Retinol vs Tretinoin: What’s the Difference and Which One is Best for You?
If you’ve heard the words retinol and tretinoin being used in relation to skincare and anti-ageing, you might wonder what on earth the difference is between them.
Well, retinol and tretinoin are both retinoids. Retinoids are a form of vitamin A and help to even the skin, smooth fine lines and unclog pores. (Yes please, we’ll take all of that.)
But whilst they do belong under the same umbrella (retinoid) and have similar benefits, retinol and tretinoin are actually two different products. For a start, retinol is an over the counter option, whilst tretinoin is prescription only in the UK and USA.
Here, aestheticians Ian Michael Crumm and Rachel Lee Lozina, advanced aesthetics doctor Dr Sebastian Bejma and aesthetics nurse Nina Prisk help to demystify the differences and similarities between the two, along with their strengths (and dare I say it, risks).
The differences between tretinoin and retinol
- Prescription VS over the counter
So as we have established, ‘retinoid’ is the umbrella term for lots of different types of vitamin A. “This is a broad term that encompasses all vitamin A derivatives, including prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin and over-the-counter options like retinol,” explains Crumm. “Retinol is less potent than prescription-strength retinoids,” he adds.
You might have come across a few different names for retinol like ‘retinaldehyde’, “another over-the-counter option, considered intermediate in strength,” Crumm says. And ‘Retin-A’ for tretinoin, “a prescription-strength retinoid”.
Other prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin include ‘adapalene’ and ‘tazarotene’, both topical products.
- How they work
According to the experts, the skin uses tretinoin and retinol in very different ways. “Retinol needs to be converted into its active form, retinoic acid, by the skin,” explains Crumm.
Meanwhile, tretinoin is more concentrated therefore, “it is already in an active state, so when it’s applied to skin it starts to work immediately,” says Dr Bejma.
One study also found that retinol is 20 times less powerful than tretinoin.
- How long it will take to see results
Because of the differences in how they work, retinol can take longer to make a difference to the skin than tretinoin. “Usually, people who are looking for a more aggressive approach to skin will use tretinoin because it gets to work faster, giving faster results,” Prisk says.
“Whereas retinol is a more mild option so it’s less likely to cause the side effects that tretinoin can, which include dryness, irritation and sensitivity.”
The similarities between tretinoin and retinol
So, ultimately tretinoin and retinol provide similar results as they both fall under the ‘retinoid’ category.
And despite the difference their strengths and how they work, in studies tretinoin and retinol have consistently been shown to produce very similar results to each other over time on things like wrinkles, brightness, pigmentation and skin texture.
Here’s how both ingredients can benefit the skin.
- Anti-ageing: “Stimulates collagen production, reducing fine lines and wrinkles,” says Crumm.
- Acne treatment: “Helps unclog pores and prevent acne breakouts,” explains the expert.
- Skin firmness: Retinoids have also been shown to be able to improve skin laxity.
- Even skin tone: “Addresses hyperpigmentation and promotes a more even skin tone,” according to Crumm.
- Skin texture: ‘Improves skin texture by promoting cell turnover,” says the expert.
- Collagen synthesis: “Boosts collagen synthesis, improving skin elasticity,” he adds.
The risks of retinoids
Ok, ok, so there have to be some downfalls to such a multi-tasking ingredient. For example, some people react negatively to retinoids and notice dryness, redness and/or irritation. “If you experience redness, sensitivity or inflamed skin then it’s usually best to avoid retinoids and seek alternative ingredients,” Prisk says.
“Do not use retinoids if you’re pregnant or have sensitive skin, rosacea or eczema,” says Lozina. And you must be careful if you spend a lot of time outside too. “It’s crucial to use sunscreen during the day as retinoids can increase sensitivity to the sun,” Crumm explains.
“People who are chronically outside like surfers, gardeners etc who are exposed to the sun all day should also not use it,” warns Lozina.
Which one should you choose: Retinol or tretinoin?
There is no overall ‘better’ option when it comes to choosing between retinol or tretinoin because it’s always personal, according to the experts.
Anyone struggling with severe acne or signs of ageing– and whose skin isn’t sensitive- may respond well to tretinoin. While those with milder skin issues or sensitive skin may prefer a retinol, say the pros.
“It depends largely on your skin type and what you’re trying to achieve,” confirms Dr Bejma. “Tretinoin is typically better for people who have oilier skin which isn’t sensitive.”
Crumm adds, “Tretinoin is often recommended for more severe skin conditions, however retinol can still be effective for milder concerns and is more readily available without a prescription.”
Ultimately though, Lozina says a professional is the best person to help you make the decision. “Your skincare provider should ascertain what’s best for your skin,” she explains.
It’s easy to get retinoids mixed up and, let’s face it, it doesn’t help that terms like retinoid, retinol, Retin-A and retinaldehyde all sound the same. I mean come on, is it any wonder people get confused?
But remember it like this. Retinoid is the umbrella term. Everything under that umbrella provides a smoother, glowier, more even skin tone, and they can reduce fine lines and unclog pores.
It’s which path you go down from there that counts – retinol or tretinoin? Retinol can be bought from the shops because it’s milder. And you need to see a doctor to get hold of stronger prescription treatments like tretinoin and tazarotene.
Talk to a skincare professional if you’re confused about which one you should be exploring for your skin type. And remember, whichever one you apply, always wear sunscreen.
Meet the experts
Ian Michael Crumm is a celebrity aesthetican and beauty expert as well as co-host of the BeautyCurious podcast with Dr. Elyse Love. He is known for his passion for skincare and sun safety, is actively involved in philanthropic efforts to promote skin cancer awareness and believes that #ProtectedSkinWins.
Rachel Lee Lozina is a New York State Licensed Aesthetician, Laser Technician and Oncology Aesthetician and Founder of Blue Water Spa in Oyster Bay, NY.
Dr Sebastian Bejma is known as a trailblazer in Skin Tech and the owner of Bejma Medical Clinic in Leeds. Harnessing 15 years of experience as a doctor, he utilises his impeccable knowledge of innovative technology to revolutionise skincare, anti-ageing, pre-juvenation and rejuvenation.
Nina Prisk is an aesthetic nurse prescriber and owner of Update Aesthetics Cosmetic Clinics, both in London’s Harley Street and Cornwall. Prisk is a lecturer and ambassador for global industry brands. She advocates for the importance of a multi-faceted regime that incorporates both injectables and skincare products. Qual: RGN, INP, BSc, MSc.