Ask Curology: tretinoin vs. retinol

What’s the difference between these retinoids?

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP
Dec 10, 2019 · 4 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Welcome to Ask Curology, a series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. This week, we dig into the differences between tretinoin and retinol.

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Dear Curology,

Help me — I just turned 27 and I’m already noticing that I have a lot of fine lines and even some wrinkles, and what sucks the most is that I’m still struggling with acne, too. I picked up an anti-aging retinol serum from the drugstore, and after using it for a few weeks, my skin looks a lot different — for better and for worse. It’s definitely smoother, but my skin is super dry and red, and my breakouts haven’t stopped, either. So I’m at a crossroads — are the side effects of retinoids worth it for the results? How can I tell if the retinol is working, or would I be better off getting a prescription for a tretinoin cream?


In Search Of Retinol Without Regrets At All

Dear Rets Without Regrets,

First of all, you’re not alone — plenty of my patients are dealing with both acne and signs of aging. I know it’s not fun, but it is treatable! While you can probably find an over-the-counter retinol serum that works for you, tretinoin is one of the most potent and widely-researched retinoids. Among dermatologists, tretinoin for wrinkles is the gold-standard. Tretinoin for acne can also be great because of its ability to unclog pores and increase cell turnover.

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Both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids, or vitamin A derivatives. However, generally speaking, we think of a retinoid as a prescription, such as tretinoin, while retinol is found over-the-counter. Vitamin A derivatives stimulate skin cell turnover and increase the production of collagen and elastin. This makes them very helpful in the treatment of acne and aging skin. But because retinoids increase cell turnover, they can be a bit irritating or drying to the skin initially, especially in those with sensitive skin.

Tretinoin vs Retinol: which one is right for you?

When choosing between retinol and tretinoin, it’s important to consider your skincare goals as well as your skin type. Since you don’t need a prescription for retinol, its wide availability is one major benefit. You should also check the amount of retinol in your product — concentrations range from 0.01% to a maximum concentration of 2%, and it’s best to start with a low-strength retinol product if your skin is dry or on the sensitive side. Note that some over-the-counter retinol products do not disclose the retinol strength. If this is the case, the retinol concentration is likely fairly low (1% or less), but I still recommend starting slow if you have sensitive skin.

Tretinoin, on the other hand, is a prescription-strength retinoid found in medications such as Retin-A and some Curology formulas. If your skin is oily or your concerns are a bit more complex, such as acne, hyperpigmentation, or deeper fine lines, tretinoin may be the better option. You’ll likely see better results in comparison to retinol.

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Regardless of whether you decide to go with retinol or tretinoin, sunscreen is an essential component to your skincare routine. This is because retinoids cause the skin to be more sensitive to the sun (think of increased cell turnover as bringing up new baby skin cells!). To protect your skin, use your retinoid at nighttime only and always wear a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 during the day.

Finally, we suggest starting out slow with your retinoid, perhaps only using it 2 to 3 times per week and slowly increasing the frequency as tolerated. You should also be cautious of mixing retinoids with chemical exfoliants, like AHAs and BHAs. The combination can cause irritation and dryness, especially if your skin is sensitive. Common tretinoin side effects include dryness and increased skin sensitivity while adjusting to your prescription.

Don’t forget…

If you’re a Curology member, ask your dermatology provider if tretinoin is right for you. We’ll be available for consultation if you experience any side effects. We also offer a rich moisturizer, which pairs especially well with tretinoin. As always, anyone interested in giving Curology a try can get their first month for $4.95 (plus tax) to cover the cost of shipping and handling.


Allison Buckley, NP-C

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Allison Buckley Avatar

Allison Buckley, NP

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