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Tretinoin vs retinol: What’s the difference?

These popular ingredients are both forms of vitamin A, but they work differently. Here’s how to figure out which one might be best for your skin.

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
featuring Laura Phelan, NP-C
Updated on Oct 27, 2023 • 19 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon
Retinol vs Tretinoin - Best Skincare Products for Acne and Anti-Aging
Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
featuring Laura Phelan, NP-C
Updated on Oct 27, 2023 • 19 min read
Medically reviewed by Camille Dixon
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.

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It's not uncommon to deal with both acne and signs of aging at the same time. Fun? No. Treatable? Yes! This is where a class of medications called topical retinoids often comes into play. 

Topical retinoids, like over-the-counter retinol and prescription-strength tretinoin, help increase cell turnover, but each one works a little differently. Think of retinol and tretinoin as cousins—they’re both parts of the “retinoid” family as derivatives of vitamin A, but they’re not identical. 

Here’s a look into what we know, based on the current research available to dermatology providers. 

The key takeaways

  • Both tretinoin and retinol are topical retinoids derived from vitamin A and frequently used in skincare to treat signs of aging and acne.

  • Retinol is a topical retinoid available over-the-counter and approved to treat signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Tretinoin is available by prescription only and is approved to treat both acne and signs of aging.

  • Tretinoin is stronger than retinol but retinol may be gentler for sensitive skin.

  • All topical retinoids come with the potential side effects of possible dryness, redness, and irritation.

The difference between tretinoin and retinol infographic

What is retinol and how does it relate to retinoids?

Topical retinol is a kind of retinoid—aka a vitamin A derivative. Think of retinoids as an umbrella term, and retinol as just one type of retinoid. The main role of retinoids is to stimulate skin cell turnover and promote the production of collagen, a protein that provides structure to our skin.¹

By encouraging faster cell turnover, retinol helps replace damaged, dull skin with newer, brighter layers. And by boosting collagen production, it aids in reinforcing the skin’s structure, making it appear more youthful.²

It’s also important to note the difference in potency and availability. Retinol is classified as a cosmeceutical, meaning you can buy it without a prescription. This sets it apart from other retinoids, like tretinoin, which require a doctor's prescription. However, while retinol offers many benefits, its efficacy in skin treatment is somewhat lower compared to some of its prescription-based relatives.³

Why is everyone excited about tretinoin?

Tretinoin—aka Retin-A or retinoic acid—is the gold standard in topical retinoids and prescription acne and anti-aging treatments. Tretinoin is one of the most widely researched ingredients for topical anti-aging skin treatments, and it has a few key differences from retinol:

First, one of the main differences between tretinoin and retinol is that tretinoin can get straight to work without needing to be converted to a different form first. This helps to make it more powerful—potentially up to 20 times stronger than retinol—which is one of the reasons why it has more multitasking capabilities.⁴

Similar to retinol, you can use tretinoin to help decrease signs of aging. Tretinoin works by activating specific skin receptors which help modify epithelial cell growth and differentiation.⁵ It has the ability to prevent collagen loss but also stimulate new collagen as well, helping to keep your skin firm and decrease the appearance of fine lines.⁶

While retinol and tretinoin both treat signs of aging, only tretinoin is proven to treat acne. For acne, tretinoin addresses the root of the issue by clearing out blocked pores and getting rid of dead skin cells. This process helps expel blockages and assists in preventing new lesions from forming.⁷

Curology nurse practitioner Laura Phelan, NP-C, notes, “Both tretinoin and retinol can be helpful for those looking to improve certain skin concerns, however, tretinoin works much better to help soften fine lines, lighten dark spots, and keep pores unclogged.”

One potential downside to tretinoin? It’s available by prescription only. Talk to your in-person medical provider about getting a prescription for tretinoin, or start a free consultation online through Curology—more on that later!

What are the benefits of tretinoin vs. retinol vs. other retinoids?

Fighting fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and acne—topical retinoids like tretinoin and retinol are definitely skincare powerhouses. Read on to learn more about each of these benefits.

Anti-aging and wrinkle-fighting

As we get older, our skin doesn’t bounce back the way it once did. It gets thinner, drier, and loses its stretchiness. A lot of this is due to sun exposure, which is the main reason our skin starts to show signs of aging.⁸ Enter retinoids, like retinol and tretinoin, to help!

Want to learn more about how Curology can help you reduce the visible signs of aging? Check out our customizable anti-aging formula Future-Proofᴿˣ.

Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is another common sign of aging. There are many different causes of these dark spots, such as sun exposure, melasma, or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. By increasing the turnover of skin cells, topical retinoids can also help disperse excess melanin, reducing the appearance of darker areas.⁹

Acne treatment

As previously noted, only tretinoin is approved to help treat acne. By getting rid of dead skin cells and helping to clear out blocked pores, tretinoin has shown to decrease acne lesions and may reduce acne-related inflammation, too.¹⁰

If fighting acne is your skincare goal, check out Curology’s Custom Formulaᴿˣ for acne which can be customized with proven ingredients (like tretinoin) to help clear skin.

Potential side effects of retinoids

All medications carry the risk of some side effects, and topical retinoids are no different.

Side effects of retinol

Potential side effects of retinol include the following:

Dryness: Because retinol speeds up your skin’s cell turnover—which allows it to address signs of aging—it’s possible to experience dry and peeling skin, particularly right after you add it to your routine.¹¹ This side effect may correct itself over time as your skin adjusts, but if dryness is persistent and uncomfortable, try using a lower strength of retinol. 

Redness: Like dryness, redness may be a sign of skin irritation. You may experience redness after beginning retinol as your skin completes the adjustment process. Retinol can also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so redness may be a sign of sunburn.¹² Treat your skin gently, moisturize, and always use SPF to reduce your likelihood of experiencing redness.

Itchiness: With dry, peeling skin may come itchiness—we’ve all been there. As your skin’s cell turnover cycle speeds up, you may feel an itchy sensation while your skin adjusts.¹³ Similar to dryness, give it some time; you may need to wait out the adjustment period before your skin settles. If your itchiness is disruptive and persistent, consider using a lesser concentration of retinol.

Side effects of tretinoin

Tretinoin may be more likely to cause side effects than retinol since it is stronger. These side effects are most likely to occur when first starting tretinoin or increasing your prescription’s strength. But don’t fret! We have tips to help you adjust to tretinoin, and you can reach out to your Curology provider for extra help and medical advice.

Potential side effects of tretinoin include the following:

Dry and/or irritated skin: Similar to retinol products, first-time users of tretinoin may have an adjustment phase after beginning to use the retinoid. During this phase, you may experience dryness, redness, or tightness of the skin.¹⁴ The good news? It’s likely this discomfort will subside after your skin adjusts to the active ingredient. Just don’t skip your moisturizer!

Temporary breakouts or worsening of breakouts: Tretinoin’s ability to speed up cell turnover helps in the treatment of acne, but it’s possible that the first one to two months may cause some breakouts. This is because of pesky “purging,” which brings about issues like blocked pores up to the skin’s surface, ultimately causing temporary breakouts. But this is often a good sign that the product is working.

Increased skin sensitivity: As your skin cell turnover accelerates, you may experience increased sensitivity, particularly if you also experience breakouts or dry skin. But temporary sensitivity isn’t the only potential side effect—like retinol, tretinoin can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun, leaving you more susceptible to sun damage.¹⁵ Increased cell turnover means new baby skin cells—protect them at all costs! Use your retinoid at nighttime only, always wear broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen during the day, and practice sun safety. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Wearing sunscreen every day is a non-negotiable!

Which retinoid is best for my skin type?

Trying to find the right topical retinoid for your skin can be challenging. Your choice should hinge on several factors: what you hope to achieve for your skin, how sensitive your skin is, and considerations like product quality, price, and ease of getting your hands on it. So, let’s dive in and help you discover which retinoid might be right for your unique skin type and needs.

Is it better to use retinol or tretinoin?

Neither retinol nor tretinoin is inherently better, but one might be better for your personal skin:

While retinol can reduce fine lines and improve uneven skin tone and texture it’s less potent than other retinoids like tretinoin. It needs to be converted into a usable form (i.e., retinoic acid) by enzymes before affecting your skin cells.¹⁶

That said—don’t write it off. Evidence shows that retinol can be effective at treating certain signs of aging. 

“Although tretinoin is considered the ‘gold standard,’ we all have unique skin!” explains Phelan. “Retinol may be a better choice for those who are seeking an over-the-counter product, have sensitive skin, or find they cannot tolerate prescription strength tretinoin at all.”

Tretinoin has both acne-fighting and anti-aging benefits. Available in gel, lotion, or cream form, tretinoin can help improve skin texture, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines but it also is a first line treatment for acne.¹⁷ 

If you don’t want to deal with a prescription, then stick with retinol—just be sure to research your product’s ingredients before using it. Researching takes a little extra time and effort, but it’s important to avoid ingredients that may cause breakouts and irritation.

Best retinoid treatment based on skin goal

Keep your skincare goals in mind when choosing a topical retinoid. Are you looking to treat acne or signs of aging? Both?

You should know off the bat that, while retinol treats signs of aging, it’s not proven to treat acne—tretinoin is likely the better option for those with both concerns as it is FDA-approved to treat both of these conditions.¹⁸ That said, tretinoin is available by prescription only, so you can’t just pick it up off the shelves like your everyday retinol serum. (If you’re a Curology member, you can access tretinoin—talk to your dermatology provider for more details.) 

Best retinoid option for sensitive skin

Over-the-counter retinol is often gentler than prescription retinoids and can be suitable for most skin types. So if your skin is sensitive to potent active ingredients, retinol may be a better option than tretinoin. You could also consider bakuchiol, a plant-based alternative to retinoids. Both are available over the counter—there’s no need to get a prescription from a dermatologist.

For those with sensitive skin who do choose tretinoin, it might be best to start on a low dose. It’s typically available in concentrations ranging from 0.01%-0.1%.¹⁹ (That said, we offer a wider range of strengths at Curology). Talk to your medical provider about what makes the most sense for you. 

Phelan urges a bit of caution to anyone considering tretinoin, as she says there are a lot of misconceptions about the ingredient: “The most common one I encounter is that you need to be using the highest percentage right away for results to be seen. I always remind my patients we want to start low, go slow, and find the strength that works best with their skin.”

So whether you choose retinol or tretinoin, start slow—just 2-3 nights per week at first. You should also skip chemical exfoliants (AHAs/BHAs) while your skin is adjusting since these can trigger side effects.  

Highest performance and quality retinoid

When it comes to retinoids, tretinoin stands out as a star player in terms of performance. It’s possibly the most potent option available.²⁰ While you can find various retinoid products over the counter (OTC), they usually don’t match the strength of prescription options. Tretinoin requires a provider’s prescription, and there’s a good reason for that—it’s powerful and effective, ensuring you get the highest performance and quality for your skin. So, if you’re looking for top-tier results, considering a visit to a licensed dermatology provider to discuss a prescription-strength retinoid might be your best bet.

Cost of retinol vs tretinoin products

When weighing the costs of retinol and tretinoin, it’s a bit of a balancing act. You can easily find retinol products over the counter at your local drugstore, and they’re generally quite affordable. On the other hand, tretinoin, despite being one of the more cost-effective retinoids, requires a prescription.²¹ This could mean additional expenses, like in-person provider visit fees or insurance costs. However, a telehealth dermatology service (like Curology!) may offer a more budget-friendly avenue to get a tretinoin prescription. 

Fight your acne and aging with a custom formula. Start today.

Fight your acne and aging with a custom formula. Start today.

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Curology can help you choose proven skincare ingredients

Retinol and tretinoin are both effective skincare ingredie​​nts, and the product that’s right for you will depend on your unique skin and skincare concerns. If you’re looking for a gentle foray into anti-aging, you may want to consider giving a low-concentration retinol solution a try. It’s relatively inexpensive and can be purchased over the counter without a prescription. 

If you’ve already tried retinol or are looking for a more efficacious approach to acne and aging concerns, you may wish to try prescription-grade tretinoin. Whatever avenue you choose, the dermatology professionals at Curology are here to help you find the active ingredients best suited for your skin. Getting started is simple.* Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few photos of your skin. You’ll be paired with one of Curology’s licensed dermatology providers who will answer your question and help you find the products that can help you meet your skin goals.

How to Use Tretinoin For Acne and Anti Aging Skincare

FAQs

Is tretinoin stronger than retinol?

Yes, tretinoin is stronger than retinol. One of the main differences between tretinoin and retinol is that tretinoin can get straight to work without needing to be converted to a different form first. This helps to make it more powerful—potentially up to 20 times stronger than retinol—which is one of the reasons why it has more multitasking capabilities.

Is tretinoin more harsh than retinol?

Tretinoin is more potent than retinol and that potency may come with a bit more harshness. Like all members of the retinoid family, both tretinoin and retinol have a tendency to dry out and irritate the skin.²² However, a daily moisturizer can be your skin’s best friend, helping it cope with and bounce back from these effects. So, if you opt for the stronger tretinoin, just remember to keep your skin hydrated to make the experience smoother.

Is it safe to use retinoids during pregnancy?

When it comes to using retinoids during pregnancy, it’s best to tread with caution. Medical research has raised concerns about their use during pregnancy.²³ As for breastfeeding, while vitamin A is naturally present in breast milk, it’s not entirely clear if topical retinoids get into the milk.²⁴ Given these concerns, it’s always best to consult your healthcare provider before using retinoids when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Can I go in the sun with retinoid creams?

While retinoid creams offer many skin benefits, they do come with a sun-related catch. These creams may make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, increasing the risk of sunburn. So, if you’re using tretinoin or other topical retinoids, it’s essential to be sun-smart. Always apply sunscreen (with an SPF of 30 or higher) before heading out, even if it’s cloudy. And it’s not just about sunscreen: wearing protective clothing and avoiding direct sun exposure or tanning beds is crucial.²⁵

Do I need sunscreen with retinoid cream?

Absolutely, yes! If you’re using retinoid creams, sunscreen isn’t just a recommendation—it’s a requirement. Why? Because topical retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun, raising your risk of getting sunburned. Even if you’re just stepping out on a cloudy day, it’s essential to protect your skin. Slather on sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.²⁶ And don’t forget to wear hats and protective clothing, especially if you’re planning to spend a lot of time outdoors.

Retinol makes my skin irritated, what can I do?

It’s not uncommon for retinol to make your skin feel a bit dry and irritated, especially when you first start using it. But don’t worry! There’s a simple trick to help your skin feel better: moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! A daily moisturizer can act like a protective blanket for your skin, helping it adjust to the retinol and minimizing that dry, irritated feeling. Another option? Cut back on how frequently you apply retinol from every night to only 2-3 nights per week. If your skin feels less irritated, you can slowly work your way back up.

What skincare ingredients improve retinoid performance?

In some situations, teaming your retinoid up with certain other skincare ingredients can help supercharge its performance. Combining retinoids with antibacterial treatments, for instance, can be a game-changer for acne. Here’s why: while retinoids work on increasing cell turnover and clearing out skin blockages, antibacterial treatments tackle acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation.²⁷ Some frequent duos include tretinoin paired with clindamycin and adapalene combined with benzoyl peroxide. And don’t forget, retinoids can be a bit tough on the skin, making it dry and sensitive. To keep your skin happy, always use a moisturizer alongside to soothe and hydrate. It’s all about finding the perfect skincare cocktail!

What skincare products should I avoid with retinoids?

If you’re using topical retinoids, you might want to avoid certain facial hair treatments like sugaring and waxing. These can trigger unwanted side effects. You’ll also want to at least temporarily steer clear of products that can irritate or dry out your skin. This includes harsh soaps, certain shampoos, hair dyes, hair removal creams, and any skin products containing alcohol or astringents.²⁸ Remember, it’s all about keeping your skin balanced and happy!

What are common retinoid concentrations to look for?

When you’re comparing retinoid products, it’s helpful to know the typical concentrations. Tretinoin is typically available in concentrations ranging from 0.01%-0.1% (although we offer a wider range of strengths at Curology). The most commonly used strengths usually fall between 0.01% and 0.04% for tretinoin.²⁹ On the other hand, OTC retinol is generally present in concentrations up to 2%.³⁰ Unfortunately, it’s difficult to compare these two directly by their concentrations since tretinoin is potentially up to 20 times stronger than retinol.

Is 1% retinol equivalent to tretinoin?

When it comes to retinol and tretinoin, it’s like comparing apples and oranges—even if they both seem similar, they’re quite different in strength. While over-the-counter products might have retinol concentrations up to 2%, tretinoin typically ranges between 0.01% and 0.1%. But here’s the catch: Tretinoin can be up to 20 times stronger than retinol! So, when you see a 1% retinol product, it doesn’t have the same punch as tretinoin, even at a lower concentration.

Where can I get trusted retinol and tretinoin products?

When it comes to skin, you want only the best. For retinol, many trusted options are easily available at your local drugstore or beauty retailer. However, if you’re considering the more potent tretinoin, you’ll need a visit to a dermatology provider. They can provide a prescription tailored to your skin's needs. 

Don’t have time for an in-person visit? No worries! Many telehealth services now offer consultations with dermatology providers online, making it convenient to get professional advice and prescriptions from the comfort of your home. And if you choose a telehealth service like Curology, you can even have your custom skincare formula shipped right to your home.

When should I switch from retinol to tretinoin?

If you’re seeing the results you want with retinol, there’s no pressing need to change your routine. However, if you find that retinol isn’t quite cutting it anymore or you’re facing stubborn acne, transitioning to tretinoin might be a good move. Tretinoin is a stronger option and can handle both signs of aging and acne more effectively. 

Always remember, skincare is personal. It’s about finding what works best for your unique needs. By considering your skincare goals, skin sensitivity, product availability, and pricing, you can find a retinoid that fits your needs.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Kong, R., et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2015, November 18). 

  2. Kong, R., et al. A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  3. Motamedi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. (2021, July 22).

  4. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. (December 2006).

  5. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. (2013, June 1).

  6. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

  7. Yoham, A.L. and Casadesus, D. Tretinoin. StatPearls. (2023, March 27).

  8. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  9. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (August 2019).

  10. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

  11. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  12. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  13. Yoham, A.L. and Casadesus, D. Tretinoin. StatPearls. Ibid.

  14. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

  15. Yoham, A.L. and Casadesus, D. Tretinoin. StatPearls. Ibid.

  16. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  17. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

  18. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

  19. Zasada, M. and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  20. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  21. Motamedi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  22. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Moisturizer: Why You May Need It If You Have Acne. (n.d.).

  23. Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. Ibid.

  24. Motamedi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  25. Yoham, A.L. and Casadesus, D. Tretinoin. StatPearls. Ibid.

  26. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (2023, October 19).

  27. Motamedi, M., et al. A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Ibid.

  28. Yoham, A.L. and Casadesus, D. Tretinoin. StatPearls. Ibid.

  29. Zasada, M., and Budzisz, E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. Ibid.

  30. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to prevent premature skin aging. (2021, February 25).

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary. Camille Dixon is a certified Physician Assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Studies from Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL. Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
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