Retinoid vs Retinol: What's The Difference?

Retinoid vs Retinol: What's The Difference?

The skincare world is abuzz these days with talk about retinoid and retinol––and for good reason. These ingredients are reputed to offer a number of compelling benefits, including rejuvenating the skin’s appearance, reducing wrinkles and fine lines, and combating acne scarring and acne itself.

How can we distinguish between fact and fiction? The first step is separating “retinol” from “retinoids” and understanding what both classes of ingredients are capable of. 

This article will explain the difference between a retinoid and a retinol product and offer some clarity on what these powerful skincare solutions and skin care products can do.


Just a few letters make the difference between “retinoid” and “retinol.” In the scientific world, the distinctions are a little more drastic. Between accessibility, function, and versatility, there isn’t just one difference between retinol and retinoids. Here are some basic definitions of each term before we start delving into what separates them. 


The word “retinoid” refers to any vitamin A derivative used in skincare. The term retinoid is inclusive, incorporating both prescription retinoids and over-the-counter topical retinoid ingredients. Some of the most famous and clinically significant OTC and prescription retinoids include:

  • Retinol
  • Tretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Retinyl esters (retinyl palmitate, retinyl propionate, etc.)

All retinoids, regardless of the specific type, have similar intended functions when used in topical cosmeceutical and dermatological products. However, different molecule sizes and bioavailabilities between prescription and topical retinoid variants result in varying degrees of effectiveness and side effects according to your skin type, skin texture, or skin concern.



Retinol is, in fact, one of the most common retinoids used in over-the-counter skin care products. 

Retinol, like all retinoids, is a form of vitamin A (known as vitamin A₁). Retinol is one of the most studied retinoids, and as such, is the most widely understood and widely used in skincare formulas to reap the benefits of vitamin A. 



Retinoids started as topical acne treatments back in the 1970s. Since then, this class of compounds has been used for an increasing number of uses: anti-aging, anti-wrinkle, boosting collagen, and, yes, fighting acne. 

Different retinoids are more effective for some purposes than others, depending on your skin condition or if you have sensitive skin. For example, tretinoin might be most effective as a prescription acne drug, while retinol and retinyl esters, gentler forms, might be better served as ingredients in anti-aging serums. 


All retinoids need to be broken down into retinoic acid before the skin can use them. This process happens naturally. Some retinoids, like tretinoin, are themselves forms of retinoic acid and, as such, are highly available to the skin immediately. While this means tretinoin is highly effective, it also has a much higher capacity to cause side effects like dry skin and sensitive skin irritation compared to other retinoids.

Retinol is one step removed from retinoic acid in the vitamin A metabolic pathway. The skin must break the retinol product down before it can be used, meaning it is slightly less potent as an active ingredient but slightly better when aiming to avoid side effects. 

Retinyl esters like retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate are even larger molecules that are broken down first into retinol and then into retinoic acid. These products are usually the most gentle on the skin as they are the farthest removed from the most potency. It’s gentle quality and promising benefits are why it’s featured in our 101 Gentle Retinoid formula. 


While retinyl propionate is a retinyl ester and, therefore, a gentler retinoid ingredient compared to retinol, it is actually shown to be even more bioavailable than retinol. A recent study from 2020 in the journal Experimental Dermatology found that retinyl propionate utilizes a unique metabolic pathway that makes it a perfect balance between effectiveness and gentleness.


Retinoids are powerful compounds. Their impressive effectiveness in improving your skin means that they also have the power to cause a few side effects in some individuals. 

Retinoids can lead to:

  • Dry skin
  • Flaking
  • Redness
  • Increased photosensitivity
  • Purging, or an increase in acne symptoms when starting a new retinoid 

Many of these side effects can be managed with proper moisturization, especially a rich, hydrating product like this HERO Peptide moisturizer.  It’s also a good idea to use sunscreen year-round when using retinoid products, as they make your skin more sensitive to sun damage. Try our Broad Spectrum SPF 30 for a skin-safe and non-irritating option for UV protection. 

One of the best ways to avoid side effects from retinoids is to use products formulated with gentle retinyl esters for your skin type. At Seven:Thirty, we only offer formulations using retinyl propionate, like THE FIX Revital A, as well as retinyl palmitate for our gentle retinoid .

If your skin concern symptoms continue even after the recommended tips for side effect management, discontinue the product and consult your dermatologist or healthcare provider to find out what balance of retinoid products will work best for you. 


Our team of professionals with years of experience in skincare knows how confusing the wealth of information about retinoid vs retinol can be. That’s why our products are formulated with retinoids clinically proven to strike the best balance between effectiveness and gentleness. 

At Seven:Thirty, our ethos combines non-irritating topical products with a holistic approach considering diet and lifestyle to help your skin feel its best. Browse our selection of products designed to fight acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation, or schedule a consultation with one of our experts to get personalized advice. 


American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retinoid or Retinol?

Experimental Dermatology. The vitamin A ester retinyl propionate has a unique metabolic profile and higher retinoid-related bioactivity over retinol and retinyl palmitate in human skin models.

Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments.


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