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The Difference Between Retinoids

The differences between Retinol, Retinaldehyde and Retin-A, and how to use them.

Retinol, Retin-A and How To Start Using them

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Barefaced RetinAL Skin Therapy Retinoid
Barefaced RetinAL Skin Therapy: Stronger than retinol but much better tolerated.
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The Retinoid Family


There are four members in the “retinoid family.” Retinol esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, and prescription-strength retinoic acid. Whenever you hear us at Barefaced, or anyone else, talk about a “retinoid,” it could be any of these four strengths. The main difference between each tier is the potency and the level of irritation that correlates with it.



Retinol esters (“the baby”) the least potent and most gentle form of the vitamin A derivative.

Retinol (“the little sister) is a non-prescription retinoid that the skin has to convert into its active form retinoic acid (tretinoin) before it can start working its anti-aging magic.

Retinaldehyde (“the mama”) is another over the counter/non-prescription retinoid. It goes through one less conversion before it is in the active state.

Retin-A aka Tretinoin (“the daddy”) is a prescription-strength, higher concentration retinoic acid that is already in its active state so when it is applied topically to the skin, it begins working right away. It tends to be good for people who have oily, more tolerant skin.

Retinoid strengths infographic

When it comes to choosing the right retinoid tier for you, your goal should be to finding one you can use consistently, meaning 5-7 nights per week.

If you are able to tolerate prescription-strength retinoids at this frequency, amazing! But, some skin types will never be able to handle a .05% or a .1% Tretinoin daily. You are likely see better results with a less potent retinoid used more frequently than you will using prescription-strength only 1-3 times per week. The clinical data proves consistency (5-7x/wk) is key with retinoid usage.

Both retinol and retinaldehyde are great options for people who have sensitive skin. Personally, I have found retinaldehydes to be better tolerated than retinols in the majority of my patients — and an added bonus is that retinaldehyde is gentle enough to be used around the eyes and on the neck + chest. RetinAL Skin Therapy is our favorite retinaldehyde that also has antioxidants and peptides in it.



Why you should even use a retinoid at all? Read more here!


Tips on how to start using retinoids:

    • Only use them at night and start with no more than 3 nights a week.
    • Wash your face, apply toner, Vitamin C, and any other serums you may use and then let your face completely dry.
    • Apply a small (pea sized) amount of the retinoid.
    • If you have very sensitive skin, mix with a moisturizer.
    • Your goal is to use it at least 5 nights a week, but start with 3. Don’t add an additional night of use until your skin feels completely back to normal with the consistent 3 nights a week of usage.
    • Your skin will flake, feel dry, and have some sensitivity. That is normal. Don’t stop using it or you will go through that every time you restart using retinoids.



Cue the sigh of relief — your skin will adjust if you consistently use 3 nights a week. See our full post on how to layer skincare products here!



    1. Clinical Interventions in Aging, December 2006, pages 327-348.
    2. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, August 2019, pages 392-397.

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