What Is The Difference Between Retinol, Retinoid, Vitamin A, and Retinoic Acid

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Breaking down The Differences Between Retinol, Retinoid, Vitamin A, and  Retinoic Acid.  How, when, and who should use Vitamin As. | Vitamin A Skin Care by popular Monterey beauty blog, Haute Beauty Guide: image of various skincare products.

Vitamin A skin care products worked its way into my beauty routine sometime in my 20s and has been a constant companion over the years. It is the one item I use regularly no matter what. When people compliment my skin I inform them that it is all because of retinol/retinoid. But, why does it matter so much in a skincare routine? Plus, how do you know which formula to pick? Let’s break it down.

What Is The Difference Between Retinol, Retinoid, Retinoic Acid and Vitamin A

Retinol, Retinoid, Retinoic Acid are all forms of Vitamin A. So when people say vitamin A it can mean a whole host of different things.

Retinoids//Retinoic Acid

First up is Retinoids–PRESCRIPTION STRENGTH vitamin A or retinoic acid. You may see Tretinoin or Retin-A on your prescription but know that those are both branded forms of vitamin A. Retinoic acid is bioavailable to the skin–meaning, unlike retinol, retinoic acid does not need to be converted into by your skin at the cellular level into an acid. It already is one.

Retinoic Acid helps with cell turnover helping with the appearance of texture, wrinkles, and dark spots, and is used as a major powerhouse against acne. Not only does it unclog pores but helps improve collagen density. It also helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen. Many studies have shown retinoic acid helping strengthen blood vessels. However, it takes three to six months of regular use before improvements in wrinkles are apparent—and the best results take six to 12 months.

Retinoic Acid is only available in the US as a prescription and comes in many strengths I advise talking to a Derm or Derm NP for where to start with YOUR skin. I use Alpha Medical for telemedical dermatology visits for Tretinoin and Latisse! A quick zoom or text and pharmacy deliver right to your door.


Retinol is not retinoic acid—retinol works because it converts to retinoic acid; Retinol is two (sometimes 3 if you count retinol esters) conversions away from retinoic acid and comes in many forms and strengths. This isn’t a bad thing at all it just takes a little longer to get the job done than retinoic acid. Retinols work on the same conditions and problem spots as vitamin A. One major difference between the two– retinol does not require prescriptions and is easily found in many skincare products at the beauty counters in the US.

When and How To use Retinol and Retinoic Acid

Retinols and Retinoic acid are used similarly but there are a few differences.

Both retinol and retinoic acid are used on CLEAN skin at NIGHTTIME. Apply it first before any other products. Make sure your skin is completely dry before applying. Water on the skin can allow the vitamin a to absorb too quickly and cause severe irritations. After applying wait 20 minutes before doing anything else. I like to liken it to a mask. Just let it sit and do its thing before going in with your other serums or creams. Follow up with soothing creams

To avoid a strong reaction start with every third night. Then move up to every other night and eventually if your skin can tolerate it every night. With prescription vitamin A I can only ever do every three nights. With over-the-counter, I can go in every night with no problem! Watch your skin and pull back if excessive shedding or soreness occurs.

ALWAYS follow up the next morning with a quick cleanse, serums, moisturizers, and LOADS of SPF!! Your skin will be photosensitive. See more skincare routines here.

A few ingredients to avoid while using Vitamin A. Vitamin C and A do not play well together. I like to save Vitamin C for mornings only and Vitamin A at night. With prescription strength Vitamin A I avoid AHAs and BHAs at night. Or I alternate nights. I’ll use an acid toner in the morning and follow up with vitamin c most times. Less is more with Vitamin A. It really does a whole bunch of things so no need to add in unnecessary steps that may negate or irritate your skin’s work.

Do you use any Vitamin A skin care products? Let me know in a product below!