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Myth Buster: What’s The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?

Here at Skin + Me, we’re all about the details. And while at-a-glance retinol and retinoids might sound similar, they’re not the same thing. The difference between the two is a useful bit of beauty intel to have in your back pocket. 

Why? Because finding the right skincare to meet your unique needs – and get the best results – starts with an understanding of the effectiveness of active ingredients.

What’s the difference between retinol and retinoids?

Thanks to their ability to maintain healthy, glowing skin, retinoids are widely prescribed by dermatologists for a variety of skin conditions and are found, in abundance, in all kinds of cosmetics. 

Now as the name suggests, these ingredients are related – but wholly different. It all comes down to the molecular structure of vitamin A – retinol is just a specific type of retinoid. And retinoid is a broad term of any vitamin A derivative. 

The term retinoid encapsulates both over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids. These derivatives of vitamin A are converted into retinoic acid for use in skincare. Heads up, there’s a tiny bit of science involved.

What is a retinoid and why would I need one?  

Retinoids are a large family of synthetic and naturally occurring compounds derived from vitamin A. Retinol, tretinoin (as well as others such as retinaldehyde) are all types of retinoids. They’re the most active form of vitamin A and a dermatologist’s dream when it comes to prescribing healthier skin.

Potent skincare heroes, retinoids have multiple superpowers to clear, smooth and boost collagen production for a healthy, glowing complexion. That’s right, retinoids are proven to fight acne but also support the skin’s ageing process. 

The retinoid, tretinoin (the generic name for Retin-A), is highly effective and available on prescription only. That’s why you may find it in your Daily Doser treatment cream if you have a skincare concern like acne, pigmentation or signs of ageing that warrants some professional TLC.

Tretinoin gets to work by accelerating new skin cell growth which speeds up the removal of dead skin cells and debris that can block your pores. It makes pores less visible, and reduces fine lines and wrinkles. It also gets busy repairing sun-damaged cells, evening out skin tone, discolouration and any inflammation. 

Weaker retinoids like retinol need to be converted (by skin enzymes) to retinoic acid (Tretinoin) which then exerts its effects by activating retinoic acid and retinoid X receptors found on skin cells. The conversion of retinol to retinoic acid is slow and varies between individuals. This is the reason why most over-the-counter retinoids will be less effective than their prescription-strength counterparts and why it takes longer to see results.

Tretinoin is the most powerful retinoid available as it doesn’t require conversion to retinoic acid – because it already is retinoic acid. 

“Tretinoin has been used in clinical practice for the longest amount of time so has decades of evidence supporting its efficacy.

Retinoids and acne

Retinoids (such as tretinoin and adapalene ) are an effective and crucial treatment for acne with anti-inflammatory properties. The type of topical retinoid prescribed for you will depend on a number of factors such as the severity of acne, previous use of retinoids, how well it is tolerated and your skin type. 

Combination therapy is preferred in the treatment of acne. Several studies have shown that treatment with a combination of topical retinoids and antimicrobials such as clindamycin (this may also be prescribed as part of your Daily Doser) has improved treatment benefits.

What is a retinol?

Retinol is a popular ingredient in over-the-counter face creams. It’s broadly less potent and different to tretinoin from a scientific, molecular perspective. Studies have shown retinol to be 20 times less potent than tretinoin

“It’s worth noting that cosmetics containing retinol do not have to go through anywhere near the same rigorous, scientific process to show their effectiveness as prescription medicines.

That’s why you should always be careful to interpret any cosmetic product’s claims with caution. If cosmetic claims sound too good to be true, that could well be the case.

Retinol is also inherently much less stable than tretinoin, which means it’s easily broken down when exposed to sunlight and air which means it’s often challenging to formulate it into cosmetics effectively. 

What’s best for my skin in terms of fast, most effective results?

Retinoids are much-loved because they (whisper it) really work. If you want results from your skincare routine targeting a range of conditions from signs of ageing to pigmentation and acne, then being prescribed a retinoid-like tretinoin can address this. Consistent, considered use will give you the most success. 

On the flipside, make sure you’re clued-up when it comes to potential mild side effects associated with retinoid use. If your skin is dry or sensitive, then it’s important to take that into account. Combine retinoid use with a simple, mild skincare routine – and don’t combine your retinoid with other products that contain actives.

Ease yourself in. Be aware that retinoids can cause a temporary process called retinisation. Mild redness, dryness and irritation can occur as your body gets used to your skin’s amped-up cell turnover. This is why at Skin + Me we tailor your starting concentration to what suits you and your skin type best. We let your skin slowly get used to higher concentrations as the strength of tretinoin in your solution evolves monthly. This way you can enjoy the enormous benefits of prescription-strength tretinoin whilst building a tolerance to give you the best results.

When starting off your retinoid journey we advise avoiding any other active skincare ingredients in particular exfoliants such as AHAs, BHAs and harsh cleansers or toners to minimise the risk of irritation. These products can later be introduced once retinoids are tolerated to maximise the benefit of both active ingredients. 

We advise that you use a non-comedogenic moisturiser ten minutes after the application of your retinoid to further minimise the effects of irritation. This is particularly important during the first month of use but also during colder months when retinoids can be less tolerated and irritation is more common.  

Oh and never scrimp on suncream – whatever the weather. Skin treated with retinoids can become more sensitive to the sun’s damaging UV rays. Using your treatment as part of your night time ritual is also essential as UV can break down retinoids during the day, making them less effective. A daily SPF (factor 30 at least) should still be a non-negotiable part of your healthy skincare strategy.

Lastly, a note to remember that retinol and retinoids are not suitable during pregnancy or if you are breastfeeding. Ask your prescriber if you are unsure as to how best to treat your skin concerns.

Medical facts checked by Head of Medical, Dr Jason Thomson and Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham 

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