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
min read
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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 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. Our body needs vitamin A as it's an essential nutrient that supports our vision, cell growth and reproduction.

Retinoids have been used in dermatology since the 1940s 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 prescription-only vitamin A skincare products, such as those found in Software's prescription formulas.

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 serums and moisturisers

It is the strongest form of vitamin A that you can buy without a prescription.

What's the difference between retinol and retinoids?

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

Retinoids are only available with a prescription as they are the strongest form of vitamin A. This means they are already active and start working as soon as they are applied.

This means that a GP or dermatologist needs to advise what dosage is right for you and how to use it. They will also need to 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, 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 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.

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 hyperpigmentation 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.

The main benefit of a prescription-strength retinoid is that you will see results faster. However, over the counter retinol has the advantage of causing less irritation.

If your skin type is sensitive, or you're just cautious with your skincare routine, using retinol products, like Software's Retinol Complex Oil, allows you to slowly build up a tolerance and minimise skin irritation. It is a more gradual pathway to the benefits of vitamin A.

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. 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 two to six weeks of using the product, you might experience more acne flare-ups before your breakouts start to decrease.

Retinol and retinoids also make your skin more sensitive to the sun and increase your risk of sunburn and other sun damage.

When and how to use vitamin A products?

When starting to incorporate vitamin A into your skincare regimen, either as a prescription products or over the counter products, the same slow and steady approach applies. 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 one to three 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.

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.

Software's retinol complex oil
Software's Retinol Complex Oil reduces the appearance of fine lines, dark spots, and dryness and improves skin elasticity and firmness for a glowing complexion.

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 a broad-spectrum sunscreen in your daily morning routine to protect your skin from the sun's UV rays.


If you're transitioning to a prescription retinoid product, such as Software's personalised prescription formulas for Acne, Ageing or Pigmentation, start by using it once a week and then slowly increase your usage to twice a week, then three times a week until you've hit five uses per week.

Software's doctors can prescribe 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 online support from your doctor as you use your treatment.

When using a prescription-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 SPF 50+ 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

There are a couple of extra tips and tricks to using retinol and retinoids if your skin is reacting to the product.

Firstly, if it's 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 retinol or retinoid. 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. 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 two layers of moisturiser help your skin better tolerate the active ingredient and soothe the drying effects that can come with retinol and retinoids.

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 to avoid using products with salicylic acid, glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time as retinoids and retinol. This is because they can exacerbate the irritating side effects and even counteract the benefits.

If you want to keep these actives in 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 prescription retinoid 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 prescription retinoids because they make your skin more sun sensitive. 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. It's recommended to pause the use of retinoids and retinol for five to seven 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 over-the-counter or prescription 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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