Retinol vs. Tretinoin: Which one is better for your skin?

“Similar, yet so different” This defines everything you might need to know about Retinol and Tretinoin. But how are they similar, and how are they different? Let’s take a look at those details.

Skincare has become an essential part of everybody’s routine over the past few decades. With new products coming out in the market every day, it is almost impossible to keep up and look for ones that suit you and your needs.

With all of these new products, one that has stayed in the limelight for quite a while is Retinol. However, a few other variations of retinoids have also come around, for instance, Tretinoin; and now, with these varieties, the one question that might run in everyone’s head is, “Retinol vs. Tretinoin, which one is better for our skin?”

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about Retinol as well as Tretinoin, and we will also answer your question about what suits your skin best.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is an umbrella term used for the class of drugs that go by the name retinoids. It is essentially a vitamin A derivative. This class of drugs works at different levels depending on the kind of variation used.

Retinol has made rounds in the beauty and skincare industry and has left quite a mark. The different types of retinoids are used in various face creams, eye creams, and serums. It is considered the ultimate anti-aging miracle worker. 

Professionals say that retinoids work by increasing collagen production and the rate of skin cell turnover. They can also help treat acne, clogged pores, and blackheads by reducing the stickiness of the cells that clog pores and speeding up the rate at which the skin turns over and regenerates. This is possible since Retinol is known to penetrate the layers of your skin up until the dermis layer. 

Retinol is used as a topical treatment and is ideal for improving the overall texture of your skin by minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, evening out your skin tone, and decreasing your pore size.

Benefits of Retinol

Can help even out skin tone

Retinol is known for its effect in stimulating skin cell turnover. The exfoliating effect that follows during this procedure can help get rid of dull, dry skin and make way for brighter and more even-toned skin. Retinol increases collagen and elastin levels, thus making your skin thicker, stronger, smoother, and more even-toned.

Can help fight acne

Retinol, as a product, can help unclog your pores, clear your skin, and prevent further outbreaks. It reduces the stickiness of cells that clog pores and increases skin cell turnover. It can also indirectly help prevent acne by amplifying the effects of other medications that you might be using for it.

Can reduce signs of aging

Retinol increases collagen and elastin production; this helps thicken the skin’s surface and make it supple. This can help smoothen out any fine lines or wrinkles that you might notice and prevent the formation of new ones; thus, catching and reducing signs of aging in its early stages.

Doesn’t require a prescription

As mentioned, retinoids are of various types, out of which retinol and retinyl palmitate are the two available over-the-counter. Retinol is more effective and stronger than retinyl palmitate.

Certain types of retinoids do not require a prescription but work just as well as the ones that do. If you do plan on using over-the-counter Retinol, make sure that you have conducted enough research of the brand, your skin type, allergies, side effects, and everything else skin and Retinol related. 

Although Retinol can be bought without a prescription, it is advised to consult your dermatologist before getting on any sort of treatment.

Side effects of Retinol

Retinoids can be harsh on the skin, and therefore it isn’t uncommon to experience side effects to Retinol. However, the side effects you experience can only result from excessive usage or usage of Retinol that is concentrated; unless you’re allergic to certain ingredients in the product.

Although you might experience some dryness, redness, and peeling, professionals suggest that this could result from the retinoids effectively turning over cells.

A few other side effects (less common) that you could experience are;

  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Sensitivity to UV light
  • Acne flare-up
  • Swelling of the skin
  • Stinging and blistering of the skin.

These side effects are expected to disappear within a few weeks, but if they happen to persist, consult a doctor or seek help from a professional.

Note – Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Use sunscreen after Retinol if you happen to be stepping out, and if you are also using other serums, make sure to see how they differ from retinol and how they interact with retinol; for instance hyaluronic acid vs retinol and if you can use niacinamide with retinol.

What is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a derivative of the vitamin A nutrient and falls under the retinoids class of medication. Also known as retinoic acid, Tretinoin goes by various brand names, the most popular one being Retin-A.

It plays a vital role in regulating cell reproduction, proliferation, and differentiation. It is used to treat acne and sun-damaged skin. Tretinoin is known to help speed up the life cycle of skin cells and make them divide faster, die faster, and get replaced with new cells faster. This usually irritates the skin, but in the long run, it can be beneficial.

This same method of speeding up the life cycle of skin cells can help reduce fine lines and surface-level wrinkles. However, Tretinoin is not very useful when it comes to reducing or smoothening out deep-set wrinkles.

Benefits of Tretinoin

Reduces the appearance of fine lines

Tretinoin stimulates skin cell turnover and exfoliates the layers of the skin that are exposed to direct sunlight. The skin cell turnover speeds up the life cycle of the skin cells and causes new layers of skin to develop faster than usual. This, along with the exfoliation, can help reduce the appearance of fine lines on the skin’s surface.

Improves skin texture

Glycosaminoglycan (GAG) is an essential molecule when it comes to keeping your skin hydrated. They are water-binding molecules and can hold moisture nearly 1000 times their weight. Tretinoin increases GAG that ensures that your skin is hydrated, supple, firm, and with increased elasticity.

Tretinoin also acts as a gentle chemical exfoliant and smoothes your skin by keeping the dead cells from clogging your pores.

These properties of Tretinoin can help improve your skin texture.

Reduces the frequency and severity of acne outbreaks

Tretinoin can help block various inflammatory pathways that often play an active role in an acne outbreak. Keeping the pores clean also plays a vital role in controlling acne outbreaks, and Tretinoin does a great job at keeping the dead cells from settling in your pores. The skin cell turnover that tretinoin causes can also help reduce the frequency and severity of acne outbreaks. 

Reduces the appearance of dark spots

Tretinoin is known for its ability to speed up skin cell turnover. This encourages the growth of new skin cells on parts of the body that have undergone discoloration or scarring from acne and other skin conditions. It is essentially replacing older, discolored skin with new skin free of any damage or discoloration.

Clears up existing acne

Tretinoin can help clear up acne (cystic acne, to be specific) by unblocking clogged pores and follicles. It is usually prescribed with antibiotics for improved results. The antibiotics get rid of the bacteria in and on the skin’s surface, and Tretinoin unclogs the pores and follicles and ensures that they remain clean.

Side effects of Tretinoin

As discussed, on application, Tretinoin can irritate the skin. It can cause moderate redness, dryness, peeling, and itchiness. It might also cause local inflammation at the region it is being applied at and might cause a mild stinging sensation or a sensation of warmth.

Most of these side effects should disappear once you stop using Tretinoin; however, if they do persist, get in touch with your healthcare provider, a dermatologist, or a professional.

A few other side effects you could experience are;

  • Increased sun sensitivity
  • Darkening or lightening of the skin
  • Initial acne flare-up

Like every other retinoid product, Tretinoin also causes sun sensitivity. Therefore, it is important to avoid going out after using this product; even if you plan to step out, remember to slather on a good amount of sunscreen.

Retinol vs. Tretinoin

Retinol and Tretinoin are essentially products with similar ingredients. Tretinoin is also a retinoid, but a synthetic one; whereas, Retinol is a naturally occurring retinoid.

Tretinoin is a concentration of pure retinoic acid, but Retinol converts to retinoic acid once it is applied and absorbed into your skin.

Now, although using both these products will reap you similar benefits, the only differences worth mentioning are,

  • Tretinoin is most likely to irritate your skin and result in unpleasant side effects, whereas Retinol doesn’t cause any side effects unless you use it in excess.
  • Tretinoin shows results relatively faster compared to Retinol since you are directly applying concentrated retinoic acid on your face without having to wait for it to convert after absorption, which is the case with Retinol.
  • Tretinoin is available only through prescription; certain Retinol products can be bought over-the-counter without any prior prescription.

To sum this up,

Retinol Tretinoin
Available over the counter Not available over the counter
Natural form of vitamin A (retinoic acid) Synthetic version of vitamin A (retinoic acid)
Minimal irritation (if you have sensitive skin) Stronger than Retinol and can cause severe irritation
No prescription required Prescription required
Results take longer to show Almost immediate results

Retinol or Tretinoin, which one to use?

Now that we have an overview of both the products and what effect they can have on our skin let’s get to the most awaited part of this article, “Which product is better for my skin?”

Both of these products are equally beneficial to the skin, and the only significant difference is the side effects; therefore, depending on your skin and your needs, you can either use Retinol or Tretinoin. 

However, Retinol is suggested if you have skin that is more on the sensitive side.

Regardless, always consult a dermatologist or a professional before using these products to avoid harmful side effects and benefit from these products in the best way possible.

Wrapping Up

Retinol vs. Tretinoin. “Which one to choose?”, “Which one is better for my skin?”, “Which one should I be using?”

These are a few questions that come to mind when we think about two skincare products that offer similar benefits.

Retinol and Tretinoin are essentially the same product but almost in different forms. Retinol is more naturally based, whereas Tretinoin is synthetic based. This main difference between these two products also brings about other differences like the time it takes to notice your results and what side effects they could be causing. 

Now, although both are beneficial in their ways, it is between you and your dermatologist to pick the right one for you depending on your skin type, skin needs, allergies, and other factors that might play a role in choosing a skincare product.


Q: Which is better, Retinol or Tretinoin?

A: Retinol is better if you have sensitive skin. However, if Retinol hasn’t been effective, your dermatologist might ask you to shift to Tretinoin.

Q: Can Retinol make you look older?

A: No. In fact, Retinol can make you look younger. It helps smoothen out your wrinkles and fine lines, hence, improving your skin texture and leaving it supple and soft.

Q: How long can you stay on Tretinoin?

A: Your treatment period varies depending on your skin and its needs and can be decided only by your dermatologist. However, it is safe to stay on Tretinoin for up to 4 years.

Q: Should you moisturize after Retinol?

A: Yes. Some professionals suggest mixing your Retinol with your moisturizer before applications, and others suggest waiting for around 20 minutes before moisturizing.

However, always read the instructions provided for the usage of the product before applying, and try to stick to that or the directions provided by your dermatologist.


  1. Mukherjee, Siddharth et al. “Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety.” Clinical interventions in aging vol. 1,4 (2006): 327-48. 
  2. Zasada, Malwina, and Elżbieta Budzisz. “Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments.” Postepy dermatologii i alergologii vol. 36,4 (2019): 392-397. 
  3. Mukherjee, Siddharth et al. “Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety.” Clinical interventions in aging vol. 1,4 (2006): 327-48.
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