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What Are Retinoids? Plus, the Perfect One for Your Skin Type

March 06, 2019

By: Kristin Bugden

Kristin Bugden is a New Jersey-based mom and communications consultant. She loves to write, take barre classes and believes in a good reality television binge-watching session. Here, she breaks down the benefits of retinoids.

You’ve probably heard about the skincare benefits of retinol, which continues to be a buzzy topic in the beauty world. However, when you throw retinoids into the mix, it can all get a bit confusing, and it’s important to note the two are similar but not one in the same. With help from a few great dermatologists, we take a closer look at retinoids in particular and give you some product suggestions to consider for your skin type (of course, we recommend speaking with a dermatologist before introducing a new product to your skincare regimen):  

Retinol vs. Retinoids: What's the Difference?

Although retinol and retinoids are both derivatives of vitamin A, they are not identical. “Retinol is one of the most usable forms of vitamin A because it absorbs quickly and easily into our skin. Retinol is a bit more gentle, while retinoids are stronger, but more effective over time, Dr. Joyce Park, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in the Bay Area, tells Lively. “A retinol is the over-the-counter version of a retinoid. Retinols contain lower concentrations of the retinoid. This means it will not give you the same effect as a prescription version,” adds Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist and the assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.

what are retinoids

How Retinoids Work

In short, retinoids help our skin cells to turnover. “Due to the exfoliation process that your skin goes through when using retinoids, the skin’s collagen ... They also unclog pores, therefore reducing blemish outbreaks. Some are over the counter and some can only be prescribed,” says Dr. Jaliman. “Studies have shown that topical application of retinoids results in new collagen formation and increased epidermal thickness, as well as clinical improvement in wrinkling, dark spots, rough skin, and skin texture,” adds Dr. Park.

Some choose retinoids to treat blemishes, while others use it for wrinkles. “If you are applying retinoids for wrinkles, it’ll take about a year or so to really see results worth raving about. For acne, typically good results come within 3-6 months,” says Dr. Jaliman. Dr. Park adds that you should gradually introduce retinoids into your regimen and expect to see “some peeling and redness during the first few weeks.”

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Best Practices

Our experts have some handy tips to keep in mind when it comes to retinoid application. For one, Dr. Jaliman notes there’s a greater chance of irritation when using two strong exfoliators at the same time. “This can leave your skin inflamed and sensitive. You should avoid mixing retinoid products with products that have acids such as alpha-hydroxy (glycolic and lactic), and beta-hydroxy acids, also known as salicylic acid. You can still use the products, but you should apply them at them different times. Products with acids can be used during the daytime and retinoids at night,” she explains. She also notes that using a sunscreen is key, as the skin is more prone to sunburn when being treated with retinoids.

Dr. Park tells Lively retinoids are safe for long term application, “as long as you are not trying to conceive, pregnant, or breastfeeding.” She adds that she personally takes a break in the winter when her skin is already dry and only uses it twice a week. “If I kept using retinoids daily during wintertime, my whole face would be very scaly and red!” Dr. Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Brooklyn, New York also shares it’s worthwhile to take a break from retinoids for one week prior to any procedure on your face, “like waxing or cosmetic lasers, for example.”

Retinoid Product Suggestions for your Skin Type


 “If your skin is normal there are so many to choose from! A new prescription product that was just release is called Altreno. It has hyaluronic acid in it to add to the moisture content of the product,” says Dr. Greenfield. She notes that another great product for normal skin to look into is Replenix All-trans-Retinol Plus Smoothing Serum 5X.


“For dry skin, you will need more emollients in the product and perhaps a weaker retinoid like Replenix All-trans-Retinol Smoothing Serum 3X or Differin, says Dr. Greenfield. She tells Lively that another option is to use the products mentioned above in the Normal skin category and mix with a heavy emollient before applying.


When it comes to combatting oily skin, both Dr. Jaliman and Dr. Greenfield mention a stronger retinoid would be ideal such as prescription-only Retin-a-micro 0.8%. 


“The great part about retinoids is that they can turn your combination skin into a more even complexion. If this is the case, use a retinoid geared toward a normal skin type and apply more moisturizer on the parts that are dry,” says Dr. Greenfield.


“For sensitive skin, I do recommend a retinol product which is not as drying or irritating. You will not get the same effect as the retinoid, but you may be able to tolerate it much better,” explains Dr. Greenfield. She suggests Retinol Treatment for Sensitive Skin by PCA Skin.  Dr. Jaliman adds NeoCutis NOUVELLE + Retinol Correction Cream is a good option. “It is suitable for all skin types, but very good for sensitive skin because it has bisabolol which helps to soothe irritation. It also has a low concentration of retinoid in a special formulation which will lessen skin irritation.”

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