Tretinoin vs Retinol: What are the Differences Between Them?

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Retinol and tretinoin are retinoids. That is, they are compounds that come from vitamin A. While they do have some similarities, both these retinoids are different.

If you think they’re the same product, you’re not alone. It’s quite common to confuse one with the other. That is because tretinoin for skin care mostly comes under the brand name Retin-A. Many people confuse it with the similar-sounding Retinol.

If you’re wondering how the two differ from one another, we’ve got you covered. Let’s uncover tretinoin vs retinol along with the benefits and side effects.

But before doing that, let’s understand them individually.

What is Tretinoin or Retin-A?

Also known as Retin-A, tretinoin is a prescription medicine used to treat acne-prone and sun-damaged skin. It has been the subject of numerous scientific analyses, primarily investigating its use in anti-aging. You can find it in gel or cream form used topically.

What is Retinol?

It is a sought-after active ingredient in skin care products. Unlike its counterpart, retinol doesn’t require a prescription. Thus, you’d find it in many OTC skincare and beauty products.

This collagen-boosting ingredient helps you achieve smoother, softer, and brighter skin. Retinol is famous in the skincare industry because it resolves ageing related concerns.

Let’s get into tretinoin vs retinol now that you have a fair idea about them.

Differences Between Tretinoin and Retinol

When it comes to tretinoin vs retinol, these are some key differences that you should know.

1. Prescription vs OTC

The main difference between tretinoin and retinol is that one is prescription-based while the other is on OTC availability.

Unlike tretinoin, retinol is found in various skin care products available over the counter. If you enter any drugstore or departmental store, there are high chances you’d find personal care products containing retinol.

Conversely, tretinoin is only available by prescription. That is because it is stronger than retinol. In fact, tretinoin is 20 times stronger than retinol.

2. Fast Acting vs Slow Acting

When it comes to retinol vs tretinoin, retinol is the milder of the two. It takes longer to impact your skin. That is because when you apply retinol to your skin, enzymes are required to convert it into retinoic acid. The latter has potent anti-aging properties and helps improve skin tone. However, this process is time-consuming, making it slow-acting.

You can think of tretinoin as a more concentrated version of retinol. Thus, it is fast-acting in nature.

3. More vs Less Side Effects

As mentioned earlier, tretinoin is more concentrated and potent than retinol. That is why its application can have more drastic results. That is, you may face more side effects. Retinol is comparatively safer and has fewer side effects.

What Are the Benefits of Using Tretinoin and Retinol ?

Due to their many similarities, retinol and tretinoin share numerous benefits. Here are some of the benefits of retinol and retinoic:

A. Pro-Aging Support

Both these Retinoids help even skin tone and reduce fine wrinkles. They do so by stimulating the production of new blood vessels in the skin. Thus, they act as pro-aging support for people. However, improvements in wrinkles are only apparent after three to six months of regular use.

B. Help Treat Acne

According to a 2017 study, topical retinoids are immensely effective in treating acne. That is because they can unclog pores by boosting the production of new skin cells.

Topical retinoids also block several vital inflammatory pathways that get activated with acne. These include the AP-1 pathway, leukocyte migration, and toll-like receptors. Most people use tretinoin and retinol on skin for this purpose.

C. Improve Skin Elasticity

A 2016 study confirmed that both tretinoin and retinol on skin help increase collagen production. It leads to many health benefits, including improved skin elasticity.

What Are the Side Effects of Tretinoin and Retinol?

Tretinoin is a stronger retinoid and may cause more side effects than retinol. But much like their benefits, these Retinols also share some side effects. Read on to learn about the side effects of retinol and tretinoin.

1. Irritation

If you’re using a Retinoid cream, caution is a must. That is because they irritate the application site, especially if you use these at high concentrations. You must be careful while applying these around your eyes or mouth.

2. Pregnancy Risks

Due to their high levels of vitamin A, retinoids are exceedingly dangerous for an unborn child. According to the FDA, oral retinoids could cause congenital disabilities if taken during pregnancy. That is why you must consult a doctor about using Retinoid creams.

3. Hyperpigmentation

Another side effect of retinol and tretinoin on skin is hyperpigmentation. They appear as patches of dark skin marks, particularly during the first two weeks of use.

4. Photosensitivity

Avoid sun exposure when using Retinoid creams, even if applied at night. As per a 2021 review, retinoids increase sunburn risk and might make skin sensitive.

How To Prevent The Side Effects

Managing any side effects occurring from using retinol and tretinoin on skin is straightforward. For starters, it’s vital that you consult a specialist (dermatologist) beforehand. That is because you’d get a specialised prescription, along with a list of things to avoid.

Whichever retinoid you choose, using sunscreen is a must. Try opting for a sunscreen with an SPF over 30 to prevent side effects of retinol and tretinoin. Besides, try using the chosen retinoid around two to three times a week in the beginning. It’d allow you to observe how your skin reacts to it.

Which One Should You Choose and Why?

When it comes to choosing between retinol and tretinoin, it all boils down to your skincare goals. Ask yourself if you’re looking for a general skin care product or one that helps you manage a particular condition.

Read on to know about when to choose retinol and when to pick tretinoin.

General Skin Care

If you’re looking to stave off signs of aging or give your skin a slight boost, retinol for face is the practical choice. As it has a lower concentration, retinol’s irritation is less likely to be severe.

You can look for retinol for skin care in leave-on treatments like creams, moisturizers, serums, and eye treatments. If you don’t see the desired results after two to three months, you can always switch to a higher percentage of retinol on skin cream.

Acne, Scars, and Wrinkles

For concerns like blackheads, acne, deeper lines, and pigmentation, tretinoin will give more bang for your buck in retinol vs tretinoin. However, you’d have to visit a doctor to get a prescription for the same.

That said, the high concentration of tretinoin tends to make its side effects more pronounced. Therefore, it’d be helpful to consider that before taking the last call.


Retinol and tretinoin are used in topical creams to treat various skin conditions. Though they are similar and often get confused with each other, these retinoids aren’t the same.

Both have proved effective in preventing breakouts and fighting signs of aging.

Compared to retinol, tretinoin is far more concentrated. For this reason, the latter acts faster and shows drastic results. On the flip side, its side effects can be drastic as well. That is why you can only get it using a prescription.

On the other hand, retinol for face is available over the counter as it is milder. You can use it for minor skin concerns or for providing a slight boost to your skin. However, it’s important to consult a dermatologist before including either in your skincare routine.

FAQs On Tretinoin vs Retinol

Q1. How much stronger is tretinoin than retinol?

Tretinoin is about 20 times stronger than retinol for skin. This is because tretinoin for face contains a type of vitamin A that acts directly on the skin to boost cell renewal.

Q2. Is it okay to put moisturizer over retinol?

Yes, it is. Regardless of your skin type, applying a layer of moisturizer post using retinol on skin is essential.

Q3. What is better for wrinkles, retinol or tretinoin?

When it comes to wrinkles or acne, tretinoin on skin is better. It is more potent and shows faster results compared to retinol.

Q4. At what age should I start retinol?

Mid-twenties or early thirties are a great time to start retinol for face.

Q5. Is tretinoin sold with different names as well?

Yes, tretinoin for face is sold under various names in the market. Some of these include Avita, Altreno, and Atralin. But you’d mostly find it under the brand name Retin-A.

Q6. Is retinol sold with different names as well?

It is. You can find retinol for face under different names in the market. Some of them include retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate.

Q7. Is tretinoin available by prescription or over the counter?

Unlike retinol, available over the counter (OTC), you can only get tretinoin for face via a prescription. It is a far more potent retinoid that can cause side effects. Thus, it’s prescription only.