Retinoids vs retinol: How to choose the right vitamin A product for you

We take a look at whether retinoids or retinol are better for your skin type.

Written by
Leeza Schwarzkopf
Medically reviewed by
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Confused by the terms retinoid and retinol? They sound the same and you may have noticed that they're sometimes used interchangeably.

Sure enough, they're derived from the same source and ultimately can be used to treat the same issues. Most commonly, these are acne and signs of ageing such as fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots.

But when it's retinoid vs retinol, each comes with a different set of merits and drawbacks. We'll take a look at whether you might benefit from using retinoids or retinol, and which one would suit your skin type the best.

What are retinoids?

Let's start with retinoids because it's actually an umbrella term for different types of vitamin A [1]. Our body needs vitamin A as it's an essential nutrient that supports our vision, cell growth and reproduction [2].

Retinoids have been used in dermatology since the 1940s [2] and become popularised in the 1970s and 1980s with the development of retinoid acne treatments.

The different types of vitamin A in the retinoid family include retinol, retinal, retinyl ester and retinoic acid.

However, most people use the word 'retinoids' as a generic term for medical-grade vitamin A skincare products, such as those found in Software's custom formulas.

How do retinoids work?

To answer this question, let's delve a bit deeper into the science behind how retinoids work on a cellular level.

Before our body can use any retinoid, it has to convert it into retinoic acid [3]. Different kinds of retinoids can take longer to convert, and all aside from medical-grade retinoids lose some of their strength during the conversion process.

Once the conversion happens, our body is able to bind the retinoic acid to a receptor and begin working:

  • First, the retinoic acid encourages our body to begin replicating relevant genes and reproducing DNA, which speeds up the production of skin cells.
  • When new skin cells are produced, they move up to replace the old ones which might be damaged or dead.
  • As a result, the old cells flake off our bodies, and they’re replaced by the brand new skin cells that the retinoic acid has encouraged our bodies to make. This is a process that happens naturally to our body, but it can take between 40-56 days [4] —and retinol makes it happen a lot faster.

The increase in new skin cells makes our skin thicker and plumper because it has more cells to fill it out.

It also pushes out any comedones — or acne lesions — forming underneath the skin, and forces their contents out to the skin’s surface (this is why some people experience ‘purging’ when they begin using retinoids).

At the same time, retinoids reduce our corneodesmosomes, which are the sticky glue that holds our skin cells together.

This can make our skin flakey in the short term, which is a common side-effect of retinoid usage, but it means that in the long term, there will be fewer dead cells hanging onto our skin because there’s less glue to keep them stuck there.

What is retinol?

Retinol is one type of vitamin A within the broader retinoid family and is commonly available in over-the-counter skincare products such as retinol cream, lotion or serum [1].

It is the strongest form of vitamin A that you can buy without a doctor recommending it.

What's the difference between retinol and retinoids?

The key differences between retinol and retinoids are their strength and accessibility.

Retinoids are only available through the doctor as they are the strongest form of vitamin A. This means they are already active and start working as soon as they are applied [1].

This also means that a GP or dermatologist needs to advise what dosage is right for you and how to use it and ensure that you are not taking any incompatible medication.

Retinol, on the other hand, does not work straight away when applied. It needs to be converted into its active form [1], which in turn weakens the ingredient.

Since retinol is not as strong as retinoids, and you don't need as much professional guidance, it is used in beauty products that are freely available to buy at skincare or health retailers.

Why use retinol or retinoids?

Both retinoids and retinol work by promoting skin cell turnover, stimulating collagen production [3] and reducing inflammation.

This makes them a common treatment for acne as they help unblock pores and reduce redness and swelling. In fact, vitamin A is considered a first-line treatment for acne, with more than half of acne patients receiving retinoid therapy from their dermatologist [4].

Collagen production helps maintain skin elasticity, which can reduce signs of ageing. Existing fine lines and wrinkles are softened with the use of retinoids and retinol, and they help prevent new wrinkles from forming.

Topical vitamin A is also used to treat other skin issues like psoriasis, keratosis pilaris and skin tone problems such as age spots and melasma.

While retinoids and retinol offer the same benefits overall, there are some key reasons why you would choose one over the other.

Benefits of medical-grade retinoids

  • Getting the right dosage. Like any other medication, it’s important to have the right dosage of retinoid. When you speak with your doctor about retinoids, they’ll be able to assess your skincare needs and give you a dosage that’s right for you.
  • Shelf-stable packaging. Retinoids are sensitive to light and air and can lose their strength if exposed to either. Medical-grade retinoids will always come in airless, opaque packaging, but some OTC retinol doesn’t and the product can degrade because of it.
  • Discussing other solutions. Retinoids can be used in conjunction with other skin treatments, some of which are only available through the doctor — such as antibiotics and oral treatments. Your doctor will be able to let you know if they think it might be a good idea for you to try multiple treatments.‍
  • You’ll know if retinoids are right for you. We think retinoids are excellent, but they’re not a cure-all. There are many causes of acne and ageing skin, and your doctor might want to talk to you about some other steps you can take to treat your skin aside from retinoids. Also, if you’re someone who can’t use retinoids (if you’re breastfeeding or pregnant, for example), your doctor can suggest an alternative.

Benefits of OTC retinol

  • Trying different options. There are heaps of retinoid products out there — serums, moisturisers, oils, and lotions galore. It can’t hurt to try a couple, even if you decide later you’d rather use a medical treatment.
  • Clinical-strength retinoids are too strong. Some people prefer to use a milder retinoid treatment, so they might decide that an OTC retinol is all they need.
  • Exploring retinoid alternatives. If someone can’t use retinoids, they might want to explore a product that works very similarly, such as bakuchiol.

What are the side effects of retinoids or retinol?

Irritation in the form of redness, dryness, itching and flaking is the most common side effect [4]. This can happen when you first incorporate retinoids or retinol into your skincare routine but should stop over time as your skin gets used to the new product.

Another side effect you might experience if you're using retinoids or retinol to treat acne is the purging period.

During the first 2-6 weeks of using the product, you might experience more acne flare-ups before your breakouts start to decrease.

Retinol and retinoids can also make your skin a little more sensitised and as a result, you need to protect your complexion from the sun. These products don't cause sun sensitivity but they do stimulate skin cell turnover and new skin cells are more sensitive to the sun and prone to burning [8].

When and how to use vitamin A products?

When starting to incorporate vitamin A into your skincare regimen, go for a slow and steady approach. This gives your skin time to get used to the ingredient and will minimise the side effects.


If you're starting with a retinol product, such as Software's Retinol Complex Oil, try it 1-3 times a week to begin with. Apply it as a thin layer all over your face (not as a spot treatment). If you feel like your skin is tolerating it well, you can increase the frequency to every other day or daily usage [1].

Software's Retinol Complex Oil is a restorative, lightweight hydrating oil and is perfect for those new to vitamin A products or those with sensitive skin.

It's packed with omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, vitamin A and antioxidants to help hydrate, rejuvenate and protect the skin from environmental stressors.

Retinol only needs to be applied once a day and is generally recommended as part of a nighttime skincare routine as it increases your skin's sensitivity to the sun. With this in mind, it's important to include broad-spectrum sunscreen in your daily morning routine to protect your skin from the sun's UV rays.

Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+  is formulated with UVA and UVB filters, which help protect the skin from the sun and may reduce the risk of photoageing, sun spots and some skin cancers. Our formula is fragrance-free, non-greasy and doesn't leave a white cast. It's also non-comedogenic, which means it won't clog your pores.


If you're transitioning to a clinical strength retinoid product, such as Software's personalised formulas for acne, ageing or pigmentation, start by using it once a week and slowly increase your usage to twice a week, then 3 times a week until you've hit 5 uses per week.

Software's health practitioners can formulate retinoids based on your specific skin needs and goals, so you're applying a product that is personalised to you. And, you're able to access ongoing, follow-up support as you use your treatment.

When using a clinical-strength retinoid, it's important to use it only at night due to your skin's increased sun sensitivity. You'll also need to wear SPF50+ during the day to protect your skin from sun damage.

If you have sensitive skin you can wash off the treatment after an hour, once the retinoid product has had enough time to be absorbed.

Tips for both retinol and retinoids

If the retinol or retinoid causing skin irritation, take a break from it for a few days and go back to using it less frequently until you feel like your skin can comfortably tolerate it again.

It can also help to wash your face with a mild cleanser and wait until your skin is dry before applying retinoids [5]. This is because washing your face disturbs your skin barrier and waiting until it is dry gives your skin time to settle and react more positively.

Alternatively, there's the sandwich method, which may be more suitable for those with dry skin [6]. This involves applying a moisturiser after cleansing, waiting 10 minutes and then applying a layer of retinol or retinoid, then another layer of moisturiser.

These 2 layers of moisturiser help your skin better tolerate the active ingredient and soothe the drying effects that can come with it.

Software's Ceramide Repair Balm is a great product for the sandwich method as it helps treat dull, damaged and dry skin with an injection of moisture-retaining and nourishing ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and squalane.

What products can't be used with retinoids and retinol?

Sometimes less is more when it comes to skincare with active ingredients. It is recommended that you strip back your skincare routine for the first 6-8 weeks of using retinoids or retinol before slowly incorporating ingredients like salicylic acid and vitamin C back in as these ingredients can exacerbate the irritating side effects that you may experience as your skin adjusts.

When reincorporating actives into your skincare routine, try using them in the morning while you use vitamin A at night, or use them on alternate days if you're not using retinoids or retinol daily.

Over-the-counter retinol and medical-grade retinoids should not be used at the same time either, since they both contain vitamin A and doubling up is likely to irritate the skin.

Aside from skincare products, certain medications aren't compatible with retinoids because they make your skin more sun sensitive [4]. Be sure to let your GP or dermatologist know about any medications you take when consulting them about retinoids.

Lastly, be cautious with beauty treatments that strip the skin, such as waxing or pore strips [7]. It's recommended to pause the use of retinoids and retinol for 5-7 days before waxing and to use pore strips for the shortest time advised on the packet.

Who can't use these ingredients?

Women who are pregnant, trying to conceive or breastfeeding should not use vitamin A products, as the possibility it might impact their unborn or breastfed child has not been ruled out.

People with sensitive skin types and conditions such as rosacea should also be cautious and seek guidance from their doctor or dermatologist.

Aside from that, most people can benefit from using retinol and retinoids as a highly effective way of treating acne, dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles.

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