Retin-A vs. Retinol vs. Retinoids

    When it comes to buying skincare products, you’ve got options. A lot of them. Sometimes, it can seem like too many options. It’s overwhelming, especially when the ingredients all sound the same.

    You’ve heard of retinoids, retinol and likely Retin-A, too. You’ve likely chalked them up to yet another collection of overhyped skincare ingredients. Similar name, same old stuff. But you’d be wrong. Not only are retinoids, retinol and Retin-A different from one another, they are unlike most skincare ingredients on the market.

    These compounds are some of the most well-researched in the treatment of skin aging and acne. If you’re interested in putting your money towards stuff that’s actually been proven to work—in real studies and clinical trials, by real-ass scientists—then you should probably give this a quick read.

    TL;DR: What You Need to Know

    • Retinoids are a class of topical medications used for a variety of reasons including: anti-aging, acne, discoloration and more.
    • All retinoids behave like or are derived from vitamin A.
    • Retinol is vitamin A, and is a type of retinoid. It is most often found in over-the-counter skin care products.
    • Retin-A, like retinol, is a type of retinoid. However, it is only available by prescription.
    • Retin-A is a brand-name drug is sold under the generic name, tretinoin.
    • There is a substantial body of scientific literature supporting the use of retinoids in both anti-aging and acne treatment.
    • Retinoids—prescription retinoids especially—may cause skin irritation, so ease into use, particularly if you have sensitive skin.

    Retinoids: A Group of Medications

    Retinoids are a large class of compounds including retinol (vitamin A) and both synthetic and natural derivatives. The importance of vitamin A was discovered early in the 20th century, according to an article in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, and in 1968 researchers began looking to create or derive substances similar to it. It was out of this push that scientists began understanding the role of retinoids in skin care and correction.

    Retinoids both regulate cell growth and division, and may stimulate collagen production, a protein that declines with age and leads to skin aging. They increase blood flow and also decrease inflammation. Generally, retinoids are available in creams, gels and liquids, and are sold in over-the-counter products that include retinol and prescription medications including tretinoin, adapalene, bexarotene, alitretinoin and tazarotene.

    The exact use of retinoids depends on the product. However, generally, they are used in the treatment of acne, skin aging, psoriasis, scaly skin disorders, hyperpigmentation and a certain type of cancer known as mycosis fungoides.

    Retinol and Retin-A: Types of Retinoids

    If you’ve been paying attention so far, you know retinol is vitamin A, or more specifically, a vitamin A alcohol. Retin-A, however, is one of many prescription retinoid products. Retin-A is sold under the generic name tretinoin. Retinol, Retin-A and many other products are types of retinoids.

    Retinol. Retinol has been available in over-the-counter cosmetic and skincare products since 1984.From that time, some studies have indicated its usefulness in treating signs of aging, including the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, and thickening of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin). However, retinol does not have immediate effects. Instead, the enzymes in your skin must convert to retinoic acid before it can be put to use. This means the effects are slower and more subtle than from products that do not require this conversion—products like Retin-A/tretinoin.

    Retin-A. More commonly known by its generic name, tretinoin, Retin-A is a potent prescription-strength retinoid. Potent because it is retinoic acid. Unlike retinol, it requires no help from you skin’s enzymes to make it usable. Tretinoin has been the subject of numerous scientific analyses, mainly investigating its use in anti-aging.  

    The Science

    Retinoids are some of the most-researched medications for both acne and anti-aging. It would be futile to try and cover all of the research, but we can provide some highlights:

    • In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several short-term studies found treatment with tretinoin cream led to improvements in both fine and coarse wrinkles and roughness of skin.
    • Longer-term studies followed, and researchers found skin continued to improve overtime with tretinoin use: anti-aging benefits, improved texture and tone and decreased hyperpigmentation or dark spots were all seen in these studies.
    • In numerous studies, retinoids have been shown to both reduce current acne lesions and prevent new ones. Because they’ve also been shown to reduce inflammation and hyperpigmentation, the appearance of acne is likewise improved.
    • Though retinol has been found to be less effective than Retin-A/tretinoin and other prescription retinoids, it isn’t without benefits—one study found reduced wrinkles after retinol application for 12 weeks; another that just 7 days of retinol could increase collagen synthesis.  

    The Side Effects

    Retinoids can cause skin irritation. Because tretinoin is more potent than retinol, the side effects are also more pronounced. They may include:

    • Redness
    • Scaling
    • Dryness
    • Itching

    In rare cases, topical retinoids can cause sensitivity to sunlight, swelling, blistering or stinging and acne or eczema flare-ups, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.

    Retinol is gentler, so while it’s benefits are less potent, it may be one solution for people with sensitive skin. For those using tretinoin or other prescription retinoids, a doctor can help you ease into a regular dose. You may start applying the medicine every other night and eventually work up to nightly, in order to lessen the risk of irritation.

    Final Word

    Retinol and Retin-A (tretinoin) are types of retinoids—compounds that are or behave like vitamin A. They are some of the most well-researched skin care compounds available to-date. Both retinol and tretinoin have been shown effective in fighting the signs of aging and in controlling acne. While retinol is available in over-the-counter products, it is less potent than tretinoin. All retinoids can cause irritation, so start slowly and work your way up to a regular dosing schedule. If you’re using tretinoin or another prescription retinoid, your doctor can help plan this out.

    Want to know more about how Retin-A and how it can help treat your skin issues? This is a good place to start. 

    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.