Whether you’re looking to fight acne breakouts, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, or even out your skin tone, retinoids are great tools for the job. However, if you want to take your skincare routine to the next level, prescription tretinoin is more potent than retinol.
Tretinoin is also known as all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and has an extensive history of use for improving the appearance of your skin.
1. Tretinoin is a prescription medication
Tretinoin is a topical form of vitamin A that’s prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist to treat acne and wrinkles. It works by increasing epidermal turnover, causing your skin to create new cells more quickly.
It helps clear acne and reduces fine lines and wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting the production of tyrosinase, an enzyme that creates pigment. However, it takes weeks or even months to see results and should only be used as directed by a medical professional.
During treatment, you should avoid exposure to sunlight or sunlamps and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. You should also avoid using products that may irritate your skin, such as certain astringents, soaps and toiletries with alcohol, spices or lime.
2. It’s more potent
Tretinoin is a stronger, faster-acting version of retinol. It’s a pure form of retinoic acid, which means it doesn’t require conversion by your skin to work. This makes it ideal for targeting severe acne (like cystic), but also works on fine lines, enlarged pores, hyperpigmentation, & wrinkles. We offer a wide range of prescription-strength tretinoin options at Curology.
Over-the-counter retinols can still be effective, but they are less potent and take more time to work. This can lead to dry, flaky skin, especially right after you start using the product. Your dermatologist will recommend that you moisturize often while using a retinoid. This will help minimize the risk of side effects like itchiness, peeling, and sun sensitivity.
3. It’s more effective
In addition to helping with acne, tretinoin also improves skin tone, evens out skin color, boosts collagen growth, and reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Like retinol, you don’t need a prescription to use it and you can find it in many skincare products.
Studies show that high-strength tretinoin can produce results in as little as 4-6 weeks. This is much faster than the 12 weeks needed to see anti-aging benefits from retinol. Just be sure to moisturize adequately and wear sunscreen if you plan on using tretinoin. Also, never use it if you’re pregnant, trying to conceive, or breastfeeding. The medication can be harmful to unborn babies.
4. It’s more expensive
It’s important to remember that tretinoin is prescription-strength and requires a doctor’s approval to purchase. This makes it more expensive than retinol, which is available over-the-counter.
The good news is, you don’t need a prescription for retinol to achieve brighter, smoother, and more youthful skin. It’s also proven to treat anti-aging and acne concerns.
Retinol is less drying than tretinoin and can be used for sensitive skin, too. However, it’s best to use a substantial moisturizer with your retinol routine.
5. It’s less gentle
Retinol is milder than tretinoin but works just as well to reduce acne and signs of aging, like fine lines or uneven skin tone. It has to be converted by enzymes into retinoic acid when applied to the skin, which is more of a slow-but-steady approach—but this gentler formula makes it ideal for those who are new to retinoids or have sensitive skin.
Regardless of which one you choose, always follow a doctor or skincare professional’s recommendation on the strength and frequency of application to avoid irritation or excess peeling. And be sure to moisturize and use a broad spectrum SPF when using any retinoid because it can make your skin extra sensitive to sunlight.
6. It’s more likely to cause side effects
Both tretinoin and retinol increase collagen production and help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, skin discoloration, and uneven skin tone. They also exfoliate the skin, removing dead cells and improving its texture.
Tretinoin is more likely to cause side effects than retinol, especially at higher strengths. Side effects include dryness (which can be offset with a good moisturizer), redness, irritation, and peeling.
Oral tretinoin is pregnancy category X and should not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding (Yoham, 2020). It may also increase the risk of sunburn. Those taking it should always wear adequate sunscreen and avoid tanning beds. A dermatologist can recommend alternative treatments for sun-damaged skin. tretinoin vs retinol