Wrinkles, Anti-Aging, Rejuvenation – where do you even start when you’re trying to make your skin look a little better??

Thousands of products are competing for your purchase. And while you’ve learned a little about skincare, you’ve also heard a lot of opinions from people who don’t have a background in dermatology.

You’ve also spent money on products — that may or may not be working — based on what someone at the cosmetic counter recommended. Honestly, you just don’t know what you’re doing. But it’s not your fault. After all, you’re just trying to help your skin.

In your research, you’ve probably heard about the importance of “retinoids”, “retinol”, and “Retin-A”. But what are retinoids anyway? How do they help your skin? And is the product at the store the same as a prescription?

Let’s go through the basics. Here’s what you need to know – in plain English.

What Are Retinoids?

A retinoid is the name of the group that lots of skincare products are formed from. It’s a chemical class. Retin-A and retinol are just forms of the retinoid.

You can think of it like a family — Retinoid is the last name: Smith. Retin-A is John Smith and retinol is Jane Smith. They’re all related, all part of the same family, all with shared DNA. 

You can think of it like a family — Retinoid is the last name: Smith. Retin-A is John Smith and retinol is Jane Smith. 

Or think of it like soft drinks. The retinoid is “The Coca-Cola Bottling Company”. Retin-A is original Coca-Cola, while retinol is more like Diet Coke.

They’re all related, all part of the same family, all with shared DNA. Now let’s look that the exact differences between Retinol & Retin-A.


Simply put, retinol is the over-the-counter version of a retinoid. It contains a lower concentration of the retinoid, which often means it doesn’t have the effect you’re hoping for.

See, retinoids are irritating. And when people use a product that bothers their skin, they return it. They take it back to the store, ask for a refund, and don’t keep buying it. Since it’s over-the-counter, no one is there to explain how the irritation is normal and what they can do about it.

It’s a double-edged sword. For a retinoid product to have enough concentration to make a difference, it will irritate your skin — which means it won’t sell. And for a retinol product to sell, it won’t have enough concentration to be effective. Plus, because they don’t usually show the exact concentration on over-the-counter products, if you find a stronger product, you don’t know how much of the retinoid you’re applying.

Retinol vs Retin A vs Retinoids


This is the prescription version of a retinoid. It’s also known as tretinoin. These prescriptions come in various specific concentrations so your doctor can make sure you’re using enough of the retinoid to see a difference.

It will irritate your skin. You’ll likely experience burning, stinging, or itching. It could even cause your skin to peel. Why? It’s accelerating cell-turnover. It makes the top layer of skin cells mature more quickly and slough off. It’s giving your skin a strong chemical exfoliation. Rather than using a mechanical device (like a washcloth or a rotating brush), you’ll get a much more effective exfoliation with your prescription retinoid.

What Does All This Exfoliation Do?

In short, it helps battle acne and aging. It keeps your skin smooth (because the old skin is flaking off) and stimulates collagen production. That means you’ll see fewer lines and wrinkles in the long run.

Retinoids also help prevent skin cancers. Remember, retinoids make cells mature. Skin cancer cells are immature. So, if cells aren’t maturing correctly, retinoids push them toward being more normal.

Related: How to Exfoliate Your Skin Without Drying it Out

How to Manage Retin-A

People misunderstand retinoids. Sure, Retin-A can make your skin uncomfortable, but it’s manageable. Sometimes people get the product and assume it’ll work right away with no side effects. Then the first time it burns, they stop using it. But your skin will get used to the product with regular application.

Plus, you should start slow. Just use a small amount of the medication and work your way up. If it irritates your skin too much, back off and add moisturizer. Moisturizers are always a must. They’ll cut the burning, stinging, and itching significantly and replenish your skin as it exfoliates.

Also, remember that it takes a few weeks to see results. Soon, you’ll start to feel the difference in your skin texture and see the difference in your complexion.