Retinol vs. Retinoid vs. Retin-A: What's the Difference?

Discover which skin care ingredients are best for your skin

Retinol is a type of retinoid, or a group of compounds derived from vitamin A, typically found in over-the-counter anti-aging skincare options. Retinol products can help your skin feel smoother and look brighter.

Retin-A, the brand name for tretinoin, is a prescription-only retinoid used to treat acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. It is stronger and works faster than retinol.

This article explains retinoids and discusses the differences between retinol and Retin-A. It also covers potential side effects and how to select the best product for your needs.

Woman choosing a retinoid skin care product
Caiaimage / Rafal Rodzoch / Getty Images

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoid is the term used to describe a group of compounds that are derived from vitamin A. Retinoids are well-regarded among skincare experts because they offer proven benefits for the skin. Using retinoids regularly can help tone, smooth, and brighten your skin.

Retinoids can increase collagen production, and some evidence shows they may increase elastin production as well. This makes retinoids effective anti-agers, and they are often found in products designed to prevent and reverse signs of aging.

Retinoids also speed up cell turnover rates and can help unblock pores. For this reason, they are also used to treat acne.

Six types of retinoids are derived from vitamin A. These retinoids include:

  • Retinol
  • Tretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Tazarotene
  • Alitretinoin
  • Bexarotene

Some medications that contain retinoids include:

  • Retin-A Micro (tretinoin), a slower-release gel form of Retin A
  • Renova (tretinoin)
  • Tazorac (tazarotene)
  • Differin (adapalene), which may also be listed as a retinoid-like compound

Retinoids and Pregnancy

Retinol and Retin-A should be avoided during pregnancy, even though newer retinoids are thought to present less risk to a developing fetus than previous versions of the drugs. If you become pregnant, stop taking any retinoids and tell your healthcare provider.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A. It's found in many over-the-counter (OTC) 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 are generally fairly gentle. The longer you use them, the more likely you'll see anti-aging results, but they typically won't deliver transformative change.

How much retinol is actually converted into retinoic acid is dependent on several factors. These factors influencing retinol include:

  • The amount of retinol in the product
  • How much it's degraded (how old your product is or how long it's been opened)
  • Your own body chemistry. Some people convert it to 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. Retinol is a good addition to your anti-aging skincare routine but it isn't a miracle cure. You likely won't see massive change.

Side Effects

Retinols can cause side effects. 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.

How to Use a Retinol Product

Wash your face first. When your skin is completely dry, apply a pea-sized amount of the retinol product. Use your fingers to work the product into your skin. Since retinol can make you more sensitive to the sun, make sure to also use sunscreen if you're going to spend time outdoors.  

What Is Retin-A?

Retin-A is 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 inflammatory acne and comedonal breakouts. Retin-A's active ingredient, tretinoin, is also used to treat fine lines and wrinkles and brighten the complexion.

It also helps to fade hyperpigmentation, the dark marks left by acne breakouts or sun damage.

You don't have to wait for the skin to convert Retin-A to an active form. It's stronger than retinol products and works faster. You may see improvement in six to eight weeks.

Retin-A is a stronger treatment, but that also means you're more likely to notice side effects while using it. These side effects include:

  • Dry skin
  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Skin peeling or flaking

Some researchers have found that with long-term use, retinoid side effects can lead to a condition called epidermal barrier dysfunction. This, in turn, can contribute to the development of eczema and other skin disorders.

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.

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

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

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

   Retinol  Retin-A
Uses Signs of aging Acne and signs of aging
Availability OTC Prescription
Strength Mild 20x stronger than retinol
Reaction Time Up to 6 months 2 to 3 months
Side Effects

Mild: Red, dry, stinging skin; sun sensitivity Significant: Red, dry, peeling skin; sun sensitivity

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.

General Skin Care

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 last, it doesn't contain much retinol and probably won't be very effective.

Acne, Wrinkles, and Scars

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.

In the long term, you will get more dramatic results with a prescription retinoid than you will with an OTC version.

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

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 a decrease in side effects like dryness and peeling over time.

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.

Sun damage can still occur even if your skin isn't burning. 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 reacting.


Retinoids are drug compounds derived from vitamin A and used to treat skin conditions, such as age-related wrinkles or acne. Retinol and Retin-A (tretinoin) are both retinoid compounds but they may be used for different reasons.

Retinol is available in many over-the-counter products suitable for general skincare needs, and over time will deliver modest changes to make skin softer and smoother. Retin-A is stronger and available only with a prescription. It is used to treat acne, as well as wrinkles, scars, and hyperpigmentation.

Retinoids are generally safe to use but may cause side effects, such as red, flaky, or burning skin that is further harmed by sun exposure. Long-term use may lead to the development of other skin conditions, like eczema.

A Word From Verywell

Retinoids can be a helpful addition to your skincare routine. If you need help finding a retinoid product, your primary care healthcare provider or dermatologist can help you to choose one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is better: Retin-A or retinol?

    The answer depends on what you're using it for and how sensitive your skin is to its effects. Retin-A is stronger than retinol and may work faster than retinol. However, Retin-A is more likely to cause side effects like dryness, burning, and peeling. Retin-A Micro, a slow-release gel, may causes fewer side effects.

  • How much stronger is Retin-A than retinol?

    Retin-A is thought to be about 20 times as strong as retinol. However, studies have found that both Retin-A and products containing retinol produce similar results in people with photodamaged skin and wrinkles. 

  • At what age should I start retinol?

    Dermatologists often recommend using retinol products on your skin starting in your mid- to late-20s. This can vary, however, since your skin may not age at the same rate as someone else's. Always talk to your dermatologist before beginning any new skin care routine.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.