Retinoids vs. Retinol

Hi friends!

So as I was writing this post, I realized that a more suitable title may have been retinoid vs. retinol vs. retinoic acid vs. all-trans-retinoic acid vs. retinyl palmitate vs. OMG WTF?!

As you can see, all of these terms look and sound the same, but they are all slightly different.

Since retinoids are the gold standard for giving your skin a youthful, glowing appearance I’m going to help you to understand the difference between retinoids vs. retinol (and all of those other names, too!)

Retinoid vs. Retinol vs. ETC.

In pharmacy school, we were taught that retinol is another name for vitamin A. As you know, vitamin A can be found in certain foods (kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.). Vitamin A can also be synthetically made as a dietary supplement or for use in skincare products. 


Retinyl palmitate is the ester of retinol. Throwback to o-chem (literally my favorite class in pharmacy school!): an ester is a compound that is derived from an acid in which at least one of the hydroxyl (-OH) groups is replaced by an alkyl (–O–) group.

A carboxylate ester

A carboxylate ester

When retinol is metabolized, it forms retinoic acid. Once again, retinoic acid can also be man-made and used in prescription drugs, such as brand name Retin-A (generic name = tretinoin) and brand name Accutane (generic name = isotretinoin). Since tretinoin is the all-trans isomer of retinoic acid, it is also referred to as all-trans-retinoic acid.

The term retinoid encompasses all of the aforementioned derivatives of retinol and is considered a class of chemical compounds that demonstrate vitamin A activity.

When it comes to OTC anti-aging creams and serums, skincare experts consider pure retinol to be the most effective of the retinoids.

How does retinol benefit the skin?

Retinol is one of the best anti-aging ingredients because it has so many functions:

  • Retinol can minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles

  • Retinol can improve uneven skin tone

  • Retinol can increase skin firmness

  • Retinol can shrink the appearance of pores

So how does retinol provide your skin with all of these benefits? Let's look at the science. 

Retinoids have a very complex mechanism of action. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, all retinoids, not just retinol, are very effective at slowing and preventing the aging effects of UV exposure.

In the nucleus of cells there are retinoic acid (RAR) and retinoid X receptors (RXR). When retinol interacts with these nuclear receptors, the production of procollagen is increased and the release of inflammatory mediators is blocked. Thus, retinol can improve any collagen deficiency that exists in the skin when applied topically. Furthermore, since vitamin A (retinol) is an antioxidant, applying a retinol product to your skin works to combat the damaging effects of free radicals. Retinoids also act as comedolytic agents and work by unclogging blocked pores. So retinoids are not only excellent anti-aging ingredients, but they can also help with acne!

My favorite retinol products

Paula's Choice SKIN RECOVERY Super Antioxidant Serum with Retinol (Amazon, ~$36)

Paula’s Choice SKIN RECOVERY serum combines retinol with a ton of beneficial ingredients, including vitamins C & E, green tea extract, chamomile extract, grape seed extract, evening primrose oil, and more!

SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream (Amazon, ~$59)

This SkinCeuticals product is high-concentration pure retinol cream for experienced retinol users to improve the appearance of visible signs of aging and pores while minimizing breakouts.


So do you have a better understanding of the difference between retinoids and retinol now? Is there anything that is still unclear? Please leave me a comment below or reach out to me by email - I'd love to answer any questions you have!