Retinol vs. Retinoids: What’s the Difference?

You might have heard the terms “retinol” and “retinoid” being used interchangeably — and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. The two do have some major similarities between them; namely, they’re both forms of vitamin A that can offer big benefits for your skin, helping to treat breakouts and fine lines in one go. But the retinol vs. retinoids debate gets complicated from there, so let’s clear things up.

What’s the Difference Between Retinol vs. Retinoids?

Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives, including retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinoic acid. So, retinol is a type of retinoid. That being said, while retinoid is an umbrella term, it’s also commonly used to denote prescription-strength forms of vitamin A, such as adapalene, tazarotene, and tretinoin. Retinol, on the other hand, is available over-the-counter and less potent than these Rx-only retinoids.

Compared to retinol, “retinoids are much stronger and are more effective,” says Nava Greenfield, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Brooklyn, NY. But there’s also a drawback. “They also have the potential for more severe adverse effects,” she says. That’s a big deal, because retinoid side effects can be pretty gnarly, so much so that some people give up on them entirely. Retinoids can come with redness, stinging, flaking, dryness, and other signs of irritation — not to mention skin purging.

How Do Retinol and Retinoids Work?

All derivatives of vitamin A do basically the same thing, though some need to undergo certain reactions in the skin to become retinoic acid. At the end of the day, they all activate the retinoid receptors in skin, which in turn do a number of things: They increase skin cell turnover, regulate the production of collagen, and, through their peeling effect, keep pores clear and brighten dark spots.

Retinol can take longer to work than prescription-strength retinoids — make sense, seeing as it’s less powerful. But it’s also gentler on the skin, which is why “retinol is better for sensitive skin,” says Dr. Greenfield. It’s also a good bet for addressing mild acne (such as maskne, a.k.a. mask acne) and fine lines.

If you’re dealing with chronic cystic acne, on the other hand, or want to target very deep wrinkles and folds, it may be worth seeing a dermatologist and asking about retinoids. Ultimately, it just depends on what your skin needs. “Skin goals are definitely a factor,” says Dr. Greenfield.

What Is Encapsulated Retinol?

Although over-the-counter retinol can be easier on skin than its prescription-only counterpart, that doesn’t mean there’s zero drawback. In fact, retinol can still lead to the same unpleasant side effects, just on a lesser scale. That’s where encapsulated retinol comes in. 

Encapsulated retinol — meaning it’s delivered to the deeper layers of skin in a capsule, bypassing the surface and offering a time-release effect — can help minimize the usual side effects. “In studies, encapsulated retinol appears to be more gentle on the skin and cause less erythema, burning, and scaling,” says Dr. Greenfield. (FYI: Erythema means skin redness.) That’s a pretty big perk, seeing as the side effects are typically the only drawback to using retinol.

Encapsulated retinol also offers the additional perk of releasing the active ingredients over time, as the shell (or the “capsule” in question) deteriorates. That gives skin a steady drip of the active ingredients for more sustained delivery. That’s why the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask both offer encapsulated retinol. Plus, avocado oil and extract in both masks buffers against dryness and soothes skin. That makes it user-friendly, good for all skin types and — not that we’re biased — a winning argument in the great retinol vs. retinoid debate.

Read more about the power of retinol:

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Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask

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