The difference between retinols and retinoids
Topical retinoids are a favorite among skincare professionals — and with good reason. They’re one of the most effective, results-driven treatments on the market if you’re combating hormonal acne. You may have heard of retinol, but to be clear, that’s a specific type of retinoid.
Retinoids are forms of vitamin A and are a class of medications chemically derived from vitamin A. Although retinoids differ slightly in chemical composition from vitamin A, the terms retinoid and vitamin A are often used interchangeably. Retinol is also a form of vitamin A that naturally occurs in plants and animals. It plays a vital role in the regulation of cell growth and healthy skin.
The over-the-counter products you see in stores typically contain retinol, a weaker form of the retinoids found in many prescription-strength topical products. While there’s nothing wrong with retinols, these may take longer to produce results. Let’s take a closer look at what makes these ingredients the leaders in skincare.
What are retinoids used for?
People of all ages and skin types can benefit from retinoids, as they are one of the best treatments for breakouts. That’s because when applied topically, retinoids work to unclog your pores. It’s this exfoliating action that reduces breakouts.
Blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples all develop the same way. First, a pore clogs with a mixture of dead skin cells and oils. Then oil backs up behind the clogged pore, and the p. acnes bacteria that naturally grow on your skin feeds and breeds on that gunk inside your pores. This creates comedones — either blackheads or whiteheads. When your body recognizes the p. acnes bacteria as an infection and sends your red and white blood cells to fight it, that leads to those red, swollen, inflamed pimples.
Retinoids help break the acne cycle by normalizing the shedding of those pore-clogging dead skin cells and by lending their anti-inflammatory effects. Essentially, retinoids work deep within the pores to keep them from clogging, so breakouts are stopped in their tracks.
What Is Retinol Used For?
Since retinol is milder, it’s widely available in over-the-counter skincare products. However, it’s considered a less potent version of vitamin A. When you hear the term "retinoid," it’s referring to more robust prescription products — such as our Adapalene Gel.
But make no mistake, even though retinol isn’t as intense as more potent retinoids, it’s still a strong ingredient that’s effective in battling everything from wrinkles to sun spots. Unlike other anti-aging products, retinol doesn’t remove dead skin cells. Instead, retinol’s tiny molecules penetrate deep beneath the epidermis (the top layer of skin) to your dermis — the second inner layer of your skin. So, when you apply retinol to your skin, cells at the basal layer (the innermost layer of the epidermis) start to divide. This causes new cells to travel to the surface of your skin while old cells shed away. Essentially, retinol encourages your body to create new skin cells.
At the same time, retinol works to neutralize free radicals and stimulate collagen and elastin production, which reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and large pores while improving skin tone and texture. Retinol balances your skin’s natural hydration levels because its exfoliating properties remove the dead skin cells that contribute to moisture loss.In other words, it’s a super ingredient.
Types of Retinoids
Retinoid: As mentioned, "retinoid" is the all-encompassing term for the family of molecules that adhere to retinoic acid receptors. In other words, it’s a prescription-strength version.
Adapalene: This retinoid is favored for sensitive skin because it has superior tolerability compared to other prescription-strength retinoids and has anti-inflammatory properties. Even so, it’s still an extremely effective retinoid acne treatment. Our ProactivMD Adapalene Gel provides prescription-strength power without the prescription. It’s the first over-the-counter retinoid approved by the FDA to treat acne, and it treats and prevents breakouts while reducing the redness associated with acne.
Tretinoin: In more potent forms, this prescription-strength retinoid is one of the most effective topical retinoids for acne. Topical retinoids are any treatment you apply as a cream or gel.
Retinoic acid: RA is what vitamin A breaks down so that your skin can receive its benefits. It plays a vital role in collagen and elastin production, cell growth, and hyperpigmentation reduction. Prescription retinoids contain retinoic acid, while OTC varieties are slowly converted to retinoic acid through a natural reaction that occurs within the skin.
Isotretinoin: This retinoid is oral, not topical, so it’s more potent than other forms. It’s best for treating aggressive forms of acne (such as cystic) or even post-acne scarring.
Retinal/Retinaldehyde: This new-to-the-scene retinoid is getting a lot of buzz because it can deliver results 11 times faster than retinol despite being non-prescription. Not to mention, studies show it’s less irritating than other forms.
Plant-based retinol alternatives: Some people want the benefits of retinoids but without the side effects. That’s where plant-based "retinol" comes in. One of the most popular in the skincare market today is Bakuchiol, an extract of the babchi plant, which has brightening and anti-aging properties without irritation.
Until recently, retinoid-based acne treatments were available only by prescription. Today some retinoids, such as Adapalene, are available over the counter to treat acne. In fact, Adapalene is a star player in our ProactivMD 3-Piece System.
Retinoid Side Effects
While retinoids boast incredible benefits for your skin, they are a potent ingredient that can cause some side effects. Fortunately, they’re manageable. When you first use retinoids on your skin, you may notice redness or peeling for a short period — your acne might even appear worse. But don’t give up and stop the treatment. The adjustment period, known as retinization, is completely normal. While this may sound like a turnoff, it’s only temporary until your skin adapts to the treatment.
The key is to introduce retinoids into your routine slowly. Start using a product 2-3 times a week until your skin builds up a tolerance. If you’re using a prescription-strength retinoid, your dermatologist can give you the proper guidance to minimize irritation while still maintaining results. No matter what type of retinoid you’re using, it’s best applied at night. Always wear sun protection (a minimum SPF of 30) during the day since your skin will be more sun-sensitive.
Retinoids: The Bottom Line
Retinoids are a class of medications that are chemically derived from Vitamin A. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends them as a first-line treatment for acne. By encouraging your skin to shed those dead skin cells that clog pores and lead to blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples, retinoids help fight breakouts before they happen.
Proactiv’s star retinoid is ProactivMD Adapalene Gel 0.1%. It’s part of the ProactivMD 3-Piece System — paired with a cleanser and moisturizer to give you a complete morning and nighttime skincare routine. With patience and persistence, you’ll start to see clear skin before you know it.