Retinol vs. Retin-A: Everything About Vitamin A in Skin Care

Learn all about retinoids in skincare - the true superhero ingredients in your anti-aging routine!

September 27, 2021 8 minutes read
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Retinol, retinal, tretinoin... The most loved ingredients by dermatologists and beauty experts around the world. Touted as the ultimate ingredients in the anti-aging game, you've probably already heard about these.

But, how do they work exactly? What's the difference between retinoids, retinol, tretinoin, and others? And does it really matter?

Long story short – It matters, and the difference is indeed significant. So, if you think it's time to include this anti-aging staple in your skincare routine, keep reading to find out all about them, how they work, and which one is best for you.

What Are Retinoids?

First of all, it's crucial to understand that the term retinoids is the umbrella term for all the vitamin A derivatives, including retinol, tretinoin, retinal, retinyl esters, and others. The confusion occurs because these terms are often used interchangeably.

So, even though all of these ingredients belong to the same family, i.e., retinoids, each has slightly different chemical compounds and, therefore, different effects on the skin.

We could group retinoids into four main types: retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde or retinal, and retinoic acid or tretinoin – with retinyl esters being the least potent to retinoic acid, the most potent form of vitamin A in skincare.

vitamin a

What Is Retinol, Tretinoin, and Others?

The potency and effectiveness of these different types of retinoids vary because they have to go through one or more conversion stages when applied to your skin.

So, the strongest of all and the most effective form of retinoids is tretinoin, the pure retinoic acid. Next on the strength scale is retinal or retinaldehyde, which, when applied to the skin, goes through one stage of conversion, or oxidation, to become retinoic acid. Because of this conversion process, it's less potent but also less irritating to the skin. Then we have retinol, going through two stages of conversion to become retinoic acid. And finally, the least potent are retinyl esters, such as retinyl palmitate, converting three times on the skin to reach their active state.

Because of their strength and potential side effects, you can't get all the retinoids over the counter. The most popular over-the-counter retinoids are retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl esters, and granactive retinoid. For other, more potent forms of retinoids, you'll likely need a doctor's prescription. And those include tretinoin, most commonly sold by the name Retin-A, adapalene, sold by the name Differin (recently available without prescription in some countries), tazarotene, and trifarotene.

Of all the prescription retinoids, you've probably most familiar with tretinoin as it's the most versatile one, targeting different skin concerns, from acne to hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. The other forms are mostly targeted to treat acne and related skin issues. However, these can also show some promising anti-aging results after continuous use.

How Do Retinoids Work?

On the cellular level, retinoids act in their final active form, retinoic acid, neutralizing free radicals damage. They kick-start surface skin cells to turn over more quickly, allowing new skin cells to grow. They also prevent our skin's framework, collagen, from breaking down, thickening the deeper layers of the skin, and hampering the formation of wrinkles. As a result, skin aging is postponed and even reversed.

retinol serum

However, not all the derivatives of vitamin A will work the same. As we already mentioned, some of them need to go through several conversion stages, i.e., oxidation, to reach their active form, which is retinoic acid. And so, retinol, for example, will need a two-step conversion before converting to retinoic acid. In contrast, tretinoin is already in its active form and doesn't require any steps in between to work [source].

You can imagine these conversion steps as obstacles for vitamin A to do its magic. The smaller the number of these steps, the more effective the retinoid is. We could also say that the more structurally similar a retinoid is to retinoic acid, the more effective it is.

Benefits of Retinoids for Skin

woman satisfied with her skin lookin in the mirror

Now that you understand what retinoids are and how they work, let's focus on the real magic – their benefits for the skin! Retinoids were first introduced in dermatology in 1943 as an acne treatment, making them one of the most researched and proven ingredients, with both preventative and anti-aging properties.

Research shows that these are the benefits you can expect from topical retinoids:

Prevent and reverse the signs of aging: As we age, starting about our mid-20s, the collagen production in our skin starts to decrease. As a result, our skin gets thinner, starts sagging, showing fine lines and wrinkles. Retinoids can signal our skin cells in the dermis, the deeper skin layer, to produce more collagen, making the skin thicker, more plump and bouncy, and with fewer signs of aging.

Improve skin texture: Similarly to collagen production, our skin cell turnover slows down as we age. Due to this, our skin starts looking dull, uneven, and the pores get clogged and wider. Retinoids speed up this process, increasing the cell turnover and allowing for new cells to grow more quickly. Our skin gets renewed faster, the pores look smaller and tighter, bumpiness gets smooth out, and you get an overall improved skin texture.

Reduce hyperpigmentation: Increased collagen production and cell turnover will also have a positive effect on fading hyperpigmentation faster. Whether you suffer from hyperpigmentation due to prolonged and unprotected sun exposure or inflammation from acne, retinoids will fade it and, generally, improve your skin tone.

Help with acne: Thanks to their ability to speed up cell turnover and control inflammation, retinoids are very effective in unclogging pores and regulating sebum production. Thus, they reduce both inflamed acne and comedonal acne, like blackheads.

Once you introduce a retinoid in your skincare routine, you can't expect miracles to happen overnight. Some general skin conditions, such as brightening, firmness, and even skin tone and texture, might improve after a month to two of continual use.

But for true transformation to happen, you need to give it at least six months, or even a year, depending on your skin health and condition. After this period, you may notice less acne and fewer fine lines and wrinkles, smaller pores, faded dark spots, and, in general, your skin will look more plump and fresh.

The Possible Side Effects of Using Retinoids

These incredible and potent benefits come with some not-so-great side effects, commonly named retinoid reaction. When you start using a retinoid, you can experience a number of uncomfortable adverse skin reactions because your skin is going through the process of getting used to it – the so-called retinization process. The most common ones include:

Dry skin and flakiness: Before your skin condition starts improving, it's probably going to get a little worse in the beginning. Dryness and flakiness are the most common companions of using retinoids because your skin starts to rapidly renew itself, getting rid of dead skin cells on the surface layer and making way for new and healthier skin. Luckily, there are plenty of retinoid products formulated with lipids and other hydrating components that can help you minimize this side effect.

Redness and itchiness: Due to the increased cell turnover, your skin sheds more dead skin cells than it normally would. This creates a little bit of lag time before new skin cells replace them and come to the skin's surface. So, there's a small period of time when your new skin cells are exposed before they're ready, leading to several irritation symptoms, most commonly redness and itchiness.

Purging: Some people, especially those with oily or acne-prone skin, may experience skin purging – your skin purifies itself, and more acne and pimples break out. Again, your skin exfoliates fast because of the increased cell turnover, bringing more dead skin cells to the surface and temporarily congesting your pores. However, it is a transitional phase that regulates itself after a few weeks.

Increased sun sensitivity: By stimulating cell renewal, retinoids help produce new, more delicate skin initially, making it more sensitive to sun rays. But we already know that wearing sunscreen is a must throughout the year. Still, you should be particularly diligent about it while using retinoids. As long as you do so, you don't need to be worried about this side effect.

Since every skin is unique and has different tolerance levels, you might not experience all of these side effects. In any case, once you start experiencing them, it's important to bear in mind that they will subside over time, once your skin gets used to your retinoid routine and builds its tolerance to it.

Retinoid Tips for Beginners

If you want to step up your anti-aging routine with a retinoid, there are several tips dermatologists recommend following to minimize the possible side effects:

Use only at night: Since retinoids increase your skin's photosensitivity, they should only be used as a part of your nighttime skincare routine.

Don't forget your sunscreen: Sunscreen is a must, no matter if you're using retinoids or not. Due to increased photosensitivity of the skin during the use of retinoids, sunburns and sunspots may appear more quickly, so it is necessary to wear your sunscreen with an SPF 50 diligently and every day, no exceptions.

Start with low concentration: The higher the strength of your retinoid product, the more efficient it will be. But it will also be more irritating, especially in the beginning. So, it's essential to slowly ease into it, starting with lower concentrations of an active ingredient, and slowly work your way up. You'll know when your skin's ready for a higher strength of a retinoid, once it stops showing any side effects.

Don't use every night: Remember that Slow and steady wins the race – and that more isn't always better. This is particularly true when it comes to retinoids. If you're just starting out with your retinoid routine, you shouldn't use it every night but rather only once or twice a week. This way, you'll minimize the risk of irritation and other side effects and allow your skin to build a tolerance to the new product gradually.

Don't mix it with other active ingredients: Another way to minimize the risk of skin irritation is to limit the use of other strong actives while your skin is getting used to your retinoid. So avoid using chemical exfoliants, such as AHAs and BHAs, in the beginning.

Step up your moisturizing routine: As your skin is more sensitive and prone to drying while using retinoids, it's crucial to introduce ingredients that will maintain your skin's moisture levels. So, use moisturizers with hydrating ingredients and lipids, such as glycerin, panthenol, ceramides, and others. You may also benefit from ingredients with anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, like niacinamide or Centella Asiatica.

woman holding a moisturizing cream

Who Shouldn't Use Retinoids?

You should avoid retinoids while pregnant or breastfeeding. Research suggests that taking oral acne medication based on retinoids, such as roaccutane or isotretinoin, can cause congenital disabilities in infants. While research regarding topical retinoids during pregnancy is still ongoing, dermatologists suggest discontinuing its use while planning pregnancy, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding.

Also, if you're allergic to retinoids, you shouldn't use them either. If you're not sure if this is the case, we would suggest doing a 24-hour patch test on a smaller portion of your skin before applying the product to your face. If no adverse reactions occur during this period, like swelling or redness, it's likely safe to use.

anti aging face serum in a dark glass bottle


Hopefully, now that you understand the retinoids hierarchy and their potential benefits and side effects, it should be easier for you to choose the right one for your skin.

All in all, if you're only starting out, it's best to go for over-the-counter retinoids, such as retinyl esters, retinol, or retinaldehyde. On the other hand, if you generally have oily skin and you've been using retinoids for a while, you could easily switch to more potent prescription formulas, such as tretinoin.

But generally, your best asset for all of your skin-related concerns is, of course, your dermatologist. So if you have any doubts or your retinoid product isn't working the way it's supposed to, it's best to consult with your doctor and see how you can best achieve your skin goals.


Which is better retinol or Retin-A?

Retin-A is essentially a pure form of retinoic acid, tretinoin. This means that it's also the most effective one. Retinol, on the other hand, needs to convert two times before it reaches its pure form. Therefore it's less effective but also less irritating.

Can I use retinol and Retin-A together?

No, you shouldn't mix different retinoids together as it won't increase their efficacy but will only irritate your skin and cause different kinds of adverse effects. If you're just starting out, go with a weaker retinoid such as retinol, and work your way up to the stronger forms of retinoids, such as Retin-A or tretinoin.

Can I buy Retin-A over the counter?

No, it's not possible to get Retin-A which contains tretinoin, the purest form of retinoic acid, over the counter. If you wish to start using tretinoin, you should consult with your dermatologist and get a prescription first.

What can you use instead of Retin-A?

You can opt for weaker forms of retinoic acid, such as retinol, retinaldehyde, or retinyl esters. Alternatively, you can go for bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol which is much gentler to the skin.

Which is better for wrinkles retinol or hyaluronic acid?

Without any doubt, retinol, as well as other vitamin A derivatives, is the No.1 anti-aging skincare ingredient. Hyaluronic acid, on the other hand, won't help you get rid of wrinkles but is nevertheless an excellent addition to your anti-aging routine, keeping your skin hydrated and supple.

Should you moisturize after retinol?

Yes, you should always moisturize after using a retinoid. Vitamin A derivatives in skincare are super powerful anti-aging ingredients but can make your skin prone to dryness and irritation. Therefore, combine them with products with moisturizing and hydrating ingredients, such as ceramides, glycerin, and others.

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