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Skincare FAQ: The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids

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Starting in our 30s, skin cell turnover (the process of creating new skin cells to replace existing ones, which are then exfoliated ) begins to slow. As a result, dead cells can build up on the surface of skin, making it appear dull and increasing the risk of fine lines and other visible signs of aging. To maintain this turnover process, many Delaware dermatologists swear by retinoids, which also stimulate collagen production to plump and smooth the skin. Adobe Stock / Drobot Dean

Thinking about upgrading your skincare routine? A Delaware expert explains what to know between two top beauty treatments.

“Fill, plump, renew, correct, hydrate, smooth, soften.” These are all magic words that practically leap out from the department store counter or skin care aisle straight at anyone who wants to reverse sun damage and look younger. But the highest-performing—and best-researched—products contain powerful vitamin A–derived retinoids and retinol. With hundreds of serums, gels and creams on the market or available through prescription, it’s best to consult your dermatologist to discover which products perform best for your specific skin needs. “What works for one person may not work the same for others,” explains Melissa Taylor, a certified family nurse practitioner specializing in dermatology at Beebe Center for Dermatology in Rehoboth Beach. Once you’ve found your formula, be diligent.

The benefits of any type of retinoid or retinol increase with consistent use over time.
—Melissa Taylor, Beebe Center for Dermatology

“The benefits of any type of retinoid or retinol increase with consistent use over time,” Taylor adds. “Use of a retinoid should begin in your 30s, but the benefits can be achieved at any age.” To help you start improving your skin’s texture and tone, Taylor first breaks down each formula. (If you’re pregnant or nursing, or have a skin condition, consult your health practitioner before starting any skin care regimen containing retinoids.)

How does it work?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Containing the most potent ingredients, retinoids are available in different strengths and work by increasing the speed at which skin cells regenerate, delivering quicker results.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): A weaker version of retinoids with slower results because of a conversion process needed for molecules to come in contact with skin enzymes to work. Terminology and labels vary among cosmetic brands, so be sure to read ingredients carefully and consult your dermatologist if you don’t understand them.

Where can I get it?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): With a prescription from your dermatologist or healthcare provider. (About $180 for 45 grams.)

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): Drugstores, department stores, online, without a prescription. (About $30 for 45 grams.)

Who’s the ideal candidate?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Prescription retinoids are often recommended for people with acne-prone skin or hyperpigmentation, or who want to improve fine and overall complexion. Prescription retinoids are often recommended for people with acne-prone skin or hyperpigmentation, or who want to improve fine and overall complexion.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): “If you have not used a retinoid before or if you have sensitive-type skin, you may want to start with an over-the-counter retinol first,” says Taylor.

Are there side effects?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Initially, skin can respond with dryness, itching, peeling, redness, sun sensitivity (SPF is a must) and occasionally acne flareups. These reactions subside after a couple weeks. To minimize side effects, start with a twice-weekly application and increase usage as skin builds tolerance.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): Side effects are less severe. Take care not to use with other potentially irritating ingredients such as glycolic acids, vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.

Is it natural?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Tretinoin (Retin-A) is a natural form of vitamin A. Adapalene (Differin), tazarotene and isotretinoin are synthetic retinoids, which work by minimizing irritation without losing effectiveness.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): “Vegan” retinol uses plant-based retinol alternatives, such as bakuchiol, developed to be less irritating.

How long before I see results?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Reduction in fine lines will be apparent in three to six months; sun damage and browwn spots improve sooner. Product degenerates when exposed to sunlight, so nighttime application is recommended.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): Results aren’t as fast, despite product-packaging claims. Product degenerates when exposed to sunlight, so nighttime application is recommended.

What are the brand names available in the U.S.?

Prescription-strength retinoids/retinoic acid (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.): Common brands of tretinoin topical creams and gels are Retin-A, Renova, Atralin, Avita and Altreno; common brands of tazarotene are Avage and Tazorac; adapalene is available in Differin and is currently the only retinoid available over the counter.

Over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid): Includes SkinCeuticals and Natura Bissé, at Houppette, Greenville; Neutrogena, RoC, L’Oreal, CeraVe and La Roche-Posay, at drugstores; Naturopathica, at Avenue Apothecary & Spa, Rehoboth; and Dermalogica, at Village Salon & Spa, Lewes.