Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/24/2021
When it comes to buying skincare products, you’ve got options. A lot of them. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, especially when the ingredients all sound the same.
You’ve heard of retinoids, retinol and likely tretinoin (Retin-A®). 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 tretinoin different from one another, but they are also unlike most skincare ingredients you can find at the drugstore.
These active ingredients 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, then you should probably give this a quick read.
Retinoids are a class of topical and oral medications used for a variety of reasons including anti-aging, acne, discoloration of skin tone, and more.
All retinoids are vitamin A derivatives.
Retinol is vitamin A and is a type of retinoid. It is most often found in over-the-counter skincare products.
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 skincare and correction.
Retinoids regulate skin cell turnover 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. According to a study from Clinical Interventions in Aging, retinoids are used in the treatment of cystic acne, skin aging, skin texture issues such as psoriasis or scaly skin disorders and hyperpigmentation.
Certain retinoids can also be used to treat sun damage but should not be used in replacement of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
If you’ve been paying attention so far, you know retinol is vitamin A, or more specifically, vitamin A alcohol.
Tretinoin, however, is one of many prescription retinoid products. Tretinoin is sold under the generic name tretinoin. Retinol, tretinoin and many other products are types of retinoids.
Retinol has been available in OTC cosmetic and skincare products since 1984.
From that time, some studies have indicated the usefulness of over-the-counter retinol in treating signs of aging, including the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, and the thickening of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin).
However, retinol for acne 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 tretinoin.
Tretinoin, which is commonly known by its brand name Retin-A, is a potent prescription-strength retinoid.
Potent because it is retinoic acid. Unlike retinol, it requires no help from your skin’s enzymes to make it usable.
Tretinoin has been the subject of numerous scientific analyses, mainly investigating its use in anti-aging.
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 on retinoids 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 of the use of retinoids on acne, 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 tretinoin and other prescription retinoids, it isn’t without benefits—one study found reduced wrinkles after retinol application for 12 weeks; another that just seven days of retinol could increase collagen synthesis.
Retinoids can cause skin irritation. Because tretinoin is more potent than retinol, the side effects are also more pronounced. Retinoid side effects may include:
Scaling or flaking
It is important to remember that it is not safe to use oral retinoid medicines during pregnancy. Oral retinoid medicines are especially dangerous for an unborn baby due to their high levels of Vitamin A.
According to the FDA, if taken during pregnancy, oral retinoids could cause birth defects.
While generally safer, healthcare professionals still recommend avoiding topical retinoid skincare products during pregnancy as an extra precaution.
When using retinoids, be sure to also use a hydrating moisturizer to try to avoid side effects. In rare cases, topical retinoids can cause sensitivity to sunlight, swelling, blistering or stinging and acne or eczema flare-ups, according to the FDA.
Retinol is gentler, so while its benefits are less potent, retinol products may be one solution for people with sensitive skin types.
For those using tretinoin or other prescription retinoids, a dermatologist or healthcare professional can help you ease into a regular dose.
You may start incorporating retinoids into your skincare routine every other night and eventually work up to nightly, in order to lessen the risk of irritation.
Retinol and tretinoin are types of retinoids—compounds that are or behave like vitamin A. They are some of the most well-researched skincare compounds available to date.
Both retinol and tretinoin have been shown effective in fighting the signs of aging and in controlling and preventing breakouts.
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 acne cream or another prescription retinoid, your healthcare provider can help plan this out.