What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin vs. Retinol?

March 11, 2021 by VitalSkin Dermatology

Chances are, if you have looked into dermatological interventions for acne or wrinkles, you have come across two products: Tretinoin and retinol. What are these two substances? Do they have significant differences and which is best for you?

Let’s begin by clarifying one point that often confuses people. Tretinoin is sometimes referred to as Retin-A, making it easy to confuse with retinol. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that both tretinoin and retinol are “retinoids,” a class of chemical compounds that either are or related to vitamin A.

Now that we have that cleared up, what are the differences between these two?

Strength

Retinol is generally considered the less aggressive substance. As such, it is an ideal solution for those with sensitive skin. It is also often used in cosmetic dermatology to address fine lines and wrinkles. As the stronger substance, tretinoin is a more effective substance when treating conditions such as acne and is an ideal choice for those with oily or highly-tolerant skin. It also has substantial anti-wrinkle properties.

Prescription vs. OTC

Tretinoin is a prescribed substance and typically only available from your dermatologist. Retinol, on the other hand, is an over-the-counter remedy. You can purchase it without a prescription from your dermatologist, aesthetician or local drug store.

How They Work

Both tretinoin and retinol stimulate “turnover” in the skin, exfoliating the top dead layers of skin to reveal healthier and smoother skin beneath. Both substances can also stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in the skin, giving it a more toned and youthful appearance.  In addition to evening out the surface of the skin, these substances can also reduce the appearance of discoloration in the skin associated with conditions such as sunspots.

Which One Is Right for Me?

Working in close consultation with your dermatologist is the best way to determine whether tretinoin or retinol is the best fit for you. Generally speaking, almost any patient can benefit from these dermatological substances. Given that they both are designed to create peeling in the skin, retinol is usually the better option for those with very dry and/or sensitive skin. Those with serious cases of acne that require more substantial interventions may want to opt for tretinoin. Either substance can work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Start Out Slowly

Whether you and your dermatologist determine that tretinoin or retinol is your best option, you want to start slowly and build up carefully when using either product. Over-the-counter options such as retinol usually start at a concentration of about 1% or less, while tretinoin can have maximum concentrations as high as 2%. While your dermatologist’s recommendations may vary, it is important to start slowly, applying either substance in limited quantities and no more than two or three times a week. As your skin adjusts, you can increase the amount and frequency with which you apply tretinoin or retinol. If you experience any discomfort, make sure to consult with your dermatologist.

A final note: It is important to also wear sunscreen when using either tretinoin or retinol. These substances can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, and most dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen on a daily basis on any area being treated by these retinoids.

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