NowPatient Blog
Tretinoin vs retinol

Tretinoin vs retinol

Stefano Mirabello NowPatientGreen tick
Created on 4 Sep 2023
Updated on 16 Jul 2024

Acne can be stubborn to shift. Trust us, we know. But there are effective skin treatments that can help you beat acne. Two of the best of these are tretinoin and retinol.

So, are tretinoin and retinol the same? If not, how are they different? And which one is best for you? Here we explain what tretinoin and retinol are, and how you can decide which one is right for your skin.

What are Retinoids?

The best place to start is with retinoids. And if you’ve read anything about acne treatments, chances are you’ve heard about retinoids. Acne care information isn’t always crystal clear though, and lots of products have similar names, so we’ll explain it here as simply as we can.

Retinoids are a type of vitamin A used in skin care products. There are a lot of types of retinoids, each with a different name, but they’re all slightly different versions of vitamin A, and they all work in broadly the same way.

Retinoids encourage your skin cells to turn-over faster and they boost collagen production. This helps with acne by removing the dead skin cells and excess oil that can cause spots, and it can even help clear up skin blemishes and reduce the appearance of acne scars.

What is Tretinoin and Retin-A?

We’ll start with tretinoin. It’s a type of retinoid called retinoic acid – a strong and effective retinoid that can fight acne and improve the tone and texture of your skin. Because tretinoin is strong, it’s a prescription product you can only buy after talking to a doctor first.

You’ll sometimes see Retin-A mentioned alongside tretinoin. This is because tretinoin and Retin-A are effectively the same product. Tretinoin is the generic name of the product, and Retin-A is the branded version. Both are chemically identical and work in exactly the same way. When we refer to tretinoin here, we’re talking about both tretinoin and Retin-A.

Tretinoin comes as a cream with three levels of concentration (which is basically how much tretinoin is in the cream). They are 0.05%, 0.025%, and 0.1% tretinoin.

What is Retinol?

Like tretinoin, retinol is a type of retinoid you can find in skin care and acne products. It has similar effects to tretinoin, although it’s generally not as strong. This is because tretinoin is retinoic acid, whereas retinol only becomes retinoic acid once it’s been processed inside your skin cells. It also generally produces less retinoic acid per dose.

Because retinol is not as concentrated as tretinoin, you don’t need a prescription to buy it. You can find retinol in a wide range of skin care and acne products, including creams, serums, gels, moisturizers, and masks.

Tretinoin vs Retinol – what are the differences?

The main difference is that tretinoin is retinoic acid, but retinol only becomes retinoic acid once it’s been processed by your skin cells, meaning it delivers a lower concentration of retinoic acid. Tretinoin is generally considered the stronger of the two and the more effective acne treatment.

Because tretinoin is considered to be stronger than retinol, another difference between the two is that tretinoin cream is a prescription medication. Whereas skin care products with retinol in can be bought over the counter without a prescription.

Another difference is that retinol can be found in a wider range of products. Tretinoin comes as a cream, whereas retinol can be found in creams, serums, gels, moisturizers, masks, and more.

Why is Tretinoin a prescription medication but Retinol is not?

Tretinoin is generally stronger than retinol. This means that it can be more effective at treating acne, but that it’s also more likely to give you side effects too, like dry, red, and burning skin, as well as changes in skin color.

Because tretinoin is stronger and carries a higher risk of side effects, it may not be suitable for everyone, and has been made a prescription product.

Tretinoin cream vs Retinol for acne – which is right for you?

The right choice for treating acne, depends on your skin.

Tretinoin is more effective at shifting acne than retinol for most people. However, it can be harsher on your skin. If you have mild acne and/or sensitive skin, retinol may be the better option for you.

But if your skin isn’t overly sensitive, and you have moderate to severe acne, tretinoin may be the better product. Tretinoin comes in three strengths (0.05%, 0.025%, and 0.1%), meaning you can always start with the lowest strength to see how it works for you.

Is Retinol or Tretinoin better for wrinkles?

Tretinoin (Retin-A) is generally considered to be better for lessening the appearance of wrinkles, as it delivers a higher concentration of retinoic acid than retinol. Tretinoin can be harsher to your skin though, so if you have sensitive skin, retinol may be more suitable.

What strength of Tretinoin cream is best for wrinkles?

This depends on your skin. Tretinoin usually comes in three strengths, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. The stronger 0.05% and 0.1% creams are usually used to treat the appearance of wrinkles. The 0.1% cream may have better results for some people, but it can be harsher, so if your skin is sensitive, you may find the 0.05% cream is best for you.

Can you use retinol and Retin-A together?

There’s no need to use retinol and Retin-A (tretinoin) together as they work on your skin in the same way. Using retinol and Retin-A together will only increase the amount of retinoic acid your skin gets and increase the chances you’ll get side effects.

If you’d like to try tretinoin and want an online consultation with a qualified doctor, simply start your online consultation with NowPatient.


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NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information on this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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