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Retinol vs Retin a vs Retinoid vs Tretinoin: What’s the Difference?

Retinol is a Retinoid, but Retin-a is not Retinol, and Tretinoin is Retin-a. Confused yet? Retinoids for skin are all the rage right now, but how do you know what is what? We are here to help decode the terms and get you on your way to knowing which skin beautifying product you really want!

Read on

Retinol is a Retinoid, but Retin-a is not Retinol, and Tretinoin is Retin-a.

Confused yet?

Retinoids for skin are all the rage right now, but how do you know what is what?

We are here to help decode the terms and get you on your way to knowing which skin-beautifying product you really want!

What is a Retinoid?

Retinoid is a term that refers to all Vitamin A derivatives - including Retinol, and Tretinoin (the chemical found in Retin-a).

retin a vs tretinoin

Retinoids have been studied since the 1960s for their eyesight and skin benefits, but the first mention of using Vitamin A derivatives for treating photo-aging (sun damage) dates back to articles starting in the 1980s.


To start - think of Retinoids like Cats:

You have your little house cats - Retinol.

  • Easy to find and obtain.
  • Less powerful.
  • Mild side effects.

Then you have the big jungle cats - Tretinoin.

  • Harder to obtain (you need a prescription.)
  • Significantly more powerful.
  • May have more severe irritation and side effects.

But both fall into the “Cat” (or Retinoid) category.


What is Retinol?

Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative that is commonly found in over-the-counter (OTC) face creams.

Retinol can also be listed on the label as: Vitamin A, retinal, retinaldehyde, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, or retinyl propionate.

Retinol has moderate usefulness as an anti-aging product, but not really so much with acne. Retinol is weak enough for people to purchase without a prescription and without being seen by a physician first.

Redness, dryness, and burning side effects are less intense with an over-the-counter Retinol than prescription Retinoid therapy.


What is Tretinoin (Retin a)?

Tretinoin (the active ingredient found in Retin-a) is a prescription-only retinoid.

Tretinoin has a slightly different chemical structure than Retinol:

This minor difference in structure makes Tretinoin a much more potent chemical in terms of skin brightening, tightening, and fine line reduction.

Tretinoin generally has slightly more intense redness, dryness, and irritation - but these are normal and tend to lessen with continued usage.


Which Retinoid should I choose for my skin?

Both retinoids work by increasing cell turnover and boosting collagen production to provide chemical exfoliation and reduce the appearance of skin aging.

The main difference is the intensity of these benefits:

If you are pretty happy with the current state of your skin but you are just looking for a little bit of brightening, fine line reduction, or the occasional minor breakout control - an over-the-counter retinol product may be enough for you.

If what you want is some significant help with persistent acne, deeper lines, melasma improvement, or an overall sun-damaged skin revamp - a prescription Tretinoin cream is probably more appropriate for your skin.

As with most things - the bigger the payoff the larger the risks. So, although tretinoin has more significant skin benefits, you will most likely have more dryness or irritation at the beginning of the therapy.

Luckily, most people find that the initial irritation and dryness lessens over the course of 2-4 weeks.


Caution! For all retinoid products:

Retinoid products are not recommended for use in pregnancy, breastfeeding, or those trying to become pregnant.

For anyone planning on using a retinoid product, whether OTC retinol or prescription Tretinoin, be sure to use sunscreen as an extra skin protectant.

Any form of Vitamin A can make the skin more sensitive to the sun - so don’t leave the house without your trusty 30+ SPF sunscreen applied.

Daily sunscreen is already a pro-tip for beautiful skin, but even more important when using these types of chemicals.


So, you are ready to take the plunge and try out a retinoid product:

If you want to start slow with a Retinol cream, you can find them at nearly any store in the beauty section.

If you are looking for something stronger to potentially tame acne, reduce the appearance of acne scars, lighten melasma, or reduce the appearance of fine lines - you can schedule an online visit with our prescribers today to see if our compounded prescription Tretinoin products are right for you:

  • Retinol and Tretinoin are both in the class of chemicals called Retinoids.
  • All retinoids are derivatives of Vitamin A.
  • Retinol is available over the counter, but it is less effective than Tretinoin.
  • Tretinoin is prescription only, but more effective for skin issues.
  • Tretinoin can cause more intense redness, dryness, and irritation - but these effects lessen or go away after 2-4 weeks of treatment.
  • You can find Tretinoin online through a visit with our telemedicine practitioners.
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