Types Of Retinoids: Which Is The Strongest? Pros and Cons


In this article, we'll make a guide to the different types of retinoids, from the mildest to the most potent, and weigh their pros and cons. Whether you're new to retinoids or seeking to switch up your skincare routine, this guide will help you make informed choices based on your skin's needs and goals. Let's talk about them and reveal their secrets to giving you the best skin possible.

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Retinoids vs. Retinols: What’s The Difference? 

Retinoids and retinol are two terms that often appear in skincare discussions. Retinoids encompass a range of compounds related to vitamin A, and retinol is simply one of them, but there are others, like Tretinoin, Retinyl Palmitate, or Adapalene. Let's talk about them in more depth:

Retinoids: is the umbrella term of chemical compounds derived from vitamin A. OTC retinoids are a class of non-prescription skincare products that contain milder forms of Vitamin A derivatives, like retinol and retinaldehyde. These formulations are readily available without the need for a doctor's prescription and are designed to address concerns like fine lines, uneven skin tone, and texture. Retinoids can also be prescribed, like tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene. Prescription-strength retinoids work directly with skin receptors, offering fast-acting effects. When it comes to Retinoids we must talk about their ability to accelerate skin cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and address concerns like acne and psoriasis, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation. Due to their strength, they can cause significant skin sensitivity and irritation, especially during the initial stages of use.

structure of the vitamin A-derived compound retinoid. 

Retinol: Retinol is a specific type of retinoid. It is considered a precursor to retinoic acid, which is the active form of vitamin A in the body. Retinol product is often used in skincare due to its potential to improve the appearance of skin by promoting cell turnover, stimulating collagen production, and reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots.

How Do Retinoids Work? What Are Retinoids Used For? 

Retinoids interact with specific skin receptors, producing multiple benefits within the skin at a deep level. These compounds have become synonymous with effective skincare: 

  • Promoting cell turnover, it replaces old and damaged skin cells with healthier ones.
  • It Enhance the skin texture, improves hyperpigmentation, and reduces fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Promote collagen and hyaluronic acid.
  • By stimulating collagen synthesis, they combat signs of aging and contribute to a more youthful appearance.
  • Retinoids are also used in skincare for the treatment of acne.

However, these skin-transforming effects come with a warning. The potency of some retinoids can initially cause sensitivity, redness, and peeling. To navigate or avoid these potential side effects and optimize outcomes, there are different forms of retinoids, some more gentle than others. In addition, gradual integration into a skincare regimen is advised.

 Young woman taking care of her skin and applying synthetic retinoids in the bathroom. Woman Trying Cream similar to Retinol. 

Most Read: Traditional vs Personalized vs Adaptive Cosmetics Comparison

Different Types of Retinol & Retinoids (all the forms)

The realm of retinoids is far from one-size-fits-all. From the powerhouse prescription formulations to the accessible over-the-counter variants, understanding the nuances of each type is essential for crafting a skincare regimen tailored to your needs.

There are different kinds of retinol and retinoids, each possessing pros and cons and unique properties and potencies. Let's try to give you some clarity: 

Topical Retinoids: Topical retinoids include both prescription and over-the-counter options, offering a range of strengths and suitability for various skin types. They generally require one conversion within the skin to become active. Here is the strongest topical retinoids list: 

  • Topical NON-Prescription Retinoids:

  1. Retinol: A milder form of retinoid available in various concentrations. It gradually converts to retinal before converting to retinoic acid.

  2. Retinaldehyde (or Retinal, with an A): Positioned between retinol and prescription retinoids in terms of potency, it provides effective results with reduced potential for irritation. It directly converts to retinoic acid.

  3. Retinyl Esters: It is a family of products that includes compounds such as retinyl palmitate. Often found in cosmetic products, this milder retinoid is suitable for sensitive skin or those new to retinoids. 

  • Topical Prescription Retinoids:
  1. Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid): A potent prescription retinoid that interacts directly with skin receptors. Tretinoin exhibits stronger skin cell turnover and efficacy in reducing wrinkles compared to retinol but it is also much more irritant.

  2. Adapalene: Available by prescription and as an over-the-counter retinoid, it's a third-generation retinoid effective for acne and skin texture improvement.

  3. Tazarotene: A prescription retinoid used for acne, psoriasis, and certain hyperpigmentation types. It targets retinoic acid receptors and strongly impacts skin cell turnover.

The choice depends on factors like skin sensitivity, desired results, and the guidance of a dermatologist in case you need to use retinol to treat an illness or severe skin condition. In most of cases, It's important to start slowly when incorporating retinoids into your routine and to wear sunscreen daily due to increased skin sensitivity to sunlight.

Non-Topical (Oral) Retinoids: These are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A that are taken orally, typically in the form of oral pills. Unlike their topical counterparts applied directly to the skin, oral retinoids work from within the body to influence various physiological processes. They should be prescribed by a doctor. 

  1. Isotretinoin (Accutane):  Isotretinoin is a retinoid that is available in both topical and oral forms. The oral form is commonly prescribed for severe acne, while the topical form can be used for specific cases under medical supervision.

  2. Acitretin: An oral retinoid used for severe psoriasis, helping to slow down the growth of skin cells.

  3. Bexarotene: An oral retinoid prescribed for certain types of skin cancer, acting by slowing the growth of cancer cells.

  4. Alitretinoin: An oral retinoid used for severe chronic hand eczema that hasn't responded to other treatments.

It's important to note that while topical retinoids are more versatile and have a more comprehensive range of uses, non-topical (oral) retinoids are usually reserved for specific severe conditions due to their stronger systemic effects and potential side effects. 

IMPORTANT: Retinoids, especially their oral forms, are teratogens, meaning they can cause fetal abnormalities. If you are pregnant, avoid its use and consult a dermatologist.

What Is The Best Form Of Retinoid For You? Pros and Cons table. 

Beautiful girl comparing which type of retinoid is best in the cosmetic shop. Woman choose between many skin care categories of retinoids. Woman choose between plant-based retinol and encapsulated retinol. 

The ideal form of retinoid depends on various factors, including your skin type, concerns, and sensitivity levels. Here's a guide to retinoids ' pros and cons and their different forms to help you make an informed decision:

Retinoid Type

Prescription Required

Retinoic acid or Tretinoin

  • High potency
  • Effective for acne treatment, fine lines, etc.
  • May cause significant initial irritation.
  • Requires gradual integration




  • Effective for acne and texture improvement
  • Generally milder but can still cause initial irritation


Depending on Concentration

Trifarotene and Tazarotene

  • Treats acne, psoriasis, hyperpigmentation
  • Strong impact on skin cell turnover
  • Can cause skin dryness, redness, and peeling




  • Highly effective for severe acne
  • Reduces oil production, inflammation
  • Strong side effects, including teratogenicity (oral form)

High (Oral)



  • Gradual conversion to an active form.
  • Less irritant than other forms
  • Slower results compared to prescription retinoids




  • Intermediate potency with less irritation than retinoic acid
  • Effective results for various concerns
  • May still cause initial sensitivity



Retinyl Palmitate

  • Mild and suitable for sensitive skin
  • Gentle introduction to retinoids
  • Slower and milder effects than prescription retinoid



Granactive Retinoid

  • Known for stability in formulations
  • Gentler than prescription retinoids
  • Efficacy can vary based on the formulation



Ultimately, the best form of retinoids for you depends on your skincare goals and how well your skin tolerates the chosen option. If you have concerns or uncertainties, consulting a dermatologist can help determine the most suitable form and concentration for your individual needs. Starting with a lower concentration and gradually increasing usage can help minimize potential side effects while achieving desired results.

At Lesielle, we offer two retinol active ingredient refills for our custom skincare system, one with a dosage of 0.3% (starting point) and the other with a dosage of 2%. That way, the skin can first get used to a lower amount and then gradually increase it. 

What Is The Strongest Retinoid?

The most potent retinoid in skincare is retinoic acid (tretinoin).

However, it's important to note that while retinoic acid is the strongest, it also tends to be associated with a higher potential for irritating the skin, dryness, redness, and peeling, especially during the initial stages of use. Due to its strength, retinoic acid is usually prescribed by dermatologists and requires careful application and monitoring. 

 If you're unsure about your skin type or what other active ingredients you should add to your daily routine, you can take this quiz to find out.

Dr Jenny Lui explains the efficiency of using retinoids and which one of the many forms is best for your skin. 

Frequent Asked Questions

As we have already explained in this article, retinol is a type of retinoid, so asking which is better doesn't really make much sense. Anyway,  it depends on your skin's needs and sensitivity. Retinoids like Retinoic Acid and Adapalene are potent and fast-acting. However, they often cause more initial irritation and require a prescription. Retinol, available over the counter, is milder and converts to active retinoic acid within the skin, leading to slower but generally better-tolerated results.

Retinoids are ideal for those seeking rapid, powerful effects, but they might not be suitable for sensitive skin. Retinyl Palmitate is a good starting point for those new to Vitamin A derivatives or with less tolerance for strong ingredients. The choice depends on your skin's characteristics and goals. Gradual integration into your routine, along with sunscreen use, is crucial regardless of your choice. Consulting a dermatologist can help you decide which option aligns with your skin's unique needs, helping you achieve the best results with minimal side effects.

If we are talking about skincare, the strongest prescription-only retinoid is typically Tazarotene or Retinoic Acid. Available in various concentrations under a doctor's prescription, Tazarotene is renowned for its potency in treating conditions like acne, psoriasis, and hyperpigmentation. The highest strength is often around 0.1%. It's crucial to follow your dermatologist's guidance, potentially starting with a lower concentration and gradually incorporating it into your skincare routine. 

No, salicylic acid is not a retinoid. It's a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) used for exfoliating the skin's surface and unclogging pores, primarily targeting acne and oil control. Retinoids, on the other hand, are Vitamin A derivatives that work deeper in the skin to address concerns like acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. While both are valuable as skin care products, they have distinct roles and mechanisms.

Adapalene is a type of retinoid known as a "third-generation" retinoid. It's specifically classified as a retinoid with a modulator effect on retinoic acid receptors, meaning it targets specific receptors in the skin to achieve its effects. Adapalene is commonly used in dermatology and skin care for its effectiveness in treating acne and improving overall skin texture.

Compared to earlier-generation retinoids like tretinoin, adapalene is often considered more tolerable for sensitive skin due to its selective targeting of certain receptors. It helps prevent the formation of acne lesions, reducing inflammation and promoting smoother skin. Adapalene is available in both prescription and over-the-counter formulations, making it a popular choice for those seeking a retinoid option with a balance between efficacy and tolerability.

Differin is the brand name for a topical medication containing adapalene, which is a type of retinoid. Adapalene is specifically classified as a third-generation retinoid with modulator effects on retinoic acid receptors. Differin is commonly used to treat acne by unclogging pores, reducing inflammation, and improving overall skin texture. It's available in both prescription and over-the-counter formulations, making it a popular choice for individuals seeking an effective and tolerable retinoid option for managing acne and other related skin concerns.

Topical retinoids, especially prescription ones, have a potential risk of being teratogenic, causing harm to a developing fetus during pregnancy. While the risk is generally lower than with oral retinoids, caution is advised. Pregnant individuals or those planning to conceive should consult a healthcare provider before using prescription-strength topical retinoids. It's essential to prioritize safety and discuss any skincare products or medications with a healthcare professional during pregnancy.

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