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Retinol vs Tretinoin

Both tretinoin and retinol are types of retinoids, which are a class of chemical compounds related to vitamin A. Retinoids are used in a variety of skincare products to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and other visible signs of aging.

While both retinol and tretinoin will address aging skin when it comes to retinol vs tretinoin, which is better?

Woman in white bathrobe applying retinol face cream from a jar

In general, retinol would be better the better choice for those with easily irritated, sensitive, or dry skin. Alternatively, prescription tretinoin could be the better option for those with severe cases of acne or visible sun damage and for skin that is more tolerant to more potent skincare actives.

This article will cover the differences between retinol and tretinoin and which option could work best for your skin type.

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Woman in robe and hair towel holding jar of face cream and touching face

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a family of compounds that are vitamin A derivatives. Retinoids are available in various forms over-the-counter (OTC) and can be obtained with or without a doctor’s prescription.

Retinoids can be derived either synthetically or naturally from vitamin A.

Both over-the-counter retinol products and prescription-strength retinoids have been shown to improve the appearance of acne, wrinkles, rough skin texture, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots.

  • Retinol, which can be derived from both synthetic and natural sources, is a less potent form of retinoid that is found in over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products.
  • Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid or all-trans-retinoic acid, is a form of vitamin A that is the all-star anti-ager and is available by prescription only.

Benefits of Retinol

Retinol chemical structure diagram

There are many benefits of retinol, which is why it has become so popular to address the visible signs of aging! Some of the top benefits include:

  • Evens Skin Tone: Retinol helps to balance the skin tone, fading hyperpigmentation, and dark spots and provides the appearance of smooth, soft skin.
  • Improves Skin Texture: Retinol boosts collagen production, resulting in the skin having more structure and strength. This reduces the dull, dry look of dead skin.
  • Improves Cell Turnover: Retinol improves skin cell turnover, which helps to prevent signs of aging and maintain a youthful quality to the skin.
  • Reduces Acne: As retinol decreases the function of overactive oil glands, it helps to unclog pores, which in turn, reduces acne. Along with preventing breakouts, it also helps pores to look smaller, and when it is used alongside other skincare treatments, it can boost the potency of active ingredients in other acne-fighting medications.
  • Improves Skin Firmness: Retinol can also help to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and skin laxity. It slows down the enzyme which breaks down elastin.
  • Reduces The Effects Of Sun Damage: The antioxidants in retinol are great at fighting free radical damage, repairing sun-damaged skin and lightening dark spots, which helps to reduce the many effects of sun damage.

Benefits of Tretinoin

Tretinoin chemical structure diagram

Tretinoin works in a similar way to retinol and provides similar, yet heightened, benefits. These include:

  • Increases Cell Turnover:  Tretinoin speeds up skin cell turnover so that the skin can replace dull, dead skin cells. This brightens the skin and reduces the appearance of dulness, fine lines and wrinkles as well as rough skin.
  • Reduces Acne: Tretinoin is an excellent compound for treating acne as it normalizes keratinization and removes dead skin cells before they have the chance to form comedones and attract acne-causing bacteria. It can also reduce sebum (oil) production in your skin.
  • Evens Skin Tone: Similar to retinol, tretinoin helps to balance uneven skin tone and even out redness, resulting in a more even skin tone.
  • Calms Inflammation: Tretinoin helps to decrease inflammation in the skin, and reduces the inflammation caused by acne, such as swelling and irritation.
  • Reduces Signs Of Aging: Tretinoin is an excellent substance for reducing signs of aging by minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, along with preventing lines from forming in the first place.
  • Reduces Acne Scars: Tretinoin helps to diminish acne scars by triggering collagen production, which helps to smooth over the appearance of textured acne scars.

Retinol vs Tretinoin: Differences

Tretinoin, sometimes referred to as Retin-A (a brand name), is similar to retinol because it is also a retinoid. They both stimulate collagen and elastin production and can produce fantastic anti-aging results when used on the skin. 

While retinol or tretinoin can be an effective acne treatment, tretinoin is more effective at reducing acne than retinol. This is because it does not need to be converted to retinoic acid before it can be put to use in your skin. In fact, studies show that retinol is 20 times less potent than tretinoin.

Retinol needs two conversions before it is available in its active form:

Retinol —>> Retinaldehyde —>> Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin)

Retinol first needs to be converted into retinaldehyde, which then converts into retinoic acid. This is why it is less effective than prescription retinoids like tretinoin, which is already available in its active form.

Topical tretinoin is an FDA-approved retinoid to treat acne and photoaging of the skin, including wrinkles, skin roughness, and hyperpigmentation. It also takes less time to see visible results with tretinoin than retinol.

Another main difference between the two is that you can purchase retinol as an over-the-counter skincare treatment, whereas tretinoin is a substance that can only be dispensed as a prescription from your dermatologist or doctor.

Since tretinoin is prescription-strength and is a more potent active, it will have stronger side effects than retinol, such as irritation, redness, flaking, peeling, dryness, and scaling.

How to Use Retinol and Tretinoin

Woman in white shirt holding a glass jar of skin cream. Right index finger covered in moisturizer. Shallow depth of field with focus on moisturizer.

Regardless of whether you are using retinol or tretinoin, you should start out slowly. Both retinoids have dryness as a side effect, which makes moisturizing before or after application even more important.

Both actives should be used in your evening skincare routine only, as they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays.

If the retinol you are using is too strong for your skin, you may consider applying it after your nightly moisturizer to reduce its strength.

For over-the-counter retinoids like retinol, consider following the well-known rule of thumb by applying once a week for one week, twice a week for two weeks, three times a week for three weeks, and then increasing to daily usage if your skin can tolerate it.

If you start to experience dryness, flaky peeling skin, irritation, or discomfort, decrease the frequency of application until your skin adjusts.

Since tretinoin is a prescription, follow the application instructions of your dermatologist or physician.

You should stop applying retinoids for at least a week before getting a facial, laser treatment, or chemical peel. This is because they increase your skin’s sensitivity and cause irritation.

In some cases, topical retinoids can result in swelling, blistering, stinging, and acne or eczema flare-ups. If you experience any discomfort, you should talk to your dermatologist.

Retinol vs Tretinoin: The Showdown


  • Type of ingredient: Retinoid
  • Main benefits: Boosts collagen production, increases cell turnover, treats acne, improves skin tone and texture, reduces the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and sun damage.
  • Who should use it: Retinol benefits most skin types, but is especially great for those with aging and mature skin. Retinol should not be used by those with eczema, rosacea, or those who are pregnant. If you have dry skin or sensitive skin, retinol is the better choice between retinol and tretinoin.
  • How often to use it: Once a week to start, and slowly increase until it is tolerated every night or every other night.
  • Use with: Niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and peptides.
  • Do not use with: Other potent actives, vitamin C, physical face scrubs, chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid or lactic acid, beta hydroxy acids (BHA) like salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide.


  • Type of ingredient: Retinoid
  • Main benefits: Evens skin tone and texture, boosts collagen production, increases cell turnover, treats acne, regulates oil production, reduces the appearance of sun damage, and minimizes fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Who should use it: Those with acne-prone skin or concerns about the visible signs of aging. Tretinoin should not be used by those with eczema, rosacea, or those who are pregnant.
  • How often to use it: Follow the instructions of your dermatologist or physician.
  • Use with: Hyaluronic acid and hydrating cleansers and moisturizers.
  • Do not use with: Other potent actives, vitamin C, physical face scrubs, chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid or lactic acid, beta hydroxy acids (BHA) like salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide.

**Please note that you should also apply sunscreen daily when using either tretinoin or retinol. Be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30, stay out of the sun at peak hours, and wear a broad-brim hat when outside.

The Bottom Line: Retinol vs Tretinoin

Both retinol and tretinoin can produce excellent skincare results and can be great additions to your anti-aging skincare routine. The younger you start, the more preventative you can be.

A more gentle over-the-counter retinoid like retinol is a great option for some people. From there, you can speak to a dermatologist to find out whether they would then be a good candidate for the more potent options.

Tretinoin could be the best option for those with acne or more intense signs of sun damage.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, here’s to your good skin health!