We independently select and review the products we recommend. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through our affiliate links below. Learn more about how we review products and our sources of information.
Understanding how retinoids and retinol work is probably the best skincare decision you’ll ever make. Because this active ingredient will help you with a lot of things and you need to know your way around it to get better results. More importantly, understanding the different types of retinoids will help you decide which one you should use. It gets really messy really fast. So try to keep up because you’re about to open up a can of worms.
But before diving into different types of retinoids, you need context, especially if you’re new to the ingredient.
Retinoids refer to any vitamin A derivative both over-the-counter and prescription (1). But the reason people keep referring to prescription ones as retinoids and OTC ones as retinol is mainly that it’s easier to follow that way.
In the grand scheme of things, both retinoids and retinol do the same thing: take that lazy skin turnover and put it on a treadmill.
The skin starts to produce proteins like collagen and elastin in a faster manner. That results in decreased wrinkles, acne, and hyperpigmentation. That’s how you get clear and youthful skin.
Similarly, both retinoids and retinol cause the same “side effects”. These are irritation, dryness, redness, and photosensitivity. The way different retinoids or retinols work defines the whole journey. That’s why a classification is in order.
Here you’ll learn about different types of retinoids, and retinol, including esters, aka derivatives, and some new alternatives that are collectively called new-generation retinoids.
Keep in mind that the list of different retinoids is in a particular order. It goes from the strongest to the weakest.
But our major focus is over-the-counter options as prescription retinol is, kind of, out of my league. Though I did use a topical prescription retinoid, I’m not comfortable informing people about it as I’m not a medical expert.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of retinoids and retinols.
The Different Types of Retinoids
Also called tretinoin, retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A. The thing that gives you smooth skin with better texture and tone is retinoic acid. It’s what helps you with fighting acne and wrinkles (2).
Retinoic acid binds to retinoic acid receptors, and the magic starts. Your skin recognizes it so it gets to work and starts pumping new collagen immediately.
Because retinoic acid is the most potent and strongest form of vitamin A, it’s by prescription only. And it’s considered a drug.
Topical prescription retinoids like tazarotene and oral form (isotretinoin) are in this category of retinoids. There’s also Adapalene, the synthetic derivative that recently became available over the counter.
Because it’s the strongest, retinoic acid is the most irritating of the bunch. That’s why we have different types of retinol and derivatives so that we collect the benefits but avoid the side effects.
As we established, retinoic acid is the one that your skin recognizes. For that reason, every single derivative on this list has to convert to retinoic acid first. Meanwhile, they lose potency but become less irritating. More on this in a bit.
Using a prescription retinoid is like following through with your new year’s resolution to start eating healthy. It’s a commitment and comes with a lot of challenges.
You don’t plan on eating salad for a month and then go back to junk food. Your end goal is to make it a habit.
Similarly, using retinoids has its own challenges until your skin adjusts. You’ll be tempted to stop using it because of potential purging and sensitivity during your adjustment.
But in the end, retinoids are the most effective in dealing with textured skin, fine lines, acne, and hyperpigmentation.
Retinoids may be harder on the skin at first. But they give the best results in a shorter time. Regardless of your age, if you’re dealing with stubborn acne or don’t want to skip to injectables just yet, go and see your dermatologist.
Get a prescription retinoid to obliterate acne, congestion, fine lines, uneven skin tone, and all other annoying skin problems.
This is as far as I go in terms of prescription vitamin A.
Also called retinal, retinaldehyde is the strongest over-the-counter retinoid. It’s the direct derivative of retinoic acid. It’s stronger than retinol but still weaker than retinoic acid.
It’s effective in boosting collagen production and increasing skin turnover. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits, which is why it works great for treating acne too (3).
Even though it’s more tolerable than retinoic acid, it does carry notorious side effects like irritation and dryness.
And because it’s in close proximity to the actual thing, retinoic acid that is, retinaldehyde doesn’t always make the best alternative when you’re looking for gentle retinol.
That’s why it’s not super common in skincare products. It’s the most common one in encapsulated retinol products though. Encapsulation allows the slow release of the ingredient and avoids irritation.
Retinol is the most common vitamin A derivative found in skincare products (4). Retinol demonstrates the same skin improvements such as collagen formation, and skin thickness but in a much less irritating manner.
It’s great for both wrinkles and acne. But retinol, the one in your creams and your retinol serums, is not retinoic acid. It has to become so. It needs to go through the initiation process, so to speak.
Certain enzymes need to convert retinol into retinoic acid. And that’s not a direct path either. Retinol is converted to retinaldehyde first, then to retinoic acid. So, it goes through a 2-step process right off the bat. Only then it starts to work.
When applied to the skin, retinol converts to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid. During this conversion, retinol loses potency.
But on the flip side, the more process it goes through, the less irritating it is. That’s why retinol is gentler on the skin but takes longer to work. So when OTC is concerned, retinol is a gold mine.
Retinol is the safest alternative to retinoids. It shortens the amount of time your skin renews itself. You can use retinol for acne in your early 20s. You can use it for preventative measures starting from your mid-20s.
And you can use it for anti-aging reasons starting from your late 20s to early 30s. Even though retinol seems innocent when you put it next to retinoids, it still makes a huge difference in the skin and requires commitment and patience.
Your skin may have trouble tolerating it at first. Although it depends mostly on your skin type and familiarity with active ingredients, you can start by using it in low concentrations.
Related: How To Use Retinol For a Smoother Transition
But retinol is still not gentle enough to use on sensitive skin. Additionally, retinol is not easy to stabilize. It oxidizes easily and goes bad when exposed to air or light, making your products ineffective. And that brings us to our next point: retinol esters.
Also called retinol esters or retinyl esters, these retinol derivatives are made to get the same effects of retinol without the side effects. There are numerous attempts but some are more common than others.
The only downside to retinol esters is that they don’t have enough study behind them as much as retinol does. Plus, retinol esters have to convert in a one-up manner until they convert to retinol.
As you move down from retinol, the number of conversions increases. And the exact type of retinol has a defining role in how effective your product is, how fast it works, and how easily your skin tolerates it.
And three of the most common retinyl esters are retinyl palmitate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl acetate. The chart below shows how many steps it takes for retinol and retinol esters to convert to retinoic acid.
Retinyl palmitate is a derivative of retinol, not a direct derivative of retinoic acid. It’s a combination of retinol and palmitic acid. Compared to the other esters, it’s the most potent retinol derivative. And it’s oil soluble.
And in order for it to work, it needs to convert to retinol, then to retinal, and then to retinoic acid. So there are still some steps to take but not so much so that the ingredient becomes completely useless.
Even though retinol esters like retinyl palmitate may not give you perfect skin overnight, they’re still effective retinols for people with sensitive and dry skin as well as for people with rosacea.
Similar to retinyl palmitate, retinyl propionate is also a retinol derivative that needs to go through a conversion process. It’s effective in reducing hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. And it’s much more stable than retinol.
But again, there is not enough information to confidently say that this works just as well as retinol. Believe me, I looked!
And last but not least, or maybe it is, we have retinyl acetate as the least potent retinol ester. It’s common in skincare products but it lacks data. More often than not, it’s used to stabilize retinol or just for some antioxidant benefits as opposed to skin resurfacing benefits.
You can also think of retinol esters as a gateway to retinol. Your skin needs an adjustment period. So, if you’re particularly worried about irritation, start with esters in relatively higher concentrations. Using esters is a great way to introduce your skin to retinol in a very gentle way.
The Different Types of Retinol Alternatives
As I said, there are numerous derivatives with one goal in mind: retinoic acid but make it gentle! So these compounds are relatively new to the scene. They’re more cosmetic than therapeutic.
And in terms of strength, they are all over the place. Additionally, unlike retinol, these new vitamin A derivatives are not FDA-regulated. And they’re not widely recognized due to the lack of research.
So they don’t fit into the list above. But don’t be discouraged. Because these retinol alternatives are incredibly exciting and equally promising.
Commonly known as vegan retinol or natural retinol, bakuchiol is a botanical ingredient derived from Psoralea Corylifolia aka babchi. Unlike most retinols, bakuchiol is suitable for all skin types.
It has anti-aging benefits as well as some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s a safer alternative to retinol. Try bakuchiol serums as they can help you achieve smoother, and brighter skin without irritation.
Otherwise known as hydroxypinacolone retinoate, granactive retinoid is a relatively new type of retinol and is the propriety of Grant Industries. It’s not a retinol ester but a retinoic acid ester.
And it’s made by combining retinoic acid ester with a solvent. So right off the bat, it’s high up on the list next to the strong stuff. It directly binds to retinoic acid receptors. But it’s not nearly as irritating as retinoic acid, which is why it’s been so popular.
It helps with achieving smoother skin by reducing the visibility of wrinkles. And it’s also helpful in reducing acne. Even though it’s less irritating than retinol and a gentle retinol alternative, it still requires caution if you have sensitive skin.
And lastly, we have retinyl retinoate. It’s the combination of retinoic acid ester and retinol acid ester (5), which makes it an interesting alternative. So you have both the active form and the ester, practically making it work double duty.
Because of its makeup, it’s potentially more effective than retinol. And it does show promising anti-aging benefits in available studies. But again, it’s new and not a widely available alternative.
So these are the different types of retinoids and retinols available. During my research, I read somewhere that retinol and retinol derivatives make up about 90% of over-the-counter topical retinoids.
Retinol itself is the most common of all. This ingredient is an incredible multi-tasker. So you might as well go with it and start with a low concentration to tackle whatever skin issue you have.
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. https://doi.org/10.5114/ada.2019.87443
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
- Draelos, Z. D. (2010). Chapter 38: Retinoids [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (1st ed., pp. 309–318). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444317657
- Kong, R., Cui, Y., Fisher, G.J., Wang, X., Chen, Y., Schneider, L.M. and Majmudar, G. (2016), A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. J Cosmet Dermatol, 15: 49-57. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.12193
- Kim, H., Kim, N., Jung, S., Mun, J., Kim, J., Kim, B., Lee, J., Ryoo, H., & Jung, H. (2010). Improvement in skin wrinkles from the use of photostable retinyl retinoate: a randomized controlled trial. The British journal of dermatology, 162(3), 497–502. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09483.x
Read Next: Polyhydroxy Acids, The Gentlest Exfoliants