Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/9/2021
With all the retinoid products on the market today, it can be difficult to decipher which ones you should be using. Are retinols the same as retin-A? Did that last sentence even make sense to you?
We know this stuff can get confusing, and that can be frustrating, because all you really care about is getting the right product for healthier skin.
Worse yet, all of these terms can start to sound pretty alien—is any of this stuff for human skin, damn it?
Well, the answer is yes. We agree that the world of retinoids is confusing, but we can simplify them for you if you’ll give us a few minutes. Let’s start with the basics and the differences between all these names.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, retinol is a form of vitamin A compound found in many over-the-counter cosmetics and other skin products.
It is used to improve uneven skin tone and pigmentation, reduce dark spots, and can also help to smooth skin texture.
These abilities make it a great ingredient for certain ways of treating both acne and aging—two of the most common cosmetic skin complaints.
Retin-A, on the other hand, is a brand-name version of the prescription retinoid tretinoin. Retinoids are a sort of larger designation among those “retin” compounds.
Retinoid is a catch-all term for anything in the category, which includes both the over the counter products retinol products for cosmetic issues, as well as the stronger prescription options like topical tretinoin and its brand-name version, Retin-A.
This may be confusing, and sometimes we even have to refresh our memories, so the best way to think about it is to use an analogy to squares and rectangles (hope you remember your geometry).
All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. With us so far? Well, all retinols are retinoids, but not all retinoids are retinol or Retin-A.
Think of each type of retinoid as a member of the retinoid family. Retin-A is a brand of one of the types of retinoid. Retinol is another type of retinoid.
Okay, so you know what qualifies as a retinol and what doesn’t. But what makes them different? Well, it mostly comes down to strength, availability, and side effects.
Retin-A is a stronger, prescription version (the generic is called tretinoin, and you’ll often see it sold in products like tretinoin cream) and it has a larger concentration of those vitamin A active ingredients.
Here’s where things get a little complicated though. One study of a three month period comparing the two found no statistical differences in the outcome between retinol and prescription retin-A for the purpose of addressing photoaged skin, pigmentation, wrinkles and pores.
What it did find is that lower strength retinol is better tolerated—because of its lower strength it elicits fewer side effect reactions.
And those side effects can be pretty rough on your skin. Side effects of retinol can include pruritus (which is a big word for itchy or dry skin), burning sensations, peeling and photosensitivity when you start using them. While there are no systemic or long-term side effects associated with retinoid usage, it is true that higher concentrations, like those in the prescription versions, are often more severe in the side effects they cause.
Acne is a bacterial infection within your pores caused by a combination of factors including dry and dead skin cells, the oil your body secretes to remove them, and the bacteria that flourishes in a pond of oil and dead human skin cells and hopes that things don’t work correctly, causing an excess of oil and cells.
But where retinoids come in is as a solution to the cells that won’t go away. In addition to astringents like witch hazel and medications like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, retinoids can strip away that outer layer of dead cells, leaving you free of debris and dirt that might have caused you pimples otherwise.
It’s a combination benefit: older skin cells go away, and younger skin cells get to flourish, with the added benefit of retinoids’ ability to encourage new call growth and improved collagen production.
Tretinoin is great for the treatment of skin aging because of that collagen production potential.
The anti-aging effect of reducing wrinkles is something we can all appreciate, no matter how many fine lines (or deep ones) we have.
And with regards to prescription versions like, tretinoin, well, they’ve been in production since the 1960s and have been considered safe all along.
Benefits are good, but it’s important to be aware of retinoids’ side effects, which depending on your skin type can include exacerbating an existing skin condition, irritating sensitive skin, and causing problems for things like inflamed acne.
Redness and peeling are frequent complaints, particularly of the stronger prescription versions (this is sometimes referred to as the Tretinoin Purge, because it’s a purge of everything but fresh and sensitive new skin cells).
If you have sensitive skin or existing conditions, you’ll want to mention those to a healthcare professional before starting a skincare regimen with tretinoin or Retin-A.
There are things you can do with all versions of retinoids to cut down on the side effect risks. One of them is using retinoids at night, when you won’t be exacerbating the effects of irritation with additional sunlight.
Retinoids are also fairly volatile when exposed to sunlight, and may break down when exposed to it.
Another thing you might consider is linking retinoids with vitamin C in your skincare regiment.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects your skin from all sorts of stressors and free radicals during the day, and using it will definitely reduce your risk of more serious side effects.
And if you have serious acne issues, you can use antibiotics like Clindamycin alongside retinoids safely.
Clindamycin is used to inhibit the bacterium that causes acne and it doubles in benefits by reducing inflammation.
A healthcare provider will help you find the right combination of tools and medications for your particular needs—these treatments should be tailored and it may take a few tries to find the right thing for your skin
Topical retinoids of all kinds are a proven safe and effective, but we still want to caution you to do the right first step and consult a healthcare professional for the right acne or anti aging treatment.
They may find a variety of other causes behind the skin conditions that ail or worry you.
A healthcare professional will be able to give you the right recommendation to get a flawless glow, and they’ll also protect you from making the wrong decision, and doing more damage than good.