Retin-A and Retinol: Are They Different?

Skincare and cosmetics are some of the largest industries in the world. With so many different products stocking shelves and taking over social media ads, it can be hard to know what the right products are for you. You can help make this decision a little easier by understanding how different ingredients work.

Key takeaways:
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    Retinoids are an umbrella term for products containing synthetic or natural forms of vitamin-A.
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    Retinol and Retin-A are the most common forms of retinoids.
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    Retinol, which is available OTC, is useful for reducing signs of aging and treating mild acne.
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    Retin-A is only available with a prescription and is used to treat moderate to severe acne.
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    Retin-A works faster but comes with a higher risk of side effects. Retinol is better for overall skin maintenance.

A good place to start is looking at the differences between two of the most common products out there: Retin-A vs retinol.

Retinoids – what are they?

Retinoids have been used since the early 1970s when a medication called tretinoin was approved by the U.S. FDA as a topical acne treatment. But that’s not all they’re useful for.

Retinoids are an umbrella term for skincare products that contain some form of vitamin-A. Most are topical, but there is also an oral medication on the market that’s used to treat severe acne. While they started as an acne treatment, retinoids are useful for addressing all sorts of skincare concerns thanks to their ability to boost collagen production and skin cell turnover rate.

Their vitamin-A-packed powers make them an incredible tool for treating everything from acne to fine lines and wrinkles to improving skin tone. Two of the most commonly used topical retinoids are Retin-A and retinol.

What is Retin-A?

With so many different terms being thrown around, it can be difficult to understand what’s what. Let’s clear up some of the confusion. Retin-A is the brand name of the medication tretinoin.

They are both only available as a prescription due to their strong concentrations of a synthetic form of vitamin A. Tretinoin is also sold as tazarotene and adapalene, although you can get adapalene OTC in a more mild concentration.

What is retinol?

Retinol, or retinoic acid, on the other hand, is a natural form of Vitamin A that can be found in OTC. You can find retinol in different types of skincare products including moisturizers, serums, creams, and acne treatments.

Retin-A vs retinol: what is the difference?

Although they’re often used interchangeably, Retin-A and retinol are distinct products used to treat different skin conditions.

StrengthUsageVisible resultsAvailabilitySide effects
Retin-A0.1%, 0.5%, and 1%1–2 a week, slowly increasing usageImmediately, with noticeable differences in 6–8 weeksPrescription, less concentrated formulas are available OTCRedness, peeling, flaking, dryness, burning or stinging upon application
Retinol0.25%–1%Every other day, to every dayWithin 6 monthsOver the counterMinimal, slight risk of dryness or irritation

Benefits of Retin-A

Sometimes retinol just isn’t enough, that’s when people might turn to prescription strength Retin-A. This product is harder to get and requires a prescription but can be a game changer for people who need something more powerful.

Acne can not only affect someone’s self-esteem and confidence, but it can also be painful and uncomfortable. People with moderate to severe acne may need to try more potent products like Retin-A. Tretinoin is highly effective for people with inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne and has been one of the go-to products for treating acne for decades.

Retin-A helps to remove the buildup of dead skin cells while promoting the production of new ones. It offers a lot of the same benefits as retinol but is more powerful, which also means it has a higher risk of side effects. Still, Retin-A is an effective tool for reducing wrinkles and evening-out skin discoloration and hyperpigmentation.

Benefits of Retinol

One of the most obvious benefits of retinol is that it’s more accessible. Look at any beauty supply store and you’ll see a plethora of products containing this incredible ingredient. Why is retinol so popular?

Products containing retinol pack a punch. They are helpful for people of all ages, especially those with multiple skin concerns. It can be used to help treat mild to moderate acne and reduce pore size, making it great for young adults looking to get into a skincare routine.

It’s also great for people as they start to see signs of aging. Retinol helps to improve uneven skin tone and texture, increase skin elasticity and firmness, and help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Sun worshippers are fans of retinol thanks to its ability to reduce signs of sun damage and protect the skin from free radicals. Just be sure to protect your skin from the sun when you’re using any products containing retinol.

How to choose the right one?

Retin-A and retinol offer many of the same benefits thanks to their ability to remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and exfoliate, but they are different products. You should not mix these products, so how do you choose which one is right for you?

For wrinkles

Tretinoin tends to be more effective in reducing wrinkles when compared to retinol, but its increased strength can also make it more irritating. Retinol is still effective in reducing signs of aging and the appearance of sun damage.

People looking for a product with anti-aging properties are generally fine using retinol, which also has a lower risk of side effects and doesn’t require a prescription. One study showed no significant difference between retinol gels and creams in treating wrinkles and sun damage. Since retinol can dry the skin, it can be better to use a cream product, or if using a serum, be sure to moisturize as well.

For acne

Retinol can be great for mild acne, but people with moderate to severe acne can ask their provider if they’re a good candidate for prescription Retin-A. This is most often prescribed for people who have inflammatory, cystic acne.

Cystic acne causes pimples deep under the skin that are filled with pus. This painful type of acne is often resistant to other treatments, leading people to try prescription medications like retinol.

To keep the skin healthy

People who use Retin-A typically need it for more severe skin conditions, but its potential side effects mean the benefits don’t outweigh the risks for most people. If you’re looking for help in maintaining the general health of your skin, you’re best off reaching for a more mild skin care product containing retinol.

Not only is retinol widely available and much more affordable, but it can be used in the long term to treat a wide variety of skin concerns. Using retinol as part of your regular skincare routine can help with mild acne, manage signs of aging, and even out your skin’s tone and texture.

Are there any side effects of Retin-A and Retinol?

One of the most common side effects of using retinoids is that the skin becomes more sensitive to the sun, increasing your chance of getting sunburns and sun damage. You can help avoid this by:

  • Using these products as night-time skincare only.
  • Using sunscreen daily.
  • Cover your skin with protective clothing and a hat.

Other common side effects include redness and irritation, although these are more common with tretinoin. People with darker skin tones are more likely to experience hyperpigmentation as a result of irritation from using retinoids. This can typically be avoided by starting slowly with mild products and diligently using moisturizer.

How to get started with retinoids

It’s easy to want to dive in and get results fast, but retinoids are strong products that should be used carefully. When starting, opt for a mild formula, and use it every other night. From there, you can slowly build up your usage if you don’t experience any irritation.

To see the results and maintain the benefits of retinoids, you have to remember to use them regularly and continuously. You can enhance Retin-A’s skin-smoothing effects by using alpha hydroxy acids with them.

Because retinoids can be used to help treat a wide array of skin issues, many people start using them at a young age. Teens may see benefits from using retinol for moderate cases of acne, while people in their early 20s can use it preventatively as an anti-aging tool. While they are safe for teenagers to use, teens and young adults may want to use more mild products until they are in their mid to late twenties to help prevent unnecessary side effects.

Alternatives to retinoids

Retinoids can help address a myriad of skin concerns, but they’re not for everyone. These products should be avoided during pregnancy, as well as if you have:

  • Rosacea.
  • Moderate or severe acne scarring.
  • Hormonal acne.
  • Skin inflammation or redness.
  • Skin allergies.

Luckily there are quite a few alternatives out there for people who can’t use retinoids, including the following:

  • Vitamin B3. Reduces acne and promotes anti-aging.
  • Hyaluronic acid and vitamin C. It evens skin tone and texture.
  • Bakuchiol. Reduces signs of aging and improves skin texture and tone.
  • Beta-Hydroxy and Alpha Hydroxy acids. Improve skin texture and reduce acne.

Although many retinoid products are sold over the counter and in skincare stores, they can be strong products, especially if you have sensitive skin. If you’re unsure which retinoid products are right for you, consult a board-certified dermatologist to help figure out a skin care plan that works for your skin type and specific needs.


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