Tretinoin vs retinol


Treats acne and signs of aging

May be about 20 times stronger than retinol (more research needed)

Available by prescription only 


Treats signs of aging

Gentler on sensitive skin                                                      

Available over the counter

Are you looking to improve your skincare regimen but baffled by the array of products and ingredients on the market? Retinoids are a popular class of skincare ingredients well-known for their powerful anti-aging and acne-fighting benefits. In this arena, two heavy hitters often pop up: Tretinoin and Retinol. Today, we’re breaking down the debate of Tretinoin vs Retinol. What’s the difference? Let’s dive in.


Before comparing Tretinoin and Retinol, it’s essential to understand that both are types of retinoids. Retinoids, derived from vitamin A, are a broad family of compounds with proven benefits for the skin. These include reducing fine lines and wrinkles, improving skin texture and tone, and treating acne.


Tretinoin, also known as Retinoic Acid or by brand names like Retin-A, is a prescription-strength retinoid. Dermatologists often prescribe Tretinoin for severe acne, sun-damaged skin, or pronounced signs of aging. Here’s what you need to know:

strength and EFFICIENCY

Tretinoin is potent. It binds directly to retinoid receptors in the skin, leading to quicker and more noticeable results. However, this powerful effect can also cause more severe side effects, especially when starting treatment.


Tretinoin can cause skin irritation, redness, peeling, and increased sensitivity to sunlight, especially in the initial phase. However, these side effects usually subside as your skin adjusts to the product.


As a prescription medication, access to Tretinoin requires a dermatologist’s approval, making it less readily available than over-the-counter (OTC) options like Retinol.


Retinol is an OTC retinoid, easily found in many skincare products ranging from serums to night creams. Here’s the scoop on Retinol:

strength and EFFICIENCY

Compared to Tretinoin, Retinol is gentler. It first needs to be converted into Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin) by enzymes in the skin to take effect. This conversion process means that Retinol is slower to show results, but also has fewer side effects.

side effects

While Retinol can also cause some redness, peeling, and sun sensitivity, these side effects are typically less intense than those caused by Tretinoin.


Retinol’s primary advantage is its accessibility. You can easily purchase Retinol products without a prescription, allowing you to incorporate them into your skincare routine at your own pace.

To purchase our Retinol Micro-Dose Serum, click here!

the Do's and don'ts of retinol

DO introduce the ingredient to your skin gently and gradually.

DO NOT give up too soon! The side effects can take up to 8 weeks before the skin benefits come rolling in.

DO know your limits – if the side effects are too extreme then lower the dose and frequency or switch to a different ingredient. 

DO NOT forget to wear plenty of sunscreen!

DO use it with a niacinamide product as its soothing properties beautifully counteract some of the more harsh initial side effects of using retinol. To view our 5% Niacinamide booster serum, click here!

DO NOT over-exfoliate – your retinol is already significantly speeding up your skin’s cellular turnover. 

Retinol Tips for Beginners

5 Tips to Help you Start your Retinol Routine.

Retinol is one of those ingredients that a lot of people feel intimidated to start using, they hear the stories of those initial side effects, and many people just opt out entirely for that reason.

We get why you may feel that way, but opting out is not the answer – you’d be missing out on one on the skincare industries most beneficial and skin-improving ingredients!

So, check out our 5 tips, don’t be intimidated, get started with your first Retinol product, and be ready to watch your skin get enhanced.

To learn more about our Retinol Micro-Dose Serum, click here!


The choice between Tretinoin and Retinol largely depends on your skin’s needs, your tolerance for potential side effects, and your dermatologist’s advice.

If you have severe acne or deep wrinkles, you might benefit more from the potent effects of Tretinoin. However, if you have sensitive skin, or are looking for a preventative anti-aging regimen, Retinol might be your best bet.

Remember to always consult with a skincare professional when considering potent ingredients like Tretinoin or Retinol. Patience is key when using retinoids, as noticeable results may take weeks or even months. But rest assured, the science-backed benefits are worth the wait.

cosmetic chemist's key take aways

Potency and Effectiveness

Tretinoin is a prescription-strength retinoid and is the most potent form of vitamin A. It is highly effective in treating acne, reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. Tretinoin works by binding to specific retinoic acid receptors in the skin, which helps to increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production.
Retinol is a milder form of retinoid that is available over the counter in many skincare products. Compared to tretinoin, retinol is less potent and takes longer to show noticeable results. It needs to undergo conversion into tretinoin within the skin before it can be effective. This conversion process can lead to variability in its potency and effectiveness from person to person.

Mechanism of Action

Tretinoin directly binds to specific retinoic acid receptors (RARs) in the skin, primarily RAR-β and RAR-γ. This interaction influences gene expression, leading to increased cell turnover and the production of new, healthier skin cells. It also helps to regulate sebum production and prevent clogged pores, making it an effective treatment for acne.

Retinol as mentioned earlier, needs to undergo a two-step enzymatic conversion within the skin to become active tretinoin. This conversion process is gradual and can be influenced by various factors like skin type, pH levels, and individual enzymatic activity. Consequently, retinol’s effects may be less consistent and less potent than tretinoin.

Availability and Accessibility

Tretinoin is a prescription-only medication, which means you can only obtain it through a healthcare provider, such as a dermatologist or a primary care physician. It is available in various concentrations and formulations (e.g., creams, gels), and the strength and usage should be carefully determined by a healthcare professional based on individual skin needs and concerns.

Retinol is available over-the-counter and can be found in numerous skincare products, such as serums, moisturizers, and creams. Its accessibility makes it a popular choice for those seeking a milder retinoid option without requiring a prescription.However, due to its lower potency, people may need to use retinol for a more extended period to achieve similar results as with tretinoin.

final thoughts

Whether you choose Tretinoin or Retinol, it’s crucial to use these ingredients correctly. Always apply them at night, as sunlight can degrade these ingredients, and remember to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day due to increased sun sensitivity.

In the battle of Tretinoin vs Retinol, there’s no clear winner—it all boils down to what your skin needs and can tolerate. Once you’ve found the right retinoid for you, you’ll be well on your way to a smoother, brighter, and healthier complexion.

Keywords: Tretinoin, Retinol, retinoids, skincare regimen, acne, wrinkles, Retinoic Acid, Retin-A, prescription-strength retinoid, over-the-counter retinoid, sun sensitivity, skincare professional, anti-aging.