Retinol and tretinoin are both retinoids, which means they are compounds that come from vitamin A. They’re both commonly used in topical creams to treat a number of skin conditions.

Everyone’s skin is different, but no one’s skin is immune to the effects of sunlight, stress, and natural aging. To treat these effects, you might decide to use retinoids.

Retinoids are chemical compounds related to vitamin A.

Retinol and tretinoin are both examples of retinoids. Tretinoin can also be called all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). It’s sold under many brand names, including Retin-A.

With so many similar-sounding names, it’s easy to get these retinoids confused. While retinol and tretinoin are alike, they’re not quite the same.

Let’s take a look at the differences between these two retinoids.

When it comes to treating your skin, the biggest difference between these two compounds is their strength.

Retinol is a vital nutrient. It’s fat-soluble, which means it can stay in your body for a long time. According to 2021 research, your liver can take this stored retinol and convert it into tretinoin. Your body will use the tretinoin for a variety of biological functions.

For the purposes of skin care, tretinoin can be thought of as a more concentrated version of retinol. This means that tretinoin is stronger than retinol.

This difference in strength can help guide your decision-making when it comes to choosing a skin care product.

Retinol is found in a wide variety of skin care products available over-the-counter (OTC). You can find products containing retinol at most major drugstores and in the personal care section of many grocery stores.

Some of these products may list the retinol content as a percentage. However, this is not required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so not all products will provide this information. It’s generally best to start with a lower concentration of retinol and make only small, gradual increases as needed.

Because tretinoin is stronger than retinol, it’s available only by prescription.

Whether you want to try retinol or tretinoin, a conversation with a dermatologist may help you to decide the best treatment plan for you.

Both retinol and tretinoin are commonly used as topical treatments for a variety of skin conditions, according to experts. These include:

Under the direction of a doctor, people sometimes use prescription tretinoin to treat other skin conditions, 2021 research says. Tretinoin can take the form of a cream applied to the skin or an oral tablet.

OTC retinol might not be an adequate substitute in these cases.

Consult with a doctor before using retinoids to treat conditions like:

Because they are so similar, retinol and tretinoin share many of the same benefits. These include:

  • Acne treatment. A 2017 review suggested that topical retinoids are highly effective in treating acne. Retinol and tretinoin are both used extensively for this purpose.
  • Pro-aging support. Retinoids have been used since the 1970s to even out skin tone and reduce fine wrinkles. This is a very common and well researched use for these compounds.
  • Collagen production. A 2016 study confirmed that treatments of both retinol and tretinoin increased collagen production. This leads to many health benefits, such as improved skin elasticity.

While retinol and tretinoin both have similar benefits, tretinoin tends to work faster and the effects are greater.

Retinoids are not without risks. In this case, too, there’s overlap between retinol and tretinoin.

Risks may include:

  • Irritation. Retinoid creams can irritate the application site, especially after you first start using them or at higher concentrations. Use caution when applying retinoid cream around your eyes and mouth.
  • Hyperpigmentation. This is a term for patches of dark skin marks. People with dark skin are especially likely to have this reaction to retinoids, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
  • Photosensitivity. Avoid exposure to the sun when using retinoid creams, even if you’re only applying them at night. According to a 2021 review, retinoids increase your risk of sunburn.
  • Pregnancy risks. Speak with a doctor about using retinoid creams if you’re pregnant or might become pregnant.

While tretinoin can have more significant benefits than retinol, it also tends to cause more pronounced side effects.

Choosing the right retinoid treatment for you will depend on your skin type, risk factors, and the desired outcome. A dermatologist can help you make an informed decision that works for your unique set of circumstances.

Who should try retinol?

For most people, retinol is going to be the best first choice for retinoid treatments.

Because retinol has a lower concentration, the irritation it causes will likely be less severe. If you’re just starting a new regimen, you can apply retinol cream every other day at first, so your skin has more time to adjust to the treatment.

If you’re not seeing the desired effects after 2 to 3 months, you can always try switching to a higher percentage retinol cream. These are OTC medications, so you can switch to a lower or higher concentration as you see fit.

Be on the lookout for adverse reactions whenever you change your retinol treatment.

Who should try tretinoin?

If you’ve tried retinol and haven’t gotten the results you’re after, you might think about switching to tretinoin. The higher concentration of tretinoin tends to make its side effects more pronounced than retinol, so you may want to take that into consideration before making a decision.

Tretinoin is available by prescription only, so you will need to speak with a doctor before you can purchase it. Be sure to tell them what, if any, retinol treatments you may have already tried. Prescription tretinoin can be adjusted to your individual needs.

Though they’re similar, tretinoin is more concentrated than retinol. For this reason, tretinoin acts faster and has more dramatic results — but its side effects can be more severe, too.

Retinol is available OTC, but tretinoin requires a prescription. If you’re thinking about using one of these treatments, it can be helpful to discuss it with a doctor first, especially a dermatologist.

Whichever treatment you choose, be sure to follow the recommended usage guidelines and be aware of the potential side effects. If you have a reaction that you’re not sure about, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional.