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Is Tretinoin the Same as Retinol? Common Skincare Confusions Resolved

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We see this common question often: is tretinoin the same as retinol?

You’ve heard of retinol, retinoids, tretinoin, and countless brand names -- is your head spinning yet?

Often, the terms retinol and retinoid are used interchangeably. But tretinoin and retinol aren't exactly the same. They are similar, they're in the same family -- but not the same.

In this article, we’ll give you straightforward answers so you can choose the best retinoid for you.

Retinoid is an umbrella term for the vitamin A derivative family

Retinoid is the term for the family of vitamin A derivatives. It’s a pretty big family, but two of the most popular are retinol and tretinoin.

Both retinol and tretinoin are retinoids but behave differently.

Think of it this way -- if retinol is a house cat, then tretinoin is a lion. They’re both technically cats, but one is far more powerful than the other.

Is tretinoin a retinol?

Tretinoin vs. retinol

Retinoic acid is the only active form of vitamin A our skin can use.

The biggest difference between these two ingredients is, retinol requires a two-step conversion into the active form of retinoic acid while tretinoin does not. When you use retinol, enzymes in your skin need to convert retinol into retinaldehyde and then into retinoic acid (the active form).

This two-step process is needed in order for it to do its skin magic. On the other hand, tretinoin is pure active retinoic acid. So there is no conversion process necessary for your skin to utilize it.

Is tretinoin a retinol?

Tretinoin is pure retinoic acid

Some gentle retinoids are available over the counter (like retinol) while other retinoids (like tretinoin) are prescription only.

Retinol is well tolerated as the conversion into retinoic acid can be a lengthy process, making it a gentler product. With tretinoin, you don’t have to wait for your skin to convert it, so tretinoin tends to show results faster than retinol.

But this comes with a caveat. Because of the strength, tretinoin might cause a bit of skin irritation and require an acclimation process. Tretinoin comes in various strengths so you can ease into the process. It’s wise to start small and build up your tolerance.

Retinol &Tretinoin

Retinol needs to be converted into an active form. Tretinoin is already an active pure form of retinoic acid. Retinol is gentler. It’s roughly 10-20 times less potent than tretinoin.

Tretinoin is powerful and can be irritating to the skin. You can buy it over the counter. Prescription is required.

Article Key Points

  • So, is retinol the same as tretinoin? No, but they’re in the same family.
  • Retinol and tretinoin are both retinoids (both vitamin A derivatives).
  • Retinol must be converted into the active form of retinoic acid, which makes it a gentler product.
  • Tretinoin is already pure active retinoic acid. Which makes it a more potent product than retinol.

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