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Retinoids Vs Retinol: What You Need to Know

Retinoid or Retinol? What are they, and where do they fit in as one of the most esteemed skincare ingredients available? Meet the Retinoid family. Retinoids are the gold standard of skincare, so there’s a high chance you’ve heard about their anti-aging benefits and ability to treat acne and transform dry skin from flakey and dehydrated to supple and hydrated.

The Retinoid Family, Explained

The retinoid family is a group of ingredients derived from Vitamin A that has made a big impact in the world of skincare. With the variety of options available, there’s a retinoid for every skin type and concern, making it a versatile and effective ingredient that has earned its place as a staple in the bathroom of every skincare aficionado. 

If you’re a skincare enthusiast on the hunt for the ultimate complexion game-changer, chances are you’ve come across a plethora of terms such as Retinol, Retinal, Retinoic acid, Retinal, Palmitate and Tretinoin. These names all fall under the umbrella of highly sought-after active ingredients with vast applications across the skincare world, Retinoids.

While these names may seem interchangeable, each member of the retinoid family has quite different molecular structures, each with their own set of skincare benefits, applications and side effects. Understanding the differences between these compounds is crucial in maximising their potential to enhance the appearance of your skin.

Many Retinoid products are available over-the-counter, from serums and eye creams, whilst the stronger, prescription-only topical Retinoids used to treat the most severe cases of acne must be prescribed by a doctor. 

With so many options, knowing which Retinoid is best for your skin type can be challenging. This article will look at different types of Retinoids, their benefits and side effects, and tips on choosing the right one. We’ll also cover the best ways to use Retinoids for effective skincare.

Retinoids & Your Skincare Routine

Retinoids are gold-class ingredients recognised for their powerful skin rejuvenating and anti-aging benefits. When prepared as topical skin treatments, they include, in ranked order of potency from lowest to highest: Retinyl palmitate, Retinol, Retinaldehyde (Retinal) and Retinoic acid. The most bioactive form is Retinoic acid. All Retinoids exert influence on the skin, but to be used at a cellular level, they must be converted into Retinoic acid. Over the counter Retinoids, Retinyl palmitate, Retinol and Retinal require conversion sequences in the skin before they can be recognised and used by the cell. The more conversions required, the weaker the Retinoid:

Retinoid Conversion Sequences:  
  • Retinyl palmitate x 3 conversions
  • Retinol x 2 conversions
  • Retinal x 1 conversion
  • A medical prescription is required for the strongest and most bioavailable form of Retinoic acid (Retin A, Tretinoin, Adapalene, and Tazarotene)
Retinoids are classified into two categories: over-the-counter (OTC) or  prescription strength. OTC Retinoids are milder versions of the powerful prescription medications, and are available in beauty clinics, medi spas and and some online retailers. Prescription-strength Retinoids require a doctor’s visit for proper diagnosis and treatment and are purchased at a pharmacy with the presentation of your doctors prescription.. Both types of  Retinoids come in serum, cream or gel form and can be applied directly to the skin. 

Over the Counter 


Available over the counter at strengths up to and including 1% potency, Retinol is widely known for improving most of the visual signs of aged skin. Vitamin A is a generic term for many related compounds, including Retinol. Other Vitamin A derivatives are Retinol Palmitate, Retinal and Retinoic acid, collectively known as Retinoids. All Retinoids work as antioxidants in the skin to help offset damage from free radicals and increase collagen production, improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinoids also aid in boosting the turnover of the dry, dead surface skin cells, ensuing in the visual aspect of youthful, rejuvenated skin. In this way,  Retinol is also employed for its anti-wrinkle properties.


Retinal is a potent antioxidant with properties that combat free radical damage helping to prevent fine lines and wrinkles. It is a stronger Retinoid compared to Retinol, although they are both Vitamin A derivatives. Retinal  promotes skin elasticity and reduces photo ageing, fighting Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) responsible for degrading proteins such as collagen, fibronectin, elastin, and proteoglycans. It is a powerful collagen booster and enhances Hyaluronic acid production naturally within the skin.

In conjunction with its ability to induce cell proliferation, helping to strengthen the epidermis and accelerate cell turnover, Retinal is a keratolytic agent that breaks down the outermost layer of the stratum corneum, stimulating desquamation and binding moisture. This molecular process prevents cell build on the skin’s surface and helps eliminate congestion, hyperpigmentation, and breakouts, keeping the pores clear and clean. Furthermore, Retinal has antibacterial properties, which further counteracts problem-skin issues.

Prescription Retinoids & Topical Retinoids

Retinoic Acid

Retinoic acid, also known as Tretinoin, is an ingredient most commonly found in prescription Retinoids to treat acne-prone skin; however, most over-the-counter Retinal and Retinol products slowly convert to Retinoic acid through the skin via a two-step oxidation process. In its pure form, Retinoic acid is the most potent form of vitamin A and is only recommended under professional guidance as it can cause skin irritation when directly applied to the skin. Additionally, Retinoic acid has vast benefits for mature skin, helping to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and acne scarring and helping improve  pigmentation and skin texture.

Isotrentinoin (Accutane)

As one of the highest prescription-strength Retinoid products used to treat severe cystic or scarring acne, this over-the-counter Retinoid is more popularly known as Accutane. Isotretinoin has been clinically proven to reduce the symptoms of acne and prevent future breakouts from occurring. Isotretinoin should only be used under professional guidance due to its high potency and potential side effects, such as dryness, redness and peeling skin.

Retinol Vitamin A Serum


How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol is the gold-class active ingredient used for treating the signs of accelerated skin ageing and is used effectively in dealing with  the symptoms and appearance of acne. In conjunction with its ability to induce cell growth and  proliferation, helping to re-densify the epidermis and accelerate cell turnover, Retinol is a keratolytic agent that breaks down the outermost layer of the stratum corneum, stimulating desquamation and binding moisture. Additionally, Retinol is a potent antioxidant with properties that combat free radical damage helping to prevent the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Retinol products may effectively promote collagen and elastin production and reduce photo ageing, fighting Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) responsible for degrading extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins such as collagen, fibronectin, elastin, and proteoglycans. It can be  a powerful collagen booster and enhances Hyaluronic acid production naturally within skin cells.

Cosmeceutical Benefits of Retinol

Some of the most potent, collagen-boosting raw materials are peptides and forms of vitamin A. Retinol enhances the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid (known for providing moisture and for being effective against wrinkles), enhancing firmness, fullness and smoothness while also slowing the age-related loss of these two compounds resulting in proactively preventing lines and furrows that have not yet formed. Retinol is a highly valuable vitamin widely used to efficiently work on other skin concerns such as acne and age spots.


  • Retinol affects the production and cohesiveness of skin cells that line & plug the follicle, helping to turn these cells over faster, which in turn may help prevent acne’s progression from becoming more severe. 

Rejuvenates Skin Cells

  • Retinol acts as an antioxidant in the skin, helping offset damage from free radicals. Aids in boosting the metabolism of cells ensuing in the visual aspect of youthful & rejuvenated skin.

Improves the Appearance of Fine Lines & Wrinkles

  • Retinol presents antioxidant properties that allow it to counteract damage from free radicals, which are responsible for causing the acceleration in the appearance of fine lines & wrinkles.

Retinol vs Retinal

Retinol and Retinal are both derivatives of Vitamin A; where they differ is in their molecular structure and how they convert to Retinoic Acid.  Retinol is the less potent of the two type of Retinoids  yet while Retinal is a more potent form because it is closer to the bioavalable form Retinoic acid,  it is more gentle on the skin. Retinal may even be used by sensitive skin in some cases because it  tends to have less of the unwanted side affects that Retinol can have in some people (flakiness, redness) , with visible results occurring faster than those seen with over-the-counter Retinol products.

The key difference between when you apply Retinol, and Retinal is the speed at which they convert to Retinoic acid. Retinal is known to convert 11x faster than Retinol, converting to Retinoic acid in just one step. In contrast, the conversion of Retinol to Retinoic Acid takes two steps: Retinol > Retinal > Retinoic Acid.

While both are forms of Vitamin A, Retinal converts to the active form of Vitamin A, Retinoic acid, faster and more efficiently than Retinol. Because its conversion is faster, your skin can see results quicker and at a lower concentration, and this is why the side affects tend to be more tolerable, even in sensitive skins. Keeping all this in mind, if you’re looking for fast-acting skincare products that will keep you ahead of the ageing game, it’s best to opt for products containing Retinal.

Skincare Benefits & Uses of Retinal

Retinal has been found to be effective in treating several skincare issues, some of which include:

  • Diminishing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Reducing dry skin, hyperpigmentation & evening skin tone
  • Improving skin elasticity and firmness
  • Helping to improve the appearance of  acne by increasing cell turnover and unclogging pores
  • Stimulating collagen production for a more youthful appearance

Retinal is safe for most skin types and can be found in many forms, such as serums, creams, lotions, oils, and masks. If you have a sensitive skin condition, be sure to consult with a skin or beauty therapist  before adding any new over-the-counter products to your skincare routine.

Total Repair DNA Serum by Aesthetics Rx

Total Repair DNA Serum by Aesthetics Rx goes one step further in Vitamin A potency, using natural Retinal.

Total Repair DNA Serum is the most comprehensive and advanced formula ever at Aesthetics Rx. With sophisticated recovery, repair, and rejuvenating skin benefits, this serum is our highest-performing, restorative night treatment that healthy, glowing skin cannot do without. 360° anti-ageing skin benefits include:

• Reduce the appearance of fine lines and the signs of accelerated skin ageing

• Smoother, more refined, and supple skin texture

• A more even skin tone

• Powerful defence against pollution and free radical damage

• Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles associated with accelerated skin ageing

• A more radiant and glowing complexion upon waking

We love it because

This lightweight serum-cream fully absorbs on application at night, and the skin is noticeably smoother and more radiant the following morning. Containing Retinal, it has the super-power of Vitamin A, but without the unwanted side effects. Peptides and growth factors in this formulation provide unrivalled skin repair and regenerative benefits.

Retinoid Skincare Safety Tips 

Wear Sunscreen 

Retinoids can make the skin more sensitive to sun damage, so it’s critical to use an Ultra-Protection SPF50+ when going out in the sun, even on cloudy days. You also need to choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. 

Start Slowly 

Retinoids are very powerful, so it is best to introduce them into your skincare routine slowly. Start by applying the product every other day and gradually increase usage. This will help your skin adjust and reduce the chances of unwanted side effects.  


Using an hydrating moisturiser, such as the Daily Moisture Hydrating by Aesthetics Rx, is also a good idea, as it can help soothe skin and reduce flaking or irritating effects sometimes caused by Retinoid usage.

Avoid Certain Ingredients 

When using a Retinoid, you should avoid using ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids and benzoyl peroxide. These can irritate the skin and make it more sensitive to sun exposure, so it is best to wait until your skin has adjusted before introducing any new products.

Patch Test 

Make sure to patch-test any new product on your skin before using it, particularly if you have sensitive skin. Take a small amount of the Retinoid and apply it to a small area of your skin and wait for 24 hours for any adverse reaction or irritation. Do not continue with the application if you experience redness, stinging or itching.

Where to Next 

Retinoids are the gold standard of skincare ingredients with far-reaching applications and benefits for a range of skin conditions. Understanding the differences between the derivatives is key to achieving your desired skincare results. It is important to be patient with your skin as it adjusts to new products with Retinoids. You are better positioned to explore this powerful ingredient’s world and discover what suits your skin best.   

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