in the skin.

SPF should be worn every day all year round – that’s one of the biggest beauty rules there is! However, retinoids 100% make your skin more vulnerable to the effect of UV rays.

Direct sunlight can also diminish the effectiveness of your retinoid product. So, always liberally apply a moisturizing SPF that’s rated 30 or higher when using a product containing a retinoid. SPF 30 can block 97% of UVB rays.

Another tip is to apply retinoid products at night, so you’re at less risk of exposing the product to direct sunlight whilst it’s on your skin, particularly if you live in a hot country or are on holiday.

And hey, don’t forget your neck when using your new anti-aging, retinoid infused product! Our neck is one the key places we show our age (alongside our hands and elbows), so make sure you're using your creams, potions, and lotions there too.

So now you know the difference between retinol, retinoids, and Retin-A!


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Sarah Milton

A passionate content writer, with a specific interest in the science behind hair care. Having created content for several years, I’ve grown my knowledge exponentially in the science behind hair growth, quality and texture, and what ingredients our tresses need to thrive. When not in the office, I’m walking my dog along the beach or invested in a brilliant television drama.