Help! What’s the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

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Much like our mind, our skin has no idea what year it is. Half the time, it breaks out like a high schooler and the other half, it seems to age overnight. But there are two ingredients that combat both problems in one fell swoop. We give you retinol and retinoids. And while they’re both vitamin A derivatives that combat similar skin-care qualms, they work slightly differently. Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a medical and cosmetic dermatologist in New York City, taught us everything we know.

The Complete Guide to Anti-Aging Retinoids

Retinol is found in over-the-counter products (i.e., any creams, serums or oils you can buy without a prescription) and contains a lower concentration of the active ingredient. This means that it also works gradually (think around 12 weeks) to clear skin of blemishes and fine lines, because it takes more steps to be converted into molecules your skin can absorb.

Retinoids require a prescription (aside from Differin, the first and only over-the-counter retinoid) and have a much higher dose of the active ingredient, so it readily absorbs into the skin without having to be converted. Meaning you’ll see results much quicker than you will while using retinol (like, six weeks sooner). This also means that retinoids are slightly more irritating than over-the-counter retinol and should be slowly ramped up to limit irritation.

Got it. So which one should I use?
If you’ve never used either, we recommend you start with retinol, as it’s usually formulated in conjunction with moisturizing ingredients to minimize dryness and irritation. If your skin can handle retinol, talk to your dermatologist about whether or not retinoids are safe for you. But heads up: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should avoid using them altogether.

How often do I use them?
No matter which one you choose, it’s recommended to apply it every third night for the first two weeks. You can increase usage to every other night for two weeks if no irritation occurs. And if it’s still going well after that, bump it up to every night. Just remember to only apply it as part of your nighttime routine since sunlight deactivates retinoic acid, and to (always) wear SPF during the daytime, as it makes skin more sensitive to UVA and UVB rays.

Sold? Here are our top retinol picks:

skinceuticals retinol2

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3

Made with 0.3 percent pure retinol, this formula is ideal for first-time retinol users thanks to its addition of soothing bisabolol, which helps minimize irritation.

sunday riley retinol1

Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil

Skin-perfecting retinol suspended in super-hydrating face oil—get you a product that can do both.

peter thomas roth retinol1

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion Pm

This formula contains a whopping 1.5 percent retinol for the retinol veterans.

Try It ($65)

dr dennis gross retinol eye serum1

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic And Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum

Younger looking eyes coming right up. Retinol fades fine lines and crow’s feet, while ferulic acid brightens.

Try It ($69)

clark s botanicals retinol rescue

Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue Overnight Cream

When your head says retinol, but your heart says moisturizer.

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Saks Fifth Avenue

Chantecaille Retinol Intense+

The supercharged version of the brand’s Retinol Intense, boosted with twice the amount of retinol for when you need to bring in the big guns. Bonus: Its base of pure rosewater, evening primrose oil and magnolia bark extract soothes, reduces redness and moisturizes skin.

first aid beauty retinol1

First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

Enough retinol for fast results but with plenty of hyaluronic acid, antioxidants and ceramides to soothe, nourish and calm at the same time.

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