Retinol vs. Retin-A: Everything You Need to Know

Same concept, different results for different skin types
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Mar, 2022
Retinol vs. Retin-A

If you’ve befriended retinol, YOU probably know that it’s basically the Queen of Anti-Aging Skincare. You can find retinol in everything starting from moisturizer to eye cream to facial oils and serum. And you’re not sure about which one to choose: Retinol vs. Retin-A. Both seem to be the same. With so many terms in the skincare industry, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting in a product that has the word “retinol” on the label.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s found over-the-counter in anti-aging skincare products. But Retin-A is something a little different that can only be prescribed. So when it comes to Retinol vs. Retin-A, here’s everything you need to know about their differences and which form would potentially benefit your skin the most!

First, Let’s Define Terms

Retinol is different from Retin-A, which is also a bit different from tretinoin. If you’ve heard of any of these terms, it’s understandable to get them mixed up. But let’s define these terms to understand better what each of them means.



You’ll find our friend retinol in products that you can buy online or at the store. It’s a natural form of vitamin A that can be derived from animals or plants or synthetic (made in a lab).

The retinol you find in OTC products exists in a more mild concentration. But even still, some skin types can react to retinol. It is because retinol stimulates cellular turnover, which allows your body to create new skin cells and get rid of old ones faster. The result? Smoother, younger-looking skin.

Dry and sensitive skin types are most likely to react to retinol, but any skin type can react to it. Fortunately, the irritation people experience from retinol commonly subsides after a few weeks of using the product. That’s the reason it’s essential to ease retinol into your skincare routine by using it only a few times a week and later on gradually working up to daily use.

Retinol is milder than Retin-A and tends to be more gentle on the skin, thanks to its low concentration in OTC products.



Retin-A is a brand name of synthetic retinoic acid (another name for tretinoin, the active ingredient in this product) which achieves the same results as retinol, but it works faster. As a result, researchers consider it to be more irritating than retinol. Originally developed to help in acne treatment, Retin-A has significant anti-aging benefits. But it’s not ideal for sensitive skin due to its stronger concentration.

Unlike retinol, Retin-A doesn’t need to be broken down by skin to be used. Instead, it uses tretinoin, which is retinoic acid and is readily available to the skin. Whereas with OTC retinol, the retinol needs to be converted into retinoic acid. So the process can take longer (but this is also what makes it more gentle than Retin-A).

Retin-A can give faster results than retinol alone, thanks to its stronger concentration. But it can cause burning, itchy, peeling, or red skin issues. These symptoms are sometimes referred to as retinoid dermatitis.

Retinoid is a term that includes both retinol and Retin-A. Generally, dermatologists prescribe Retin-A only for severe acne cases, but they may also prescribe it for skin aging.

Considerations When Using Retinol vs. Retin-A

Considerations When Using Retinol vs. Retin-A

Retinoids have anti-wrinkle properties and can strengthen skin, preventing transepidermal water loss, and even protecting collagen production.

With these essential benefits, it makes sense to incorporate them into your skincare routine for smoother, more protected skin. But for retinol vs. Retin-A, which one is better, and what should you consider when making the best choice for your skin?

Unless you have acne, you won’t be able to get Retin-A, except for in cases where your dermatologist is willing to prescribe it for aging. People who have sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema aren’t generally good candidates for Retin-A. While retinol isn’t as good at treating acne as Retin-A, it does provide some benefits for acne while also helping improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

• Fine Lines And Wrinkles:

It’s essential to take your skin type and concern into account when considering retinol vs. Retin-A. If YOU have acne and wrinkles, Retin-A may be an option for you. However, if you experience dry or sensitive skin, retinol products will likely be a better pick for you.

• Night Usage:

YOU should only use both retinol and Retin-A at night. If you’re using Retin-A during the day, you must avoid the sun. You should also “avoid harsh exfoliants and soaps”, and always use sunscreen. Experts also currently don’t advise using Retin-A if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

• Affect On The Skin

Remember that while Retin-A works faster, you see results sooner. And when it’s harsher on the skin, you may need a more extended time to adjust to the product. While burning, itching, peeling, sensitivity, or redness are all normal when first using Retin-A, you should contact your dermatologist if you experience severe dryness, peeling, redness, pain, or skin irritation.

• Changes Take Time

It’s also important to remember that retinol can take months to show a difference in your skin. So don’t give up if you do not see the results you want just yet. Experts say retinol can take anywhere from three to 12 months to show results. Be patient and give it time before deciding whether or not retinol is for you!

While retinol will be sufficient for most people in anti-aging skincare, those who have severe acne or premature skin aging may particularly benefit from Retin-A. If you want to pursue a stronger form of retinol, you can always follow up with your dermatologist to see if you’re a candidate for Retin-A! 

Grab This FREE Printable Guide on Mixing Retinol

Retinol is an anti-aging superstar, but its harsher effect on the skin can make using it be a challenge. Fortunately, you can mix retinol with other skincare ingredients to help reduce inflammation. So YOU experience more of the benefits and less of the side effects as your skin adjusts. Grab our free printable guide on mixing retinol to discover how you can make the most of this antiaging gem for your skincare!

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