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You could say that the quest for perfect skin is a kind of sport for me. I’ve tried the seven-step Korean skincare routine, tried my hand with AHAs, and even braved a round of microneedling. Despite all of that, figuring out retinol has been a whole different ball game.

When I first heard the benefits of retinol (the ingredient can help treat acne, brighten skin tone, and reverse the signs of aging), I knew I needed to learn more — but honestly, I wasn’t sure where to start. What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol, retinoic acid, and Retin-A? When should I start using them? What products should I use them with?

To gain some insight on all of it, I called in the experts.

What’s the difference between retinoids, retinol, and Retin-A?

“Retin-based skincare products are worth understanding because of their proven results,” says Austin-based dermatologist Lela Lankerani, D.O. “Retinoids are essentially a form of vitamin A and a class of anti-aging compounds used in skincare. They help fight acne, reduce wrinkles, stimulate collagen, and promote cellular turnover.” They’re also known for evening out skin tone and increasing blood flow to the skin.

Retinol is also a vitamin A derivative. “It’s added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, reduce acne and boost your skin’s collagen production,” says NYC dermatologist, Whitney Bowe, M.D. “It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free-radical damage, which leads to visible signs of aging.” The difference is that retinols are gentler versions of retinoids, and you typically don’t need a prescription to use them.

Retin-A, on the other hand, is a prescription-only retinoid, and thus stronger than anything you can get over the counter. “It was the brand name used for tretinoin, which was approved over 40 years ago by the FDA to treat acne,” says Bowe. Like retinol, Retin-A also improves skin tone, boosts collagen, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, and speeds up cell turnover, “except it’s a lot stronger, and consequently, more powerful.”

To sum it up: retinoids are a chemical class that both retinols and Retin-A fall under.

“The main difference between these two are potency, effect and irritation level,” clarifies Lankerani. “Retin-A will be the most effective and potent anti-aging cream but will have the highest irritation factor. Retinol is less irritating but takes longer to achieve results.”

The reason? “Retinol needs to work with the skin’s enzymes to convert it to retinoic acid before it becomes effective.” Retin-A is potent enough on its own. “This is why retinol takes several months of consistent use to see results.”

The reason you see results from a prescription-strength retinoid more quickly than you would an OTC retinol, Bowe says, is because “OTC retinols are in ester forms and there are more steps involved for these ester forms to be converted to active retinoic acid.” So if you have tough skin and are results-driven, you can go for the prescription-strength tretinoin. “It works faster than retinol and the results certainly are more dramatic,” says Lankerani. “It can be a matter of weeks.”

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Which one should I use?

“Patients who have never used a retinoid often experience more intense side effects from prescription-strength tretinoin (Retin-A),” says Bowe. These include redness, stinging, burning, peeling and flaking. “Retinol might work more slowly than prescription-strength retinoids, like Retin-A, but it’s less likely to cause side effects.” If you’re new to retinoids and are worried about side effects, Bowe recommends starting with an OTC retinol. “You can always graduate from a retinol to a prescription retinoid.”

Determining which form to use depends on your skin type and tolerability, warns Lankerani. “If someone has sensitive or dry skin, typically retinol is the best choice. Someone who has oilier skin or who has already used a retinol and had no irritation, a prescription-strength retinoid such as Retin-A would be best.” Prescription-strength retinoids are formulated with different concentrations so a physician can recommend which strength is right for you.

When should I start using it?

“I often recommend to my patients who are starting to notice fine lines (at 30-plus) to incorporate an OTC retinol into their nightly skincare routine,” says Bowe. “Not only does retinol help to diminish fine lines and wrinkles, but it can even help reverse some of the side effects of sun damage.”

If you’re struggling with acne, Bowe says to start even sooner, particularly comedones, which are bumps that occur when dirt and oil clog the skin. “Be more aggressive about titrating up the strength of your retinoid,” she says. “OTC retinols won’t clear up moderate to severe acne the way that prescription retinoids can.”

“Retinoids are great for preventing and treating acne, especially comedones [blackheads] because they help unclog pores, adds Lankerani. “And because of its collagen-stimulating ability, it can be beneficial for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring.”

When and how should I apply?

“If you use retinol in the morning and then go out into the bright sunshine, you will not have happy, healthy skin,” says Bowe. Retinoids break down in sunlight and make your skin a lot more sensitive. Some retinoids are photostable — meaning they won’t break down in the sun — but if you’re unsure, better to use the product at night.

When it comes time to apply, Bowe recommends to first cleanse the skin using a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser. “Pat dry very gently. You don’t want to over-scrub or irritate your skin, and harsh cleansers do more harm than good when it comes to the health of your skin’s natural invisible barrier. You can then apply a retinoid serum or cream.

Remember that a little goes a long way — most products only require you use a pea-sized amount for your entire face.

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How often should I use it?

Overuse of retinol can cause flaking, redness and burning, not to mention retinoid dermatitis which manifests as red scaly patches that can sting and burn. Here’s how to prevent that from happening:

“Introduce retinol slowly into your skincare regimen (not every night) and start off with a low percentage,” Bowe says. “Introducing retinol twice a week into your nightly skincare routine and slowly increasing the usage will give your skin a chance to acclimate and build up endurance.”

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Which products or tools can I use retinol with?

“Retinol and Retin-A do have exfoliating properties, but technically they aren’t exfoliants,” says Bowe. “On the day before you exfoliate (she recommends exfoliating 2-3 times a week), you’ll want to skip the retinol.” Additionally, if you’re getting certain in-office treatments like lasers, microneedling, or microdermabrasion, Bowe says to take a break from your retinol.

Speaking of mechanical devices, using a Clarisonic or washcloth may be unnecessary or uncomfortable in conjunction with retinoids. Lankarani recommends using retinoids alone or with other anti-aging products as long as there is minimal irritation.

“AHAs, BHAs and azelaic acids can allow better penetration of retinoids and increase the benefits of both ingredients,” Lankarani says. “But some patients can’t tolerate both.” Vitamin C, an antioxidant that defends the skin against environmental assault, can actually stabilize retinoids to extend their effectiveness.

“I often say to alternate between a Vitamin C serum and a retinoid at night,” says Bowe. “These two types of products are key tools for healthy, glowing skin.” Lankerani advises using a broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 to 50) to prevent photo-aging.

Now that you're equipped with all of the information about retinol you could possibly need, it's time to make some purchases. Looking for suggestions? Check out our roundup of the best anti-aging products you can buy in 2018.