Retinoids are the holy grail of anti-aging and one of the few skincare ingredients that are clinically proven to alter your skin on a cellular level – but are all retinoids created equally? What’s the difference between retinol vs tretinoin? Is one more effective than the other?
If you’re trying to decide between retinol vs tretinoin, here’s everything you need to know…
This post contains affiliate links which means that I may make a commission on any products purchased at no extra cost to you. You can read more in our affiliate disclaimer.
What Are Retinoids?
Retinoid is a collective term for vitamin A derivatives and includes retinol, retinal, retinyl esters, adapalene (differin), tazarotene, and tretinoin (retin-a). They’re antioxidants that can help improve the appearance of your skin by increasing the rate that your skin produces new skin cells (cellular turnover).
Your cellular turnover rate decreases as you age which causes dead skin cells to build up on the surface of your skin and leaves your skin looking dull and dry. A reduced cellular turnover rate is also one of the main causes of acne as the build-up of dead skin cells can clog your pores.
Although the main way in which retinoids work is by increasing cellular turnover, they have a number of other benefits for your skin, including:
- Boosting collagen production
- Reducing sun damage
- Reducing hyperpigmentation (e.g. dark marks, age spots, etc)
- Increasing skin hydration (although they can initially decrease hydration by disrupting your skin barrier)
- Acting as an antioxidant to protect your skin from free radical damage
- Treating and preventing clogged pores
- Reducing the inflammation associated with acne and acne scarring
- Minimizing the appearance of enlarged pores
- Improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Preventing the growth of bacteria on your skin
Retinoids are sometimes misunderstood to have an exfoliating effect as they can often cause skin peeling upon first use. However, this peeling is down to irritation and skin barrier damage rather than an exfoliating effect.
What’s The Difference Between Retinol vs Tretinoin?
Tretinoin is vitamin A in its active form of retinoic acid which means that it can start doing its thing as soon as you apply it to your skin. However, retinol has to go through a few steps in order to convert to retinoic acid which means that it’s less potent.
It’s also less stable than tretinoin and is easily degraded by light and air.
However, retinol is much easier to access than tretinoin as it doesn’t require a prescription. It’s also available in a wide-range of formulas and often combined with other skin-beneficial ingredients which can help boost its effects and make your experience a little more pleasurable.
Retinol may be a better option for you if you have sensitive skin that’s easily irritated as the increased conversion steps that it has to go through mean that it’s usually gentler on skin. It was found to cause less water loss, redness, and scaling than tretinoin in a study comparing the two retinoids.
Tretinoin is quite possibly the most well-researched skincare product and is the form of retinoid that’s most often used in clinical research. When compared to retinol, research suggests that tretinoin is 20 times as potent and produces faster results.
However, other research found that retinol was as effective as tretinoin at producing cellular changes but caused less irritation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use tretinoin if you have sensitive skin. In fact, research actually found that it was able to improve psoriasis when combined with a topical steroid, but you should discuss this with your dermatologist.
How To Use Retinol vs Tretinoin
As tretinoin is a prescription drug you should always follow the advice of your prescriber on how best to use it but here are a few tips for getting started with retinol vs tretinoin.
1. Start slow
If you’re new to retinoids then you should always introduce them slowly and allow your skin to build tolerance. With retinol, you can usually get away with using it 1-3x per week to begin with then gradually build to daily use.
However, tretinoin should be introduced even slower, for example, 1x week for two weeks, then 2x week for 2 weeks, gradually building up until your skin can tolerate it daily.
(Note: some people’s skin may not be able to handle tretinoin daily but research suggests that you can still achieve excellent results using it 1-3x per week).
2. Use at night
Some retinoids, including retinol and tretinoin, are easily degraded by sunlight which means that they may lose their effectiveness if used during the day.
You can counteract this by applying sunscreen over the top during the day or using them at nighttime only.
Another benefit to using retinoids at night is that your cellular turnover is at its highest and your retinoid can help boost this further.
3. Use plenty of moisturiser
When using retinoids, moisturizer is your best friend! Both tretinoin and retinol are well-known for causing skin irritation and barrier damage, particularly tretinoin.
When the lipids that hold your skin cells together become depleted, your skin barrier is weakened, which means that water can escape and irritants can enter.
Replacing these lipids by using moisturizers that contain barrier-identical lipids or ingredients that increase lipid production (e.g. niacinamide) can help keep your skin barrier strong and prevent retinoid irritation.
Looking for a moisturizer to use with your retinoid? Check out The Best Moisturizers To Use With Tretinoin (Retin-A).
Buffering is a common tactic used to prevent retinoid-induced irritation and involves applying the retinoid after your moisturizer. This way, the retinoid takes longer to penetrate your skin which reduces the risk of irritation.
You can also use the ‘sandwich’ technique where you apply moisturizer before AND after your retinoid – this may be particularly beneficial to anyone starting tretinoin.
5. Wear sunscreen
Daily sunscreen use is the most important part of any skincare routine. In fact, you’re wasting your time if you’re using a retinoid without wearing sunscreen everyday.
Plus, you’re probably causing even more damage to your skin as retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sun damage (the number one cause of skin aging).
UVA rays can reach your skin even if you’re indoors all day so you need to make sunscreen a part of your daily routine no matter the weather.
6. Skip the exfoliation for a while
Chemical exfoliants, like glycolic acid, work in synergy with retinoids to increase cellular turnover. Retinoids encourage the production of new skin cells and increase the rate they reach the surface of your skin while chemical exfoliants help you shed those cells from the surface of your skin.
While this means that you can get better results using both together, it’s almost guaranteed to cause skin irritation and barrier damage, at least when you’re first starting out.
Whether you’re using retinol vs tretinoin, you should skip the exfoliants for at least the first month of retinoid use. Once your skin has adjusted to your retinoid you could consider reintroducing an exfoliant 1x per week to start and, if tolerated, increase use up to an absolute maximum of 3x per week.
7. Use alongside niacinamide
Research suggests that, not only does niacinamide help reduce retinoid-induced irritation, it can also enhance your results. To get the most out of this skincare combination, use niacinamide for a month prior to starting retinoids.
Research suggests that this helps strengthen your skin barrier so that you experience less irritation when commencing retinoid use.
Please note that the majority of research, including these studies use niacinamide at a maximum concentration of 5%. Many niacinamide serums contain 10% which may increase your risk of irritation.
Want to see all the research behind this skincare combo? Check out: Niacinamide and Retinol Together – Why It’s a Game-Changer.
Retinol vs Tretinoin Niacinamide Combination Products
I’m currently restarting tretinoin after my second pregnancy (retinoids are contraindicated in pregnancy and possibly breastfeeding) and I’ve been using a tretinoin + niacinamide combination from Dermatica.
It’s got barrier-repairing ceramides in the base formula which, along with the niacinamide, help reduce the risk of irritation. So far, I’ve only experienced some minor irritation when I applied it too close to my eyes (my bad!).
If you prefer retinol vs tretinoin, check out La Roche Posay’s Retinol B3 serum.
Summary – Retinol vs Tretinoin
Both retinol and tretinoin are excellent ingredients for improving the signs of aging, fighting acne, and lightening pigmentation.
Retinol is gentler and may be better suited to sensitive skin than tretinoin but tretinoin is going to get you faster results.
Ultimately though, whether you choose retinol vs tretinoin is completely down to personal preference!
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.