Retinol Vs. Tretinoin: What's The Difference And Which Is Best For You?

Whether you are a skincare novice or an expert, you must have heard of retinol. After all, retinol is considered among the best anti-aging ingredients. Still, people often use the terms retinol and retinoids interchangeably, but they are not the same. Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that can help your skin get firmer, smoother, and brighter by increasing collagen production (via Verywell Health). Retinoids can also help "prevent and reverse signs of aging," such as fine lines and wrinkles.


On this, New York-based dermatologist Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin told Byrdie, "'Retinoid' is essentially a basic umbrella term for both over-the-counter retinol and prescription retinoids," and retinoids have to change to retinoid acid for them to work. Retinol is a type of retinoid that is available over-the-counter and converts to retinoic acid when it comes in contact with the skin. According to Healthline, tretinoin is already a retinoic acid, so it works faster and gives quicker and more dramatic results than retinol. Unlike retinol, which you can buy at the store, tretinoin is only available with a prescription.

The main difference between retinol and tretinoin is their strength

Retinol and tretinoin are both different types of retinoids, and the biggest difference between them is their strength. Explaining this difference, Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin told Byrdie, "Retinols contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient." In comparison, prescription retinoids such as tretinoin have a higher concentration and are much stronger than retinol.


According to Healthline, retinol is natural, while tretinoin is a synthetic form of vitamin A. Tretinoin is, essentially, a more concentrated version of retinol, making it stronger so it will give you more noticeable results within two to three weeks. However, it also has more side effects when compared to retinol. Since retinol needs to convert to retinoic acid, it can take some time for it to work on your skin as the conversion isn't instant (via Verywell Health). Retinol can take almost "six months or longer" to show results. Before choosing the right retinoid for your skin, you need to consider your skin type, your experience with retinoids, and your expected results.

Retinol is great for beginners

If you have never used a retinoid product before and are looking for little improvements on your skin, you should start with over-the-counter (OTC) retinol. Verywell Health recommends choosing a retinol product if you are looking to combat some signs of aging and give your skin a little glow. According to Healthline,  you should use retinol on alternate nights for about two weeks until your skin gets used to it, and then you can start using it daily. Due to its drying side effects, it is important to apply moisturizer afterward.


OTC retinol is "less intense," gentler on the skin, and works slowly, giving your skin time to adjust to it, making it the perfect type of retinoid for beginners, per Byrdie. Dr. Loretta Ciraldo recommends first trying an OTC retinol before prescription strength versions. Since your skin needs some time to adjust to retinoids, it is best to start with retinol and slowly move your way up to prescription strength retinoids.

Tretinoin is best for dramatic results on experienced skin

If you've been using retinol for a while and have not experienced severe side effects such as irritation, you can consult your dermatologist to get a prescription for tretinoin. According to Healthline, tretinoin can give more dramatic and quicker results than retinol. Since it is stronger, there are more possibilities of getting potential side effects than retinol, so you must slowly incorporate it into your routine. Tretinoin is an excellent anti-aging ingredient to treat acne, sun damage, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation (via Healthline). Since it is pretty strong, it might not be the best option for those with sensitive skin. It's also generally advised that pregnant and nursing individuals not use retinoid products.


Board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo recommends waiting 20 minutes after you have washed your face to use tretinoin to reduce irritation, as well as applying it before other products (via Byrdie). Due to potential side effects, it's always advised to use retinol at night, and you must be diligent about using sunscreen the next day. If you struggle with acne, hyperpigmentation, and deeper wrinkles, tretinoin will give you better results, per Verywell Health. Higher concentration means more potential side effects such as dryness and peeling, which should subside over time. However, if you experience severe irritation or burning, it is best to stop using it and consult a dermatologist.