Is Retinol the Same as Retin-A?

The Difference Between Retinol, Retin-A, and Retinoids

Woman choosing a retinoid skin care product

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Skin care ingredients can be confusing, especially when they have similar sounding names, as is the case for retinol, Retin-A, and retinoids. What's the difference?

While all of these ingredients are related, they do have big differences. Learning how to distinguish between them all will help you choose the one that will be best for your skin.

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoid is the term used to describe a group of compounds that are derived from vitamin A. Retinoids are the darlings of the skin care world because they do so much for the skin. When you use retinoids regularly, your skin tone will be firmer, skin texture smoother, and your overall complexion will be brighter.

Retinoids can increase collagen production, and some evidence shows they may increase elastin production as well. As you can imagine, this makes retinoids effective anti-agers and are used to prevent and reverse signs of aging.

Retinoids also speed up cell turnover rates and can help unblock pores. So, retinoids are also used to treat acne.

Retinols and Retin-A are retinoids. They are derived from vitamin A. In addition, retinoids include Retin-A Micro (tretinoin), Renova (tretinoin), and Tazorac (tazarotene).

Think of it this way—retinols and Retin-A are types of retinoids, just as apple and key lime are types of pies.

Differin, the once prescription-only acne medication that is now available over the counter, is often lumped into the retinoid-group. Although the active ingredient in Differin (adapalene) isn't technically a retinoid, it works largely the same way. So, you may also see Differin listed as a topical retinoid or a retinoid-like compound as well.

What Is Retinol?

So now you know that retinol and Retin-A are both types of retinoids. But what's the difference between the two?

Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A. It's also found in many skin care treatments and beauty products. It can help make your skin look brighter, and feel softer and smoother. It may also help prevent fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinol itself doesn't actually affect the skin directly. Enzymes within the skin must first convert retinol into retinoic acid. It's only when it is converted into retinoic acid that it becomes effective. This isn't an instantaneous process, though. The conversion process can take a long time.

Retinol products can improve the skin, and the good news is that they are generally fairly gentle.

Also, how much retinol is actually converted into retinoic acid is dependent on many things, including the amount of retinol in the product to begin with, and if it's degraded (basically how old your product is or how long it's been opened). And, interestingly, some people convert retinol into retinoic acid more quickly than others.

Because of all of these factors, retinol is a slow worker. You might not see much in the way of results for up to six months or longer.

Results are cumulative, so the longer you use it the better results you will see. Even then, remember that while retinol is a good addition to your anti-aging skincare routine, it isn't a miracle cure. You likely won't see massive change.

Retinols can cause side effects, but they're typically less bothersome than Retin-A. You may notice your skin gets a bit pink after you apply a retinol product. A bit of stinging or dryness is also common, but it's typically very mild. Most people can use retinols without many issues, but if your skin seems irritated you should stop using the product.

What Is Retin-A?

Retin-A is actually the brand name for the medication tretinoin. Retin-A is a synthetic form of vitamin A.

Unlike retinols, Retin-A is a prescription-only medication. It's typically used to treat both inflammatory acne and comedonal breakouts. Retin-A's active ingredient, tretinoin, is also used to treat fine lines and wrinkles, brighten the complexion, and fade hyperpigmentation (dark marks left by acne breakouts or sun damage).

Tretinoin is retinoic acid. Because you don't have to wait for the skin to convert it (to retinoic acid), Retin-A works faster and is more powerful than retinol products. You may see improvement in six to eight weeks.

The added strength of Retin-A does come with a downside. You're more likely to notice side effects like dryness, redness, burning, peeling and flaking, while using Retin-A as compared to retinol products.

Effects of Retinol vs. Retin-A

Although they work in similar ways, retinol is not the same as Retin-A. Some may call retinol an over-the-counter version of Retin-A, but they aren't interchangeable.

Technically, retinol and Retin-A do the same thing. But retinol is much weaker than Retin-A because it first has to be converted into retinoic acid in order to be used by the skin. Retin-A is retinoic acid, so it can be used directly by the skin as soon as it's applied.

As such, Retin-A is much more powerful than retinol. Even the lowest strength Retin-A is stronger than the highest strength retinol product.

Retinol is sometimes added to over-the-counter (OTC) acne medications, but it's not an acne treatment in itself. It's used most often as an anti-ager.

Choosing the Right Product

Whether you choose retinol or Retin-A is dependent on what your end goals are. There are benefits and drawbacks for each.

If you're looking to give your skin a little boost, stave off some signs of aging, and you don't have any big problems that need to be addressed, retinol is the most practical choice. Look for retinol in leave-on treatments like moisturizers, creams, eye treatments, and serums.

There are different forms of retinol. So while you're looking at the ingredients list on that anti-aging cream, you probably won't see retinol. Instead, you'll see listed the form of retinol that is used in that particular product: retinal, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate.

The higher in the ingredient list it is, the more retinol that product has. If it's listed dead last, it doesn't contain much retinol and probably won't be very effective.

For concerns like acne, blackheads, pigmentation problems and deeper lines and wrinkles, Retin-A will give you more bang for your buck. This means going to the dermatologist for a prescription, but in the long term you will get more dramatic results with a prescription retinoid than you will with an OTC version.

It doesn't have to be an either/or decision. Retinol can be a good first step before moving on to stronger, and potentially more irritating, Retin-A.

Your skin gradually becomes accustomed to retinoids as you use them. This doesn't mean they don't work as well over time; they do. You'll just notice side effects like dryness and peeling become less and less over time.

Starting off with an over-the-counter retinoid product can help acclimate your skin to topical retinoids and reduce side effects if and when you eventually bump up to prescription Retin-A.

Preventing Side Effects

Whichever retinoid you use, sunscreen is a must. Retinoids can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn, because of the new skin cells at the surface of your skin.

Even if you aren't burning, sun damage can still be occurring. To protect your skin, use your retinoid at night and apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every morning.

You may also want to slowly acclimate your skin to your new retinoid treatment (this is an especially good idea if you have sensitive skin). Try using your retinol product just two to three times a week initially.

This will let your skin get used to the retinol and make it less likely you'll develop irritation. Slowly work up to the point where you can use your product every day without your skin protesting.

A Word From Verywell

Retinoids can definitely be a helpful addition to your skincare routine. If you need help finding a retinoid product, your physician or dermatologist can help you choose one.

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