Retin-A vs Retinol: What’s the Difference?

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There is no denying that retinoids are quite effective for a variety of skincare problems. That’s because they are able to help increase the speed of the cell turnover in the skin.

There are several different retinoids available in the market today, and it’s not always clear what the differences are. In this article, we are going to focus on Retin-A vs retinol.

Although both are retinoids, there is a difference between them. Understanding the difference will better help you choose. We’ll discuss the sources and effects of each, as well as their availability.

Long story short: Retin-A is a prescription-strength medication, Retinol is an over-the-counter cosmetic treatment.


Let’s Talk About Retinoids

Before we differentiate the two retinoids let’s first know more about retinoids in general. As mentioned, both Retin-A and retinol are retinoids. They mostly have the same effect on the skin.

One of the main reasons why retinoids are so popular in skincare is because of their ability to help with a variety of skin issues.

Retinoids are from vitamin A. This could be recognized by the body as retinoic acid or converted into retinoic acid.

The main function of retinoids is to help boost the speed of cell turnover in the skin. This helps prevent the pores from getting clogged. By helping unclog the pores, these substances are great products for acne sufferers of most any age.

Apart from being useful as an acne treatment, it is also used for tackling signs of skin aging. This includes fine lines and wrinkles. It is able to stimulate the skin to produce more collagen.

This helps make the skin plump, youthful, and elastic.

With the use of retinoids, skin is improved in texture, tone, and overall complexion as well.

Defining Retin-A And Retinol

Even if the two are retinoids, there is still a difference between them. Both of them could be used either for acne treatment. Both can also help prevent the signs of aging. This is because of their exfoliative and collagen-producing properties.

What Is Retin-A?

Retin-A is a form of vitamin A so it also helps with the renewal of the skin cells. It is actually a brand of tretinoin, which is approved by the FDA for acne treatment.

Apart from Retin-A, there are other brands of tretinoin available like Renova, Avita, and Atralin. Retin-A products are prescription-based medications, at least in the US.

No matter what the brand is, they work all the same by speeding the cell turnover. This also avoids clogs in the pores that cause acne.

Retin- A is in the form of retinoic acid which is why it affects the skin immediately once you apply it. But, that doesn’t mean that you will see the results in just one application.

Retin-A products are prescription-based medications, at least in the US.

Although the effect is immediate, you still need to give it some time to see visible results, and you may have to deal with the tretinoin purge.

The results will depend on the severity of the skin issues that you have.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol can sometimes be called vitamin A1. It is a natural vitamin A and is available as an over-the-counter medication. It is often found in creams , moisturizers, and other skincare products.

The main function of retinol in skincare is to boost the production of collagen. This will slow visible signs of aging. It also helps with reducing discoloration of the skin and improving its texture.

Unlike Retin-A, retinol doesn’t immediately have a direct effect on the skin. That’s because it still needs to be converted to retinoic acid by enzymes that are on the skin.

In the form of retinol, it is not effective unless it is converted by the enzymes. The rate at which the retinol is converted to retinoic acid will vary from one person to another.

The results of using retinol are also not instant. It may take up to 6 months before you see the results, and like Retin-A, you may have to deal with a purge, commonly known as the “retinol uglies“. That said, one of the best things about retinol is that it is gentler and less irritating because it is lower intensity.

As an over-the-counter product, retinol is widely available as an ingredient in different skincare products. It is still very important to choose a product that is produced by a reputable brand. This is to make sure that it is authentic.

As an over-the-counter product, retinol is widely available as an ingredient in different skincare products

Retin-A Vs Retinol: What’s The Difference?

Both retinoids have similar effects on the skin. That’s why you don’t need to use both of them at the same time. If you do, you might be at a higher risk of irritating your skin. When using retinoids, use one of them and you’ll be good to go.

To know which one you should choose for yourself, we’ll place a highlight their differences:

1. Prescription Requirement

Retin-A is the retinoid that requires a prescription by a dermatologist or a doctor, at least in the US. The dermatologist can help assess whether this treatment is working or not.

If you have any issues like irritation, they’ll be able to give you advice on what to do.

Retinol, on the other hand, is an over-the-counter formulation. It is included in some of the famous anti-aging creams available today. It doesn’t need a prescription and could be considered to have a milder irritation risk.


When it comes to strength, Retin-A is considered to be high strength than retinol. Retin-A comes in different strengths or concentrations. Even the lowest concentration for Retin-A is still considered more powerful than retinol.

Retinol is a vitamin A product that still needs to be converted to retinoic acid to be useful on the skin. It is considered to have lower strength than Retin-A. It is milder and less likely to irritate the skin.


With the powerful Retin-A, it is more likely prescribed to effectively treat and control acne.
Aside from that, it is also used as a powerful anti-aging treatment. It works well for various signs of aging. This includes hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles.

On the other hand, retinol is mostly used and marketed as an anti-aging ingredient. It could also help brighten the skin. It improves the tone and texture, as well as decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Side Effects

Due to the strength of the Retin-A, it is expected that it would have a higher risk of irritating the skin. Sometimes, the skin could also experience flaking, dryness, and redness.

Some Retin-A users also said that they felt a little stinging or burning sensation when it is applied.
Retinol has a lower risk of side effects and irritation. That is why it is readily available over-the-counter. But, there could still be side effects such as minor redness, irritation, and dryness of the skin.

As mentioned above, both Retin-A and Retinol can have purge stages. But generally, retinol’s purges are milder.

Adding Retinoids To Your Skincare

Either of the retinoids seems to have great effects on the skin. That’s why you might want to include them in your skincare routine. But, before you do that, it is still best to consult first with your dermatologist.

If you have sensitive skin, you might want to start slow.

That means start by using over-the-counter retinol before you jump to the hard stuff. And of course, before using Retin-A ,make sure you are cleared with your dermatologist.

Retinol is gentler and could help your skin get used to retinoids. Apply it daily or as directed.

As for Retin-A, dermatologists say that it can stay in the system for up to 72 hours. The application may depend on what your dermatologist prescribes.

It is highly important to be consistent with your application. In case you find your skin irritated or it feels raw, consult your dermatologist. Do not abruptly stop using the product. It may seem that you are allergic to it, but it could just be in the acclimation process.

Also remember that whether you are using retinol or Retin-A, your skin can be more sensitive to the sun. That’s also why it would be best to use them at night time. You should always make sure to keep your skin protected from sun exposure.

When applying retinoid creams, it would be best to use only a pea-sized amount. Retin-A with a 0.1% concentration is more effective than the 0.05%. Butt applying more of the product or in a thick layer doesn’t really improve its effectiveness.

As Retin-A is a prescription product, you should also tell your dermatologist all the products that you plan to use with it.

There are some skincare ingredients that should not be used when you are undergoing retinoid treatment. One of the ingredients to look out for and avoid is benzoyl peroxide. This can prevent Retin-A from working.

Another precaution when it comes to retinoid use is to avoid it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
There aren’t any studies about how unsafe topical retinoids are. But there is a related oral medication called Isotretinoin that should be avoided. This should not be taken while pregnant or breastfeeding. This is because it can cause various birth defects.

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Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).