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Is There a Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?


Retinol vs. Retinoids: What's The Difference?

Retinoids and retinol are similar, but they aren't the same. Here at Kiehl’s, we explain the differences and how to determine which one is right for your skin.

Ask a dermatologist to spill their skincare must-haves—we’d be surprised if retinol didn’t feature somewhere on their list. There are plenty of reasons for this: Retinoid compounds—both retinol and synthetic retinoids—have been shown to help with a wide array of skin concerns, from breakouts to visible photodamage and fine lines and wrinkles. But what a lot of people may not realize is that retinol and retinoids aren’t interchangeable—and understanding how they differ is key if you want to get the most out of your skincare routine.

That said, it can be a confusing topic if you’re not well-versed in skincare ingredients. Thankfully, you have us. Here, we’ll break down some of the major differences between retinoids and retinol and share our top tips for incorporating retinol into your skincare routine. Read on for the Kiehl’s crash course on retinol, retinoids, and related compounds.

What’s The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

Before we dive into the similarities and differences between retinol and retinoids, it’s important to lay some groundwork. The term retinoid refers to natural and synthetic ingredients derived from vitamin A. This includes a wide array of compounds, including tretinoin, adapalene, and isotretinoin. Retinol—which is commonly used to help address age-related skin concerns like the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles—is also a retinoid, albeit a gentler form than those mentioned above. To use an analogy, it’s similar to how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares: All retinol is a retinoid, but not all retinoids are retinol.

Retinoids differ from one another in their chemical structure and strength. Some, like retinol, are relatively gentle and work slowly; others are extremely potent drugs and require a doctor’s prescription. For those new to retinol or retinoids, retinol is a great jumping-off point, as it provides the benefits of vitamin A derivatives but can be purchased over the counter. At Kiehl’s, we use pure retinol in our Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Serum with Ceramides and Peptide (more on this anti-aging Kiehl’s favorite later).

How Much Stronger Are Retinoids Than Retinol?

Because there are so many different types of retinoids, there isn’t a straightforward answer to this question. Some retinoids are only mildly stronger than pure retinol, while others (like retinoic acid, or tretinoin) are incredibly potent and can only be used under a doctor’s supervision. The strength of a given retinoid also depends on the percentage used. For this reason, dermatologists generally recommend starting out with the lowest concentration you can find since over-using retinoids can lead to side effects like dryness and redness.

Our Tips On Retinol For Beginners

Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide

For retinol newbies, gentleness is key. We recommend introducing retinol into your routine with a daily retinol serum, such as the aforementioned Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide. Formulated with a precise daily dose of pure retinol, this anti-aging serum promotes gentle skin surface turnover to help improve the appearance of skin tone and texture. It’s clinically-demonstrated to firm the skin and diminish wrinkles after just 12 weeks of use, while continued use helps diminish the appearance of pores for smoother, more refined-looking skin.* Best of all, the gentle formula is uniquely formulated to provide visible anti-aging benefits with minimal redness, dryness, or peeling, and it’s suitable for all skin types—including retinol newbies and those with sensitive skin.

*Results based on expert grading in a clinical test for subjects showing improvement after 12 weeks of use.

Super Multi-Corrective Anti-Aging Cream for Face and Neck

Kiehl’s Tip: If you’re looking for a retinol alternative, we recommend trying products formulated with phytomimetic vitamin A. The ingredient appears in our Super Multi-Corrective Anti-Aging Cream for Face and Neck, which also contains hyaluronic acid and Chaga mushroom. The gentle yet effective anti-aging moisturizer is clinically-demonstrated* to visibly reduce signs of aging, including the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even skin tone, and smooth skin’s texture within just four weeks of use. Plus, it’s suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night as part of your regular skincare routine.

*Results based on a 12-week clinical study of 53 panelists in the US.

Can I Use Retinol and Retinoids Together?

Unless instructed otherwise by your doctor, generally, you’ll want to avoid using retinol and other retinoids together because doing so runs the risk of irritating your skin. You’ll also want to steer clear of other ingredients that promote skin surface turnover, like beta-hydroxy acids. If you’re unsure what you can and can’t use with your retinoid, consult your dermatologist for help.

Should I See a Dermatologist For Retinol?

As we mentioned earlier, retinol and retinol alternatives, like vitamin A, can be purchased over the counter without a prescription. However, if you’re looking to try a stronger retinoid (one that does require a prescription), you’ll need to visit a dermatologist. We also recommend consulting a dermatologist for advice before you incorporate retinol into your skincare routine.

Kiehl’s Tips For Using Retinol In Your Routine

Now that you’re caught up on the differences between retinoids and retinol, here are two tips to help keep your skin comfortable and healthy-looking when using retinol, specifically.

Keep Your Skin Hydrated

Moisturizer is always important, but especially so if you’re using a retinoid product since they can be drying. During the day, use a mild moisturizer, like Ultra Facial Cream with Squalane. This cult-classic moisturizer with squalane and glycerin helps strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier and boosts skin hydration for up to 24 hours, leaving your skin feeling smoother, softer, and more balanced. It absorbs quickly with a lightweight feel and can be used daily for healthier-looking skin over time.

At night, if you want to reach for a slightly more indulgent moisturizer, try Midnight Recovery Omega-Rich Cloud Cream. It contains a blend of plant ingredients and helps replenish moisture for skin that feels renewed and rejuvenated by morning. You can use this moisturizer alone or layer it underneath an overnight mask such as Ultra Facial Overnight Hydrating Face Mask with 10.5% Squalane, which locks in moisture while you sleep and helps stabilize the skin’s natural moisture barrier.

Wear Sunscreen Diligently

Retinoids can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, leaving it more vulnerable to sunburns and photodamage, which makes it imperative to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. For lasting protection without a greasy feel, try a lightweight facial sunscreen such as Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+. The non-comedogenic formula shields the skin against UVA and UVB rays and boasts added antioxidant protection to help your skin defend against photodamage. You’ll want to apply it daily—all year long, rain or shine—and reapply roughly every two hours or after sweating or swimming for lasting sun protection.

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