Retinoic Acid vs. Retinol: Your Download on the 2 Superstar Ingredients

If you follow skincare at all, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard of retinol. Many derms tout retinol as being one of the absolute best ingredients you can add to your skincare routine for anti-aging, smooth skin, and more. There's a good reason for that—retinol really is one of the best high-powered skincare ingredients.

Once you start looking into adding a retinol into your skincare routine, however, things can start to get confusing. How are you supposed to know the difference between retinol and retinoic acid, and how do you know which is right for you? Luckily, I talked to Rebecca Marcus, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Maei MD to get the lowdown for you on retinoic acid versus retinol.

What is retinoic acid?

At its core, retinoic acid is a vitamin A derivative. Vitamin A derivatives are known as retinoids, and they have many functions in the body, including cell growth, immune function, and visual function. In the form of retinoic acid, retinoids are the key to smoother skin. “Retinoic acid induces increased epidermal cell turnover, speeds up the elimination of sebum from the skin, disperses melanin granules, loosens the connection between cells, and prevents keratosis,” says Marcus. “It also both inhibits the degradation of collagen and stimulates collagen production.”

What is retinol?

Retinol is similar to retinoic acid, but it’s not biologically active. 

Differences between retinoic acid and retinol



What’s the difference between retinol and retinoic acid?

“Because retinol is a few chemical conversions away from the biologically active form of retinoid, retinoic acid, its action is slower and gentler than that of retinoic acid,” says Marcus. “Retinol tends to be gentler on the skin than retinoic acid, but the tradeoff is that it’s also less potent.” Retinoic acid also requires a prescription, so retinol is much easier to try out if you want to mix in a retinoid.

Differences between retinoic acid and retinol



There are plenty of powerhouse retinols out there to try if you’re retinoid-curious. Keep reading for our favorite picks and why we like them. One of these superstar products just might be your ticket to smooth, supple, even-textured skin.

The Best Retinols to Try

"In addition to retinol, it also contains a super blend of amino acids, peptides, squalane and antioxidants; has a smooth, pleasant texture; and is fragrance-free," says Marcus. 

Differin's Acne Treatment gel is the first prescription-strength retinoid to hit the mainstream. It normalizes skin cell turnover, unclogs pores, and smooths skin. 

Leave it to SkinCeuticals to have high-powered retinol that delivers noticeable results. This cream is formulated with a high concentration of pure retinol, which means you get tons of benefits from it, including exfoliation, anti-aging, and more even skin tone. 

Versed's eye balm has retinol to smooth and even skin but also vitamin E and black currant seed oil to add tons of nourishment and moisture. 

Made with 1% pure vegan retinol, Drunk Elephant's retinol serum helps even and smooth skin. It also has vitamin F, which helps soothe the skin and create an even texture. 

Formulated to target dark spots, aging, and clogged pores, this serum is a heavy hitter. It's also designed with melanin-rich skin in mind, so it's a particularly good choice for those with darker skin tones. 

In this serum, the retinol is micro-encapsulated, so it doesn't hit the air before it hits your skin. Vitamins C and E also help provide a boost of antioxidants and brighten skin while fending off pollutants. 

With a 6.5% blend of retinoids, this retinol serum packs a serious punch. In a clinical study, 96% of people said they thought this serum addressed their skin concerns, which is a pretty impressive amount. 

For just $10, this serum has major benefits. This retinoid active targets signs of aging without irritation.

This retinol serum also has peptides and ceramides for a stronger skin barrier. 

Glossier's retinol is specifically formulated with sensitive skin in mind thanks to the form of retinol it uses called retinyl sunflowerate. It has fatty acids that help ensure your skin tolerates the ingredient. 

Not only does this overnight serum have retinol, but it's also filled with hyaluronic acid and rose-hip oil for hydration and soothing.