Retin-A vs. Retinol

Retin-A and Retinol are both considered “retinoids” meaning they are vitamin A derivatives. 



Retinol is more cosmetically driven and better tolerated. When Retinol is applied topically, it has to undergo a two-step process before your skin can use it. It does not penetrate as deeply into the skin as retin-a, allowing the product to be more gentle and have less side effects. Retinols are recommended for patients who are looking for help with fine lines and wrinkles.  Retinols can be obtained as over the counter treatment.


Retin-A, also known as Retinals, are prescription-only tretinoin (or retinoic acid) creams that do not need to undergo two conversions before penetrating the skin. These products are 100 times stronger than your average retinol. Retinals are recommended for patients who have acne-prone skin because the side effects are much greater. Many patients cannot tolerate Retin-A due to the side effects.

Side effects of either retinoid can include dryness, redness, irritation and peeling. This is why you should slowly introduce it to your skin before building up to regular use. Read more here on how to use your retinoid.


Retinoids come in multiple strengths – the most common strengths for prescription Retin-A are 0.1%, 0.05% and 0.025%. For over the counter retinols they are 1%, 0.5% and 0.25%. If the product does not list the percentage, it likely means it is less than 0.25%, which will not give you the full benefit of the retinoid. The lower the percentage, the easier to tolerate. So if you are new to a retinoids start low and slow! Once your skin is accustom to retinoids and you have no dryness or irritation you can consider increasing your strength.


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