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We Ask a Derm: What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin vs. Retinol?

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Dasha Burobina

It can feel overwhelming to remember all the skincare ingredients out there, especially when some of them seem to be similar. Take tretinoin and retinol for example. While they’re both in the retinoid family and work in similar ways, there are three major differences that set them apart: their strength, the time it takes to see results and their accessibility. To better understand the differences between tretinoin vs. retinol, we reached out to two dermatologists.

Meet the Experts:

What are the benefits of tretinoin and retinol?

As mentioned, tretinoin and retinol have similar benefits such as: 

  • Treating acne. Both are known for being topical acne treatments that reduce breakouts and smooth acne scars.
  • Evening out your skin tone. Both have been proven to brighten your complexion, while improving the overall appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage. Dr. Anzilotti points out that tretinoin is the only FDA-approved retinoid to treat photoaging. 
  • Increasing collagen production. Retinoids are known for their ability to boost your skin’s elasticity. Research shows they increase cellular turnover, which can lead to a smoother, firmer skin texture overall. 
  • Enhancing exfoliation. Both can clear pores of excess oils, dirt and bacteria for a smoother complexion. 

What are the side effects of tretinoin and retinol?

There are many pros to using tretinoin and retinol, but here are a few side effects you may experience:

  • It may cause irritation. If you’re trying a retinoid for the first time (or have very sensitive skin), it’s common to deal with redness, dryness or peeling. Both dermatologists suggest starting with a lower concentration, adding a gentle moisturizer right after application and slowly adding it to your regimen every other day or two to three times a week until your skin adjusts. 
  • It may cause hyperpigmentation. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, people with darker skin tones are more likely to deal with hyperpigmentation and/or have a reaction to either ingredient. The AAD also advises that people with darker skin tones should start out slowly and always apply moisturizer (or a hydrating mask) afterward to soothe skin and prevent any irritation. 
  • It may increase the risk of sunburn. Both tretinoin and retinol increase the risk of photosensitivity. One 2022 study recommends avoiding any sun exposure or tanning beds if possible and applying sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher when outdoors.
  • It may be harmful if you’re pregnant. Studies show that you may have a higher risk of fetal loss or malformation. Both derms suggest consulting with your doctor before using a retinoid, especially if you are currently or planning to become pregnant. 

Tretinoin vs. retinol: What’s the difference? 

Yes, tretinoin and retinol have a lot in common. However, they have a few key differences like:

  • Strength. Retinols take longer to penetrate the skin than tretinoin. As Dr. Garshick explains, “Because retinols require a conversion to retinoic acid, it tends to be gentler [on your skin], but it can also take longer to see results, especially compared to prescription alternatives like tretinoin.”
  • Again, the difference in strength also affects the time it takes to see results. If you’re using retinol, it can take up to six months to a full year to see results; it typically takes half that time (or less) using tretinoin. One 2006 study explains tretinoin is 20 times more potent than retinol. However, the quicker the results, the higher the risk of dealing with the drying side effects that come with using the ingredient, so keep that in mind. 
  • Accessibility is limited for tretinoin. You can only get tretinoin via a prescription from a medical professional. “There are different options available including branded Altreno, Retin-A Renova and generic tretinoin,” says Dr. Garshick. Meanwhile, retinol is considered an over-the-counter (OTC) treatment, so it’s available to buy at any drugstore and sold in a variety of night creams, gels and lotions. 

Which one is right for me? 

When choosing between tretinoin vs. retinol, it will come down to a few factors—starting with your skin type. If you have dry or sensitive skin, Dr. Garshick says retinol might be the best option for you. Yes, it’s a slower journey to see results, but it’ll be less irritating and more accessible. 

And if retinols aren’t for you (or you need something stronger), speak with a medical professional about trying tretinoin. Oftentimes, people with oily and acne-prone skin start with tretinoin to treat their acne and better control oil production for faster results.

How often should you use tretinoin or retinol? 

Whether you choose tretinoin or retinol, they’re both active ingredients that need to be used with care. Dr. Anzilotti recommends starting with a low concentration (around one percent) of retinol and applying a pea-sized amount to your face once a week. Dr. Garshick also suggests monitoring how your skin adjusts to the retinol before increasing your use to three times a week and eventually every night. As for tretinoin, both experts recommend consulting with a board-certified dermatologist on the exact concentration and how often you should use the medication to get the best results. 

The Bottom Line

Tretinoin and retinol are similar in more ways than one, but to lessen the confusion, just remember that the differences between the two ingredients come down to their strength, the time it takes to see results and their accessibility. To figure out which retinoid works best for you, consider your skin type and regardless of which one you go with, start slowly.

Help! What’s the Difference Between Retinol and Retinoids?