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.


(Image credit: @marina_torres)

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.


(Image credit: @valerialipovetsky)

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. 


(Image credit: @emmahoareau)

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.


(Image credit: @spicy.mayo)

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


(Image credit: @amy_lawrenson)

Next, Derms Are Losing It Over These 6 Buzzy Ingredients—Here's What to Try

Associate Beauty Editor

Katie Berohn is the associate beauty editor at Who What Wear. Previously, she worked as the beauty assistant for Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and Prevention magazines, all part of the Hearst Lifestyle Group. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a major in journalism and minor in technology, arts, and media, and earned her master's degree at NYU's graduate program for magazine journalism. In addition, Katie has held editorial internships at Denver Life magazine, Yoga Journal, and Cosmopolitan; a digital editorial internship at New York magazine's The Cut; a social good fellowship at Mashable; and a freelance role at HelloGiggles. When she's not obsessing over the latest skincare launch or continuing her journey to smell every perfume on the planet, Katie can be found taking a hot yoga class, trying everything on the menu at New York's newest restaurant, or hanging out at a trendy wine bar with her friends.