Tretinoin vs. Retinol: What's the Difference?

Tretinoin vs. Retinol: What's the Difference?

As an esthetician, I work with all skin types to remedy all sorts of skin conditions. Whether you have oily skin or want to minimize the appearance of certain signs of aging, there’s a skincare ingredient or therapy that is designed to deliver results. 

“When it comes to retinoids, retinol is a great option that can provide fast results.”

– Shani Darden, esthetician

The benefit of having developed my own skincare line is that I get to hand-pick the ingredients I love and formulate my products to work the way I want them to, based on years of my own practice working with the skin. 

Two of the most common skin conditions I’m asked about are blemishes and wrinkles (and yes, you can absolutely have both at the same time). Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds derived from vitamin A. They can be used for numerous skin-benefitting purposes and are marketed as both anti-aging solutions and blemish treatments. 

I’ll explain the differences between two popular types of retinoids, tretinoin and retinol, and help you decide which is right for you. 

What Do Retinoids Do?

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that can come in highly concentrated forms that are used both orally and topically. Retinoids might seem like a hot new treatment for your skin, but they’ve actually been in use by dermatologists since the seventies to treat breakouts. 

These active ingredients can affect the skin in several ways by supporting skin cell turnover, supporting natural collagen production, and helping you see more youthful-looking skin. 

Skin Cell Turnover

Your skin cells continually renew through a process called cell proliferation. As old skin cells die, they are pushed to the surface (epidermis) of the skin and eventually sloughed or exfoliated away. New skin cells are made in deeper layers of the skin and are pushed through to the top layer of the skin in a never-ending cycle. 

Younger adults and children have skin cell turnover cycles that are faster than the ones we have as we start to age. Their skin renews rapidly, which is why a cut or a scar on a child’s hand is virtually indistinguishable by the time they become an adult. 

With age, the skin cell turnover process slows down, which means it can take longer and longer for our skin to make new skin cells. This can lead to skin that looks dull and has visible signs of aging, like fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots (also called age spots).

Retinoids can help support the skin cell turnover process. They can also bind to the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin and help break down the bonds that hold them together, making it easier for dead skin cells to be removed. 

Collagen Production

The most abundant protein in the skin is collagen. Collagen is the compound in your skin that plumps it up, fills out wrinkles, and supports skin elasticity. When your skin produces ample collagen, your cheeks are full, your forehead is crease-free, and you don’t notice sagging skin around your jowls. 

Unfortunately, we start to lose collagen production around age 20. Our natural collagen production slows down, which is why our skin begins to look hollow or thin. Retinoids can help support your skin’s natural collagen production, which can be helpful in restoring your skin’s radiance and vitality. 

Dark Spots

Virtually everyone has some areas of uneven skin tone. If you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun, you’ve probably got some photoaging. These spots happen when UV rays cause the melanin molecules in the skin to cluster and clump together, forming a dark spot that can get darker over time. 

Because retinoids can help support skin cell renewal, they can help fade the appearance of these dark areas and restore the even skin tone you once had. 

What Is Tretinoin?

There are numerous different types of retinoids, and tretinoin is one of the oldest and most popular. In fact, it was the first FDA-approved retinoidacne treatment back in the seventies. 

Today, tretinoin is used mostly as a solution for acne, although it is sometimes offered in different formulas for the treatment of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s also known as all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA). It’s most frequently produced synthetically, although it can be taken from animal sources. 

Who Should Use It?

Like all prescription retinoids, tretinoin is strong and is typically used for the treatment of moderate to severe acne. If you have blemishes that have been resistant to over-the-counter treatments, using tretinoin could be a solution for you. 

Where Can You Get It?

You can only get tretinoin through a prescription. It’s most commonly marketed under the name Retin-A. Retin-A may be given to you by your dermatologist or healthcare provider to treat acne or as a solution for fine lines and wrinkles. 

Does Tretinoin Have Side Effects?

Yes. All retinoids carry a risk of increased skin sensitivity. Because it supports cell proliferation, your skin may be more likely to become sensitive. Tretinoin is powerful and can have side effects that may make it hard for sensitive skin types to tolerate in the long term. 

Side effects of tretinoin include:

  • Burning, itching, and pain where the product has been applied
  • Skin peeling, flaking, or scaling
  • Redness or visible signs of irritation 
  • Patches of dry skin and rough areas of uneven skin texture
  • Darkening or lightening of the skin in some areas

You may have some or all of these side effects, and your provider may advise you to only use the product a few times a week until your skin adjusts to it. 

It’s also important to note that if you are using tretinoin for blemishes, they’ll likely get worse before they get better. The first few days of application can make pimples appear redder and more irritated, and new pimples may form during this time frame. 

Who Should Avoid Tretinoin?

Unless you have been advised by a dermatologist that your blemishes need prescription therapy, you have other options for addressing occasional breakouts. Additionally, you’ve got a wide variety of anti-aging solutions that are available without a prescription or the accompanying side effects. 

What Is Retinol?

Like tretinoin, retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. Retinol comes in numerous different concentrations, and unlike tretinoin, it’s available without a prescription. To put it plainly, tretinoin is a prescription-strength form of retinol. 

Retinol can be derived from both animal and plant sources or produced synthetically. The retinol used in all Shain Darden products is vegan and cruelty-free. 

Who Should Use Retinol?

If you are looking for a heavily researched and result-backed anti-aging product to add to your skincare routine, retinol should be top of your list. Retinol is my favorite skincare ingredient because it offers amazing results and is suitable for most skin types. 

Some forms of retinol (like tretinoin) are available by prescription only, where you might get them under the brand namesRetin-A and Epiduo. These prescriptions require a visit to your healthcare provider and may have side effects like the ones you’d have if you used tretinoin. 

Where Can You Get It?

You can get retinol without a prescription, which makes it accessible to anyone who wants to minimize the visible effects of skin aging with a retinol product. Topical, OTC retinol products are generally highly effective and can help you see results fast. 

Does Retinol Have Any Side Effects? 

Like tretinoin, retinol can have side effects. Burning, itching, and skin flaking are the most common, but you’ll normally have these with stronger formulas. If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may experience these side effects more frequently. 

I love the way retinol works on the skin, but I didn’t like the side effects it gave some of my clients. I knew we could do better, so I developed Retinol Reform®. Retinol Reform gives you all the benefits of retinol with minimal harsh side effects. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Encapsulated retinol. Instead of a full dose of retinol all at once, Retinol Reform time-releases it through the use of encapsulated retinol. Time release means you get all the retinol you need and none of the side effects you don’t. 
  • Lactic Acid. I love pairing lactic acid with retinol. Lactic acid is a wonderful exfoliant for sensitive skin because it can effectively break the bonds between dead skin cells, helping remove them from the skin’s surface and giving you an immediate glow. 
  • Apple fruit extract. Protection from antioxidants is important and is one of the key ways to fight photodamage and premature aging. Apple fruit extract is rich in antioxidants to help revive your skin and support its natural defenses against damaging external aggressors. 

Retinol Reform is my go-to solution for giving clients the retinol they want in a gentle skincare product. 

Who Should Avoid Retinol?

If you are pregnant or nursing, you should avoid using retinol products. If you have certain skin conditions like rosacea, you may need to avoid using retinol. If this is you, don’t worry — my Lactic Acid Serum is a product that I recommend for clients who cannot use topical retinoids or who are already using a topical retinoid on alternating nights.

Lactic acid is powerful yet gentle enough for sensitive skin types. It’s also safe to use during pregnancy and nursing. 

Like retinol, lactic acid can help exfoliate the top layer of the skin, revealing bright and radiant skin beneath. My Lactic Acid Serum also contains hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that can help your skin attract and retain moisture. 

Which Is Better: Tretinoin or Retinol?

Both tretinoin and retinol have their places in skin care. Deciding which one is better is really a matter of determining what your skincare goals are and what your skin can handle. If you have moderate to severe breakouts, tretinoin might be the best solution to help you manage them. 

Just talk to your dermatologist to learn more. They know your skin better than I do, so they can give you medical advice and help you find a solution for your moderate to severe skincare concerns.

If you have sun damage, fine lines, wrinkles, or other signs of aging and want the convenience of an over-the-counter product, you may want to go with retinol.

Tips for Using Both

No matter which type of retinoid you use, there are a few tips that can help you avoid dryness and ensure your skin is protected. 

  • Use sunscreen. Both tretinoin and retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so wearing sunscreen is non-negotiable. I love Supergoop! Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50. This formulation is broad-spectrum and features hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated and protected while you wear it. It’s an easy way to combine your moisturizer and sunscreen in one product. 
  • Hydrate. Every skin type deserves moisture — yes, even oily skin. If you have oily or blemish-prone skin, I recommend my Weightless Oil-Free Moisturizer. This formula is loaded with hyaluronic acid and won’t congest your pores. It goes on easily and absorbs fast without leaving behind a filmy residue. 
  • Build up your usage. When you begin using either product, it’s a good idea to start slow. Begin by using the product one night a week, add a night each week, and build up to nightly if your skin can tolerate it. If you begin to experience unwanted side effects, wait a few days before your next application to make sure your skin has time to heal. 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to retinoids, you’ve got options — and hopefully, you know which one tops your list. For anti-aging, retinol is a tried-and-true option. It can help support skin cell turnover, support collagen production, and even fade the appearance of dark spots. 

To reveal a healthier, more even, and youthful skin tone, I recommend adding retinol to your skincare routine in the evenings to wake up to brighter, healthier skin. Looking for more skin tips? Visit my blog and shop my line of vegan, cruelty-free, and paraben-free skincare products.


Retinoid or retinol? | American Academy of Dermatology

Tretinoin (Topical Route) Side Effects | Mayo Clinic

Retinol: Cream, Serum, What it is, Benefits, How to Use | Cleveland Clinic


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