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Retin-A Vs Retinol: What Is The Difference?

by | Anti-aging

Finding the right skincare products can be challenging. Deciphering the ingredient list is often confusing and it becomes even more complicated when the names sound so similar. Retinoids. Retin-A. Retinol…. What are they and how are they different?

In this article, we will discuss Retin-A Vs Retinol. How all these ingredients are related and how to tell them apart by getting to know their differences.


What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are made up of vitamin A which makes them favorites in the world of skincare. They are known to increase collagen production and have anti-aging benefits. Sometimes retinoids are also used medicinally for the regulation of epithelial cell growth.

Retin A Vs Retinol 2 | Cosmetic Injectables Center Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, California

Here are some of the thing’s retinoids can do if used regularly:

  • Improve skin tone
  • Enhance skin texture
  • Enrich overall complexion
  • Increase elasticity of the skin through elastin production
  • Tighten the skin
  • Reduce pores
  • Stimulate collagen
  • Enhance skin cell turnover

For these reasons, retinoids are ideal for preventing and even helping reverse early signs of aging. Cosmetic providers will prescribe retinoids for acne because they are effective at unclogging pores and accelerating cell regeneration.

Retinol and Retin-A (both known as retinoic acid or tretinoin) are the two most common skincare retinoids created from vitamin A. They are all part of a great first-generation subtype, but retinol and Retin-A are very different individuals. To help elucidate the relationships of these products, first, you must understand that there are three different generations of retinoids.

  • First-generation: retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, isotretinoin, and alitretinoin.
  • Second generation: etretinate and its metabolite acitretin.
  • Third generation: adapalene, bexarotene, and tazarotene.

In this article, we will be focusing more on the first-generation products.

What Is Retinol?

So now we know that retinol is a type of the first-generation retinoid, but what is it exactly, and what makes it different from Retin-A?

Retinol is a precursor form of vitamin A, which after getting absorbed by the skin, has to be converted by enzymes inside cells into the active Retin-A form. It is often gentler and less strong in efficacy. Retinol is found in many over the counter beauty products used to combat aging. Using products with retinol can help make your skin look softer, smoother, and more luminous. Scientists suggest retinol may also help prevent wrinkles and laugh lines. Plus, retinol doesn’t require a prescription and its side effects are rare and mild.

The conversion of retinol into retinoic acid doesn’t happen instantly. It can take a long time and the process itself depends on lots of different factors.

These factors include:

  • The percentage of retinol in the product
  • The quality of the retinol (Is your product new? Has it been opened?)
  • You. Interestingly, some people convert retinol more quickly than others, meaning they get faster results.

All of these factors combined mean that retinol isn’t a quick fix miracle. Results can take six months or more to appear. However, the results from using retinol containing products are cumulative, so the longer you use it the better results you will see. It’s important to remember that while retinol is a great ingredient to add to your skincare routine, it isn’t going to result in instant miracles. In fact, depending on your skin type, you might not see dramatic results with retinol and may require prescriptions strength Retin-A.

How Is Retin-A Vs Retinol?

Retin-A is the brand name for the medication tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid. (These 3 names are synonymous and we will be using these terms interchangeably.) Tretinoin is an already active form of vitamin A that can be acquired only with a prescription. Dermatologists commonly prescribe Retin-A to treat inflammatory acne and comedonal breakouts. Comedonal breakouts are acne breakouts that happen at hair follicles with skin-colored or dark bumps.

Retin-A is also used to treat fine lines and wrinkles and to brighten complexion similar to retinol, but stronger. Retin-A can also be used to fade hyperpigmentation and dark spots caused by acne breakouts or sun damage.

Tretinoin (AKA Retin-A and retinoic acid) is already an active form of retinoids, so you won’t have to wait for your skin to convert it as you would with retinol. Therefore, Retin-A is stronger, works faster, and delivers more powerful results than retinol products. Improvements can be seen in as few as six to eight weeks.

However, Retin-A strength also means you’re more likely to notice side effects like dryness, redness, burning, peeling, and flaking than you would with retinol products. With more noticeable results, higher side effects, and no delay for conversion, is Retin-A vs retinol better? It turns out, the answer depends on what kind of skin you have and what kind of results you’re looking for.

Can You Expect The Same Results From Retinol And Retin-A?

No, retinol will not give you the same results as Retin-A. Although they work similarly, they are not the same. Some people incorrectly call retinol the “over-the-counter version” of Retin-A. However, the two ingredients are different and they can’t be used interchangeably.

Technically both retinol and Retin-A have common effects. However, retinol ends up functioning as a weaker retinoid because it must be converted into retinoic acid to be useful. Since Retin-A is an activated retinoic acid, it can directly affect the skin as soon as it is applied. For this reason, even the lowest strength Retin-A is stronger than the highest strength retinol.

Retin-A Vs Retinol

Are There Any Contraindications to the Use of Retinoids?

The use of Retin-A, tretinoin, retinoic acid, retinol, and Vitamin A derivatives collectively referred to as Retinoids is contraindicated during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Also, since retinoids sensitize the skin, it is best to discontinue use at least one week before intense or prolonged sun exposure. Otherwise, chemical sunburn can cause irritation and skin reactions. Also, given that sunlight can deactivate the benefits of Retin-A, its use should be limited to night time.

What Are the Strength Options for Retin-A and Retinol?

Retinols (AKA retinal, tretinol) are available over the counter from 0.01% up to as high as 2% in strength, either in pure form or as an ingredient mixed with other skin rejuvenating products. A range of different percentages of retinol, including a pure and strong 2% compounded strength is available at Cosmetic Injectables Center’s skincare line. Retin-A (AKA tretinoic acid or retinoic acid) requires a prescription for any strength and is available as 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%, with the latter being the strongest compounded dose available at medical facilities and pharmacies but require a doctor’s prescription (also available at Cosmetic Injectables Center’s skincare line).

What’s The Right Retinoid For Your Own Unique Skin?

Whether you choose retinol or Retin-A depends on what you are trying to achieve. There are advantages and disadvantages to both retinoids.

If you are interested in preventing early signs of aging with a daily skincare routine, but you don’t have any big problem areas that need treatment, retinol is a very practical choice. You can find an appropriate retinol treatment in moisturizers, creams, serums, and even face masks.

There are different forms of retinol, so you may not see “retinol” spelled out on the ingredients list for your favorite anti-aging cream. Instead, you will see whichever particular form is used in the product.

Here are some examples of what might be included:

  • Retinal
  • Retinyl Palmitate
  • Retinyl Acetate
  • Retinyl Linoleate

Remember, the higher in the ingredient list that retinol is, the more there is in the product. Don’t choose a cream where retinol ingredients are listed last or near the bottom, because it likely won’t be very effective.

If you’re more concerned about treating acne and pigmentation problems or reversing signs of aging, you are going to want a treatment option with Retin-A. However, this is only if your skin isn’t too sensitive and you can tolerate the initial phase of irritation. This product is prescription only, so you’ll need to speak with your cosmetic provider first. In the end, the outcome of using a prescription retinoic acid rather than an over the counter retinol will be its more effective and noticeable results.

If you do have sensitive skin or if you cannot tolerate some redness and peeling, you may want to start with retinol and move up to prescription-strength retinoic acids when your skin has become accustomed to it. Talk with your cosmetic provider about the best course of action for your unique skincare needs.

It’s important to note that your skin will gradually have less of an irritative reaction to retinoids as you use them. Some people think this means they aren’t working as well as they once did, but this isn’t the case. Also, any side effects like dryness and peeling will become less noticeable over time. You may want to start with a milder non-prescription strength product to acclimate your skin and reduce side effects before jumping to prescription Retin-A. Retin-A Vs Retinol is a process that may take a few tries before finding the perfect product for your skin type.

What About Sunscreen?

With all the protection some retinoids provide, you might wonder if you still need to apply sunscreen. Whichever retinoid you use, remembering to use sunscreen is still most critical. One side effect of retinoids is that they can make you more susceptible to sunburn and sun damage because your surface skin cells will be new and fragile. Don’t be fooled, even without visible sunburn, sun damage could still be happening.

Be sure to choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. According to studies, SPF 30 is the most effective sun protection because it blocks up to 96% of the sun’s rays. Even more importantly, you have to remember to re-apply the sunscreen several times a day, even if indoors. If you are worried about applying it over and smudging your makeup, you might consider the powder form of sunscreens which are easier to apply mid-day.

Effect of Moisturizers on Retin-A and Retinols

Generally, moisturizers can reduce the efficacy of retinoic acids and retinol. This can be either a positive or a negative effect depending on your situation. If you are experiencing excessive irritation or peeling where the side effects are not tolerable, moisturizers can be beneficial for you. They will calm down the reaction of the skin. Moisturizers can also be beneficial when you are trying to transition into a higher-level retinoic acid and wish to reduce the initial side effects. However, if you are trying to get the most benefit out of your retinoid with the fastest results, moisturizers should be avoided or used very judiciously to not dampen your skin’s response.

Talk To Your Cosmetic Provider About Retinoids

Retinoids can be a helpful addition to your daily skincare routine. If you need help finding a retinoid product, don’t hesitate to talk with your cosmetic provider. They can help you choose the most effective product for your unique skin, whether it’s retinol or prescription Retin-A, and answer any other questions you might have about retinoids and skincare. They can also monitor and take care of any reactions you might experience from its use. Retin-A Vs retinol and which product is better will all depend on your skin type.

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