Retinol is a form of vitamin A, and a type of retinoid. Often referred to as the “gold standard of anti-aging” by many dermatologists, retinoids have been shown in studies to fight lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin, increase cell turnover, help to treat acne, and keep the complexion bright.

However, there are many different forms of retinoids. Here’s how to know the difference between retinol and other retinoids, and how to select the formulation that is best for you:

What is a “Retinoid”?

Retinoids go by a dizzying number of names, and between the over-the-counter and prescription options, number of different brand names, and scientific-sounding word endings like -ol, -oid and -ate, it’s enough to make your head spin. But understanding this proven active ingredient is one of the most important things you can do for your skin.

“Retinoid” is a general term for a family of products derived from vitamin A. The family includes prescription retinoic acids such as Retin-A and Tazorac, as well as the over-the-counter ingredients retinol and retinyl palmitate. The problem is, not all these products were created equal, and some have vastly greater benefits than others. Here’s a quick guide to help you keep it all sorted out.

Prescription products

Prescription retinoids are made from retinoic acid, the acid form of vitamin A, and are also known as tretinoin. Retinoic acid is sold under a number of brand names, including Retin-A, Atralin, Ziana, Tri-Luma, Tazorac, Differin, Epi-Duo, Aberela, Airol, Renova, Avita and Stieva-A, to name just a few!

Prescription retinoids are the only topical products proven to fight lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin. I use them every day on my face, neck, chest and hands.

Some prescription retinoids contain other ingredients that make them useful for treating specific conditions. For example, Tri-Luma also contains hydroquinone, which makes it a great option for fighting age spots.

Over-the-counter products

Retinol, retinyl linoleate, retinyl palmitate and retinaldehyde are all commonly found in OTC products. All are derived from vitamin A, but they’re made from different sources and are synthesized differently by the body.

Retinol been shown inis the strongest of the OTC retinoids. Like its prescription cousins, retinol treats wrinkles and acne and increases cell turnover. Some people who can’t handle the peeling, flaking and redness that can come with prescription retinoid use find they can tolerate retinol much better. Look for products that contain at least .03 percent (one percent is the OTC limit).

Retinyl linoleate and retinyl palmitate are even less irritating than retinol, which is why they’re both used a lot in skincare products. Unfortunately, they’re not nearly as effective and aren’t used in high enough concentration to have significant results.

Retinaldehyde is less effective in treating wrinkles than retinol, but likely more effective than retinyl linoleate and retinyl palmitate. There is some evidence that retinaldehyde may be particularly useful for treating acne: one study found it has stronger antibacterial effects than prescription retinoids or retinol.

Side effects

By far, the number one complaint about retinoids is that they cause redness, scaling and peeling of the skin. Most people find that their skin adjusts to the retinoic acid and these effects diminish greatly after a month or two, but it’s best to start out slow. At first, use your retinoid just once or twice a week and slowly increase frequency as you gain tolerance. Starting out with a milder OTC retinol, like Topix Replenix Retinol Plus Smoothing Serum 2X, and switching to prescription retinoic acid when you’re ready can also help.

Note that uneducated skin care specialists often claim retinoids thin the skin, but this is only a partial truth. Retinoids do thin the dead layer of cells at the surface of skin, but that is actually a good thing, because these dead cells makes skin feel rough and reduce radiance. And numerous studies show that retinoids actually thicken the deeper layer of skin, called the dermis, where wrinkles form.

How to use them

  • Retinoids make your skin more sensitive, so stop using them one week prior to facial waxing.
  • Avoid facial scrubs, facial brushes and chemical peels unless approved by your doctor.
  • Retinoids can make rosacea worse, but you might be able to tolerate a low dose. Talk to your dermatologist before using a retinoid.
  • Sunlight deactivates retinoids and this ingredient can make your skin more sun-sensitive, so always apply them at night.
  • Retinoids are easily broken down by light and air; so only buy products in airtight containers. I like opaque pumps or the small-mouthed aluminum tubes that RoC Deep Wrinkle Night Cream and Philosophy Help Me come in. If a product comes in an open-mouth jar, it does not contain active retinol!
  • Always screw the lid back on your tube.

The bottom line

When it comes to anti-aging products, retinoids (and their over-the-counter retinol counterparts) have been proven to keep skin looking its best, especially when you start early. Retinoids exfoliate and boost your skin’s natural collagen production.

As for whether to choose OTC or prescription retinoids, to minimize irritation, start with a nightly application of OTC retinol. Once the bottle is empty, visit your dermatologist for a prescription retinoid.

Now, which prescription is best to use depends on your skin type.  Don’t know your skin type?  Visit for a free evaluation and exclusive skin care recommendations.


Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D. and her team at Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology believe in proof, not promises. World-recognized for both cosmetic and general dermatology, our treatment strategies rely exclusively on evidence-based, scientifically verified products and procedures that promote skin health and a natural appearance. We combine effective medical procedures with individualized instruction on proper skincare, nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle in order to maximize the health of the skin and body as a whole while minimizing the effects of aging. For more, visit Dr. Baumann’s blog for daily updates Monday through Friday, or inquire about an appointment through

January 3, 2017 Skin Aging