Tretinoin vs. retinol: what's the difference?
If you’ve explored the world of skincare, you probably have heard the infamous “R-word”—a.k.a., retinoids.
Known for their skin-renewing powers, retinoids come with many claims and reviews (some true, some misleading). But what makes these ingredients so special? And between all of your options, which retinoid may be right for you?
Today, we’re going to break down two of the most popular retinoids—tretinoin vs. retinol. From wrinkle reduction to side effects, read on to learn the difference between retinol and tretinoin.
Benefits of tretinoin vs. retinol
Overall, tretinoin and retinol are more similar than different. That’s because they are both topical retinoids—a category of skincare ingredients related to vitamin A.
Retinoids are used to improve the skin’s health, texture, and appearance. From mild topicals to high-strength pills, retinoids cover an entire family tree of products, including:
While all retinoids are related, each has a specific strength and purpose for skincare. Some target severe acne, while others lightly brighten skin. Unlike adapalene or bexarotene, tretinoin and retinol are both “first generation” retinoids, created to reduce skin issues like acne, wrinkles, and dullness.
However, there is a difference between tretinoin and retinol. Let’s explore the main benefits that you may see from these two topical retinoids.
Think of retinol as the laidback little sister of the retinoid family. Gentle and accessible, this topical formula is often the gateway to retinoids and their benefits.
As the mildest topical retinoid, retinol can address mild to moderate skin issues. Studies show that regular use of retinol can help improve:
By treating skin gently, retinol usually comes with fewer side effects than tretinoin. Sensitive skin may prefer this mild option to avoid potential irritation. On the flipside, retinol’s mild activity requires a longer wait time—most formulas take months to show results.
Another benefit of retinol? It’s available over-the-counter. From 0.25% to 1% concentrations, you can find OTC retinol in drugstore skin care products like eye creams, moisturizers, and serums.
Like retinol, tretinoin works to rejuvenate and revitalize your skin. However, it’s high-power formulas can tackle a wider range of skin issues beyond just skin aging, including:
Additionally, tretinoin works at a faster rate than retinol. Research shows that tretinoin produces positive skin changes usually after just a few weeks. However, tretinoin’s potent formula can create skin irritation and side effects.
How tretinoin & retinol work
When applied to the skin, retinol and tretinoin both create positive changes deep below the surface. They accomplish this through the universal superpower of retinoids—skin cell turnover.
Your epidermis (the top layer of your skin) sheds dead skin cells to make way for healthy new skin cells. Topical retinoids quicken this process, pushing new skin cells to the front. As a result, your skin grows healthier from the inside out. This is also where skin texture, sun damage, dark spots, etc. are targeted and treated. By boosting skin cell turnover, both tretinoin and retinol improve:
Acne – From blackheads to nodules, acne is the result of excess skin oil (sebum), bacteria, irritation, and clogged pores. Retinoids treat acne by pushing dead skin cells to shed, keeping your pores unblocked. Similarly, both retinol and tretinoin can reduce your skin’s sebum production.
Tone and coloration – Discoloration and dullness are the result of damaged or dead skin cells building up over time. By encouraging natural exfoliation, retinoids can even skin tone and keep your appearance “glowy.” In particular, tretinoin’s high-power epidermal turnover leads to your skin producing new cells and can cut down your risk of developing clogged pores that turn into comedones or other types of acne.
Wrinkles and fine lines – Collagen and elastin are the building blocks of healthy skin, adding volume and elasticity. With age, these skin proteins naturally decrease. Research shows that retinoids can restore this fullness by increasing collagen and elastin stores. Using retinol or tretinoin for wrinkles has become increasingly popular to prevent early signs of aging.
Tretinoin vs. retinol activity
When comparing the chemistry of tretinoin vs. retinol, there’s one major difference—their bioactivity.
All retinoids fall under one of two categories, active or inactive. Tretinoin is an active retinoid, meaning it’s already in the form of retinoic acid. This makes it easy for your skin to absorb, speeding up its effectiveness (and its potential side effects).
On the other hand, retinol is an inactive retinoid.When applied, retinol requires your skin enzymes to metabolize it into retinoic acid. This slows retinol’s effects, typically adding months onto your before-and-after timeline.
Tretinoin vs. retinol strength
Both tretinoin and retinol can create healthier, stronger, and brighter skin. However, the main difference between tretinoin and retinol comes down to their strength.
Most topical retinoids come in different concentrations. This helps personalize the right treatment for your skincare, from gentler to stronger formulas. Both prescription or topical tretinoin and retinol offer different concentrations. For over-the-counter retinol treatments, you’ll likely find:
Since tretinoin is a much more potent retinoid, its formulas contain much smaller concentrations. The most commonly prescribed tretinoin concentrations include:
Whether you pick retinol or tretinoin, you may want to start at a lower concentration. Jumping into stronger formulas can create worse side effects. Consult with your dermatologist to determine the best option for you. Give your skin time to adjust to the powers of retinoids (a process called retinization).
Between tretinoin and retinol, there’s usually an option that fits your skin’s needs best. Let’s explore how each topical solution’s power affects the skin:
Speed – Readily absorbed as retinoic acid, tretinoin gets to work immediately on your skin. Most people will see visible results anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months on tretinoin. Retinol, on the other hand, requires metabolization by your skin enzymes. This means real results usually appear only after six to twelve months.
Severity – Research shows that retinoic acid (tretinoin) is about twenty times more powerful than retinol when applied. That makes tretinoin more useful for tough skin issues like hormonal acne or melasma. However, retinol takes a gentler approach, making it suitable for sensitive skin. As a general rule, retinol treats mild skin issues while tretinoin treats severe skin issues.
Availability – Due to its mild strength, you can find retinol in almost any drugstore. However, tretinoin requires a doctor-approved prescription. Otherwise, users might risk damaging their skin with its strong formula. You can also receive retinol in prescription-strength doses, but many people opt for tretinoin at that point.
Side effects – Tretinoin may give you major results, but perhaps at the cost of some (temporary) side effects. In the first few weeks of use, topical retinoids often irritate the skin, creating dryness, redness, and even acne purging. The stronger the retinoid, the harsher the initial side effects. Keep in mind that these side effects usually fade after two or three weeks.
Risks and side effects
Even when mild, retinoids are some serious skincare products. Without the right precautions or care, they can leave you with frustrations, or worse, damaged skin. When picking between tretinoin vs. retinol, consider these side effects and risks for each topical.
You might’ve heard horror stories about retinoid side effects—everything from snake-like shedding to breakouts. However, just know that all side effects are normal and temporary.
Most people will have to walk through the “retinoid darkness” before they see the light. For the first few weeks of retinoid use, your skin needs time to adjust to the boosted turnover rate. This may result in noticeable side effects like:
No matter your skin type, use of retinol or tretinoin can result in these effects. When it comes to side effects, milder retinol has an advantage over tretinoin. Research shows that more people tolerate the use of retinol over tretinoin for the first weeks of use. Sensitive skin or beginners may prefer starting on retinol to avoid discomfort. However, some people may be able to tolerate tretinoin’s higher strength.
Just remember—retinoid side effects will fade, whether from tretinoin or retinol. Don’t let initial side effects stop you from consistent use.
Your skin might feel a little uncomfortable on its first weeks of retinol or tretinoin. However, you should not feel in pain.
As powerful skin medications, topical retinoids can occasionally create strong reactions (although it’s quite rare, especially for retinol). If you experience any of these severe side effects, immediately contact a medical professional:
All of these signs may signal an allergic reaction. Similarly, try to avoid skincare products that may cause the same side effects as retinoids. Ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, AHA/BHA, vitamin C, and salicylic acid can exacerbate the irritative effects of retinoids.
Finding healthy skin with Favor
When choosing an acne treatment or skincare products, it can be tough to figure out what works for you. However, between tretinoin or retinol, you can likely find a solution that strengthens, brightens, and clears your skin.
Interested in stepping up your retinoid game? Favor can help you out.
Our pharmacy can deliver prescription-strength skincare (including tretinoin, if prescribed) to your door. With professional guidance, we can build a customized routine that addresses your needs—all for affordable prices. When you join the Favor skincare community, you can receive:
We believe quality skincare treatment should be accessible for all. Whether through insurance or out of pocket, you can reach your healthiest skin yet with Favor. Sign up today to join the Favor community.