What is better for acne: retinol or retinoids?

Exploring the pros and cons of these vitamin A derivatives for treating acne.

Written by
Sarah Stivens
Medically reviewed by
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Your interest in all things skincare — from skin types to the best way to unclog pores and your favourite retinol serum — might be a recent thing, or you might've been a devotee from way back.

Either way, did you know that our skincare obsession goes as far back as 3000 years ago? We're talking Ancient Egyptian times, to be exact. But we'll get to that in a minute — you came here for acne treatment information.

In this article, we'll explore the use of retinol and retinoids for treating acne, and how they compare to other products on the market. Here's everything you need to know.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that's been used as a skincare ingredient for a long time. It's one of the oldest vitamins used to improve the skin's appearance [1].

History lesson incoming: back when there were pyramids and Cleopatra was busy being iconic, Ancient Egyptians came across a condition called night blindness — basically, people had trouble seeing at night.

Whether they knew it or not, night blindness was caused by vitamin A deficiency. How did they fix it? By eating liver or applying it as a compress to the eyes as it's very rich in vitamin A [2].

So, where does retinol come in? Fast forward a few thousand years, and in the 1930s, scientists learned how to extract retinol from fish liver — a medical innovation that beats the former option [1].

This is when retinol started to really kick off as a treatment for all sorts of things but it also became popular as a skincare ingredient too. The first uses of retinol were found to prevent clogged pores and reduce scarring from acne [3].

What's a retinoid?

Where retinol is a specific type of vitamin A compound, the term retinoid is a bit of a catch-all for different forms or products made from vitamin A [3].

Most retinoids available now are prescription strength and need to be prescribed by a dermatologist or GP. Retinol products can usually be bought over the counter (think serums and other creams you can find at the chemist or cosmetic stores).

Retinoids can be used topically (applied directly to your skin), or also come in an oral form — taken as a tablet [1]. Oral retinoids are usually only used for severe acne and need to be prescribed by a healthcare professional [3].

Since the 1930s, scientists have been able to synthesise and create new retinoids and by the 1970s, retinoic acid was being used to treat acne [1]. Before long, researchers realised retinoids can also fade sun spots, hyperpigmentation and other damage caused by sun exposure [5].

What is retinol good for?

Retinol and other retinoids are great for treating acne, and signs of ageing and can also help improve skin texture and reduce acne scarring.

Both retinol and retinoids promote faster skin cell turnover — there are some pretty potent anti-ageing benefits kicking about in their toolbox [1].

The main difference between retinol and prescription retinoids is how strong they are — retinol isn't as potent, and may take longer to achieve results [6].

What else can retinol or a topical retinoid do?

  • Reduces skin discolouration and hyperpigmentation
  • Unclogs pores
  • Improves skin tone and helps balance uneven skin tone
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • Softens rough patches of skin
  • Kills acne-causing bacteria
  • Prevents future breakouts
  • Reduces redness and inflammation

These little ingredients can pack a serious punch and are rich in antioxidants [3].

How does retinol help acne?

Both retinol and retinoids can be used to treat acne, however, they might produce different results [3]. Retinol is the gentler cousin, but it can still effectively treat acne by blocking the inflammatory pathways in your skin [6].

A retinol treatment can also help by pushing out dead skin cells — these get trapped in your pores along with oil and dirt, and then irritation occurs.

Irritated skin can cause more oil production and then, you guessed it, more acne. Retinol can help clear this away, preventing future breakouts [7].

What is better for acne: retinol or retinoids?

It's not as clear cut as better or worse — the real answer to this question will depend on your skin type.

If you have sensitive skin, or your skin reacts easily when trying new things, then retinol might be the place to start. It's not as harsh on the skin, and you can get it in different formulations e.g. retinol serums or retinol-infused moisturisers.

And, if you're only just establishing your skincare routine, retinol is pretty easy to get your hands on — it can be more accessible than prescription-strength retinoids [6].

Software's Retinol Complex Oil is restorative, lightweight and fast absorbing and rich in vitamin A to stimulate cell renewal and protect the skin from environmental aggressors.

But if you're struggling with stubborn acne, you've already tried retinol, or have been given the go-ahead by your dermatologist, it might be time to introduce a prescription retinoid instead.

Prescription retinoids are known to work faster than retinol. They regulate skin cell turnover faster than other products and help repair the skin barrier — reducing acne and scarring [6].

Aside from treating acne, retinoids can also boost collagen production and help your skin produce the natural chemicals it needs to prevent signs of ageing.

This keeps your skin looking hydrated, and in some cases, can even reverse damage caused by scarring, sun exposure, and other nasties [6]. Sounds like a win-win to us!

Are there any side effects?

Like with all medical treatments, there is a risk of side effects when using retinol or retinoids. Most of the side effects people have reported are mild and usually go away within 3-4 weeks.

Here are some of the things to look out for:

Skin irritation, dryness, or scaly skin

This is because retinoids target your oil glands, reducing their size and how much oil they produce.

You can usually get around this by using a good, oil-free moisturiser, like Software's Ceramide Repair Balm, and starting your retinoids gradually at first [8].

Sun sensitivity

Retinoids increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, so it's really important to stay protected. This means the daily use of sunscreen — like Software’s Daily Sun Defence SPF50+, staying in the shade where possible and wearing a hat when out and about [8].

More acne breakouts

But only in the beginning! It's that old chestnut: things sometimes have to get worse before they get better.

When you start using retinoids, your skin might purge as it adapts to its new normal. You can sometimes avoid this by starting on a lower dose or using the retinol product every other day at first [8].

Some people have also noticed itching or burning sensations when starting topical retinoids; your GP or dermatologist will probably have a few tricks up their sleeve to reduce the chance of this happening [6].

If you're concerned at all about how your skin is reacting to acne treatments, make sure you ask a health professional for advice.

Important note: If you're dealing with hormonal acne or have severe acne or scarring, it's definitely best to speak to a dermatologist before using retinoids or retinol products. It's also not recommended to use them when pregnant.

How long does it take for retinoids to clear acne?

While it's not the most satisfying answer, everyone's results will vary depending on their skin and the type of product they use.

We've already mentioned that over-the-counter retinoids generally work slower than their prescription counterparts. The key to any new skincare regimen is to give it time to work before you swap it out.

According to the experts, some people might see results within 3 months of starting treatment. In general, most people will see benefits within 3-6 months, and the best results usually come after 12 months of treatment [5]. Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to letting your skin do its thing.

This absolutely doesn't apply if you've had a bad reaction though, or are worried about how your skin is behaving. Check in with your GP or dermatologist if this is the case.

Can retinoids help with acne scars?

Short answer: yes. Retinol does this wild thing called being keratolytic — basically, when it's in there pumping up all your skin cells, it can also break down acne lesions, smooth out your skin's surface and repair scarring [9].

In a recent study, 91.4% of people who used a topical retinoid noticed an improvement in their acne scars. Retinoids were also found to prevent scars from developing in the first place, and reduced the need for surgical procedures [9].

How to use retinoids to treat acne

Ancient Egyptian history? Check. Multiple lists about how good retinoids are? Check. Time to get down to business.

Here are our top tips on how to actually use retinoids and retinol products:

  • Cleanse your face regularly but don't overdo it. Dry your face gently without scrubbing the skin.
  • Wait til your skin is dry to the touch, then apply your retinoid cream.
  • If you're experiencing dryness and peeling, try the 'Sandwich Method'.
  • Avoid sensitive areas like your eyes, nose and corners of your mouth.
  • If your skin feels dry or irritated, combine the treatment with an oil-free moisturiser.
  • If you notice painful stinging or redness, check in with your GP. You might be able to try easing into the treatment more gradually [8].

There's also a couple of ingredients to avoid when you first use retinoids — try to steer clear of anything containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Once your skin has adjusted to retinol, you can slowly begin to incorporate active ingredients back into your routine.

Where can I get topical retinoids or retinol for acne?

So you're on board, but you're already panicking about making the GP appointment to then get the dermatology referral, where you get added to the 6-month waiting list, and then forget why you ever wanted to get help in the first place.

Don't stress, we're here to help. And we hate waiting lists too. That's why we've developed our own medical-grade acne treatments. Simply start an online consult and we'll match you up with your very own tailored treatment straight from our Australian health practitioners.

Not into the idea of a full regime just yet? You can browse our non-prescription range, like our 4-step Acne Kit, and see if anything takes your fancy. Either way, we're here to support you reach your skincare goals.

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