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Skincare 101

Tretinoin vs Retinol: Understanding the Differences

One poorly kept secret of the skincare and dermatology industry? It’s essentially built on vitamin A derivatives, known as retinoids. 

That’s an exaggeration, but retinoids have become a staple of modern dermatology, and for good reason: retinoids’ capabilities and benefits are incredibly broad in a variety of skin conditions.

You’ll often hear about two subgroups of retinoids: tretinoin and retinol. While these products are placed in the same general category, they’re different in how they treat the skin and how effective they are. To understand the differences between tretinoin and retinol, it's necessary to understand a little more about how they work.

Understanding the Benefits of Retinoids in Skin Care

With their introduction in 1971, retinoids quickly became a skincare staple, used for treating everything from acne and psoriasis to skin aging and even some cancers. Retinoids are all derived from Vitamin A, but they’re not all the same.

These vitamin A derivatives transformed into go-to medications when they launched because of how they work. Retinoids accelerate the turnover of skin cells at the skin surface. In doing so they can help to accelerate healing, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, work to suppress the symptoms of acne, and more. 

Current research suggests that retinoids increase collagen production, with some speculating a correlation to elastin production. Collagen is a supportive fibrous protein found in many areas of the body, including the skin, where it promotes the elasticity and firmness associated with youth. Elastin is another contributor to the health and youthful appearance of skin, as it provides elasticity and resilience to tissues and organs and is the pivotal extracellular matrix protein. As people age, collagen production decreases, leading to sagging and wrinkles. With the help of retinoids, that process can be slowed down and skin improved. Findings like these continue to place retinoids at the forefront of skincare and the anti-aging space.

Prescription-Based Tretinoin

When it comes to retinoids, there are essentially two types: tretinoin vs retinol. Retinol is typically used in over-the-counter skincare products, while tretinoin is a prescription-only medication.

Tretinoin is a synthetic form of vitamin A, known as retinoic acid, meaning the body does not need to waste time converting it into a useful compound. However, because of its potency, doctors typically only prescribe it to treat comedonal breakouts or inflammatory acne, although it is an effective treatment for wrinkles and fine lines as well as hyperpigmentation or a faded complexion. A dermatologist or doctor needs to determine the appropriate concentration to ensure you get a formulation that is well-suited to your skin type and condition.

As tretinoin is a prescription product, it’s mechanism of action is more aggressive, with a much higher chance of effectiveness compared to over-the-counter treatments. However, with a stronger and more direct chemical reaction, you can also expect some harsher side effects when compared to other skin treatments, potentially including burning, itching, dryness, peeling, and stinging. The reason for these increased side effects is the accelerated cell turnover, the result of chemical exfoliation.

Exfoliation stimulates collagen production and cellular maturation, preventing issues like wrinkles and fine lines. With a prescription topical treatment, such as tretinoin, the retinoic acid accelerates the maturing process, allowing your new skin cells and collagen to maintain a youthful appearance. 

Retinol, the Skin Care Darling

Put simply, retinol is not as strong as tretinoin, but it is found in many over-the-counter beauty and skincare products. The marketing for retinol is the same as any vitamin A treatment: it helps promote smoother, softer, and brighter skin. Unfortunately, there is some fine print to consider.

While retinol can contribute to a healthier and brighter complexion, unlike tretinoin it is not retinoic acid. To affect the skin directly, specific enzymes in your skin must convert retinol into retinoic acid before it can get to work. The conversion process is not quick, and it’s dependent on many factors, including the amount of the compound found in the product you’re using. Additionally, the amount or concentration advertised is not a static number with retinol. Retinol degrades over time, meaning that the older the product or the longer it's been open and on the shelf, the less effective it might be.

A person’s tolerance for retinol can make a difference as well. The conversion to retinoic acid is often a slow process, but some people convert it more quickly. Others might be sensitive to the substance, leading to irritation. While retinol is generally believed to be a gentler product for more sensitive skin types, it is vital to pay attention to your reaction and eliminate use if irritation persists.

Keep in mind that results vary and take time. It’s not unusual to see limited results, if any, within the first three months or more. If you and your doctor believe that a retinol-based treatment is right for you, keep your expectations realistic and use it as directed.

Tretinoin vs Retinol

In the comparison between tretinoin vs retinol, the winner depends in part on your personal objectives. 

If you struggle with acne, pigmentation, blackheads, wrinkles, or deep lines, tretinoin is a proven option that may work well, but you need to be cautious about side effects. For people with more sensitive skin, tretinoin may initially cause sensitivity, though with varying concentrations it’s possible to find a prescription that’s right for you.

Retinol is beneficial as an all-purpose skin treatment for nearly all skin types because it's more gentle and readily available compared to prescription tretinoin. However, it’s generally not as effective on serious skin conditions. When looking for the amount of retinol in skincare treatments like moisturizers or creams, you may not see “retinol” on the label. Instead, you’re more likely to see another term or form, including:

  • Retinyl acetate
  • Retinal
  • Retinyl linoleate
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinaldehyde

What’s challenging about these over-the-counter products is the way concentrations work on your skin, and that these ingredients are not precisely the same. For example, a .02% percent cream may not be as strong as a 0.02% gel. Furthermore, not all retinol-containing products list the precise concentration. 

Your best bet when considering a retinoid-containing product? Talk to a dermatologist.

Either Retinol or Tretinoin: Protect Your Skin Against Sun Damage

Regardless of your selection, both skincare products require the application of sunscreen or some care around harsh UV rays, which you should be using anyway whenever you’re exposed to sunlight. Retinoids in particular can lead to skin sensitivity and an increased risk of sun damage because of the influx of new cells and rapid turnover of old ones.

Most people associate sun damage with sunburns, but that’s not the only outcome. Potential long-term effects include wrinkles, freckles, uneven skin tone, sunspots, and of course skin cancer with chronic exposure. When using a topical treatment like retinol or tretinoin, you should use an SPF 30 sunscreen or better.

The Verdict

Whatever path you go down, dermatologists agree almost unanimously: Vitamin A derivatives are some of the most effective treatments out there for a whole bunch of common afflictions: acne, hyperpigmentation, and even to reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines. 

If you want to know which treatment will give you the fastest results, tretinoin and prescription retinoids win, hands down. But which aids the skin with the lower chance of irritation and side effects? OTC retinoids all the way. Retinol is more subdued: both effectively and in terms of its likely side effects. Because it requires conversion into an effective form once it hits the skin, your body has more time to adjust to the treatment. 

Tretinoin is a prescription-only treatment for a reason: it’s effective but can lead to side effects and irritation for some patients, and the treatment requires some monitoring.

Determining the best skincare treatment or routine for your skin type or condition is no simple task. That’s why Nava MD’s telemedicine platform is here: we make access to licensed dermatologists and prescription skincare treatments (if appropriate) accessible from anywhere and at affordable prices, all done online. Don’t make the vitamin A decision on your own, get started with your Nava MD consultation today and get the results you’ve been looking for - with a dermatologist’s help.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency