Let’s start here. Retinoid is an umbrella term that describes both Retinol and Retin-A, which, chemically speaking, are essentially the same thing. They both react with your skin to create Retinoic Acid, which your skin uses to combat all the crappy stuff that appears on your skin. (Think fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, you name it.) This newly created Retinoic Acid will also produce collagen, which is what makes your skin young, plump, and taut. There’s also ongoing research that suggest Retinoic Acids also create elastins in skin, but we can’t confirm that science YET.
If we’re being honest, the biggest difference between Retinol and Retin-A is that it’s going to take longer to see results with Retinol- the ingredients are just notoriously weaker. Think of Retinol as your favorite shot, except it’s divvy’d up by your bartender to make a long-lasting cocktail with no hangover. Retin-A, on the other hand, is 6 shots of tequila that gets the job done fast- but you pay for it with the hangover. So which should you choose? Well, depends on how hardcore you are.
Retinol, at its core, is truly a fascinating ingredient. In fact, it’s the only skincare ingredient that the FDA will legally approve to be called anti-aging. Essentially, Retinol is a form of Vitamin A; but it comes in different strengths, which proves to be a love-hate relationship for most women. Retinol is the weaker of the two sisters, and it’ll take anywhere from 3-6 months before you start seeing results because it has to go through a two-step process to work. When you apply Retinol topically to skin, the enzymes in your skin convert the Retinol into Retinaldehyde (say that ten times fast) and then into Retinoic Acid. Because of this, Retinol is ultra gentle and has fewer side effects than its counterpart, Retin-A. Retinol doesn’t require a prescription- so you can buy it online, at your spa, or in most beauty stores.
Retin-A is actually just the brand name for the ingredient Tretinoin, which means this bad boy is prescription only. It’s much stronger than Retinol, and usually prescribed to treat acne. Retin-A’s contain higher concentrations of Retinoic Acid- the over the counter options usually only have 0.5–2% concentration, which is why Retin-A (think closer to 0.1%) is only available for prescription by a Dermatologist or Plastic Surgeon. And let’s be real, here- you should expect irritation when you first start using Retin-A. Its sole job is the production of new cells, which means your old cells are going to start freaking out for a minute- get ready for a few days of peeling, breaking out, and inflammation. (Read: Start over the weekend.) Your skin is basically purging all the shit it didn’t know was there, and it’s about to get ready for the new baby skin underneath. Also, head our warning: sunlight notoriously deactivates Retinoic Acid, so only work it into your nighttime routine- never under your makeup or daytime serums.
Shop our favorite Retinols for first-timers: