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Tretinoin vs Retinol – Which one’s better for you?

Difference between Retinol and Tretinoin/Retinoic acid. Let’s do a simple chart, compare and know both clearly.

Retinol Tretinoin
Can get Over the counter Needs prescription
Recommended % = .25-1% 0.01-1%
Milder compared to tretinoin Very strong
Can’t be used in pregnancy or nursing Can’t be used in pregnancy or nursing
Less effective than tretinoin 20 times more effective than retinol
Builds collagen and treats mild to medium acne. Used to treat severe acne, all skin aging signs & photodamaged skin
Not FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging Only the FDA-approved retinoid for photoaging
Can be used only at nighttime Can be used only at nighttime
Retinol vs Tretinoin- Differences

Tretinoin and Retinol both come from the family of Retinoid- The Dad.

What is Retinoid?

It is basically an umbrella name for all the vitamin A ingredients you can find in the market therefore, it’s the head of the family with 7 kids.

Diagram of a Retinol family tree

Diagram of the complete Retinoid family for your simplest & easiest understanding

  1. Retinol
  2. Retinyl Palmitate
  3. Retinal
  4. Tretinoin/Retinoic acid/Retin-A
  5. Adapalene
  6. Tazarotene
  7. Isotretinoin
All are Topical Retinoids except Isotretinoin. Let’s know the basics of all of them to simplify your Retinoid confusion forever.


  1. The most popular kid of all. Retinol is mild and hence can be found over the counter. It is obviously superb for wrinkles, improving overall skin tone & pigmentation, increasing collagen production by going into the deep layers of the skin, eliminating dead skin cells & generating fresh ones for younger-looking skin.
  2. Recommended Percentage – 0.25-1%.
  3. If you’re a beginner, start with 0.25%, 3 times a week & gradually increase to 1%, every other night.

Retinyl Palmitate

  1. This stuff is pretty pointless according to the research & me. It is the weakest retinoid of all. Its Skin penetration ability is also questionable so no retinoid fighting power, therefore, a waste.
  2. Still Recommended Percentage – 1%


  1. Not the top effective retinoids because of their serious stability issues hence not even easy to find it in products.
  2. They just have slightly more efficacy than Retinol.
  3. Recommended Percentage – 0.1-1%

Tretinoin /Retinoic acid/Retin-A

  1. This is the gold standard topical Retinoid, a total bomb ingredient with the longest history of skin benefits.
  2. It is the most powerful acne treatment. Also used to treat aged & damaged skin with all sorts of fine lines & wrinkles on the face. It is said to be 20 times more effective than retinol, therefore use it with precautions.
  3. You only get it by prescription.
  4. Recommended Percentage – 0.01-0.1%


  1. It has solid data on acne treatment. The exciting part is, this amazing ingredient recently became available as an over-the-counter ingredient making life easy.
  2. This synthetic retinoid has been shown to be gentler than tretinoin. It also helps in clearing acne marks.
  3. FYI: Don’t exceed the quantity of more than a pea size.
  4. Recommended Percentage – 0.1%


  1. Again, a beautiful derivative of Retinoid. It is very effective for balancing skin tone, hyperpigmentation, treating acne, acne scars, and skin texture, and slowing down aging symptoms.
  2. It is also used to treat a skin disease called Psoriasis by slowing skin cell overgrowth & decreasing skin cell inflammation.
  3. Recommended Percentage – 0.1%


  1. It’s called Oral Retinoid. It’s also known by the name Accutane. It’s given for severe cystic acne.
  2. How does it work?  – it basically dries up acne by decreasing the size of sebaceous glands in the skin.
  3. Sebaceous glands produce sebum & oil which ultimately turn into Pimples by clogging pores.

How do you keep track of them all? I’ll break all these Retinoids simply into 3 classes: Prescription, Over-the-counter & Cosmetic

Diagram of 3 classes of all Retinoids

3 Classes of Retinoids

Diagram of a girl showing 4 main causes of ageing

All Retinoids stimulate the production of Collagen & Elastin in our skin & treat acne from deep within the skin layers.

Read these tips when you start Retinol/Tretinoin in your skincare routine

  1. Always wear sunscreen when you’re out during the day. Using retinol makes your skin highly photosensitive which means the skin is very sensitive to UV light.
  2. Use retinol only at night.
  3. Do not mix Retinoids with any other ingredient without first reading about it thoroughly as it doesn’t gel up with most of the ingredients.
  4. Do not use it very close to your eyes, mouth, or nose.
  5. For sensitive skin types & beginners, always start with a low concentration, like .25% & gradually increase the percentage to 1%.
  6. Never exceed the quantity of more than a pea size. Too much does more harm than good.
  7. Never forget to use it on the neck as well.
  8. Don’t apply it on damp skin. Pat the skin dry first.
  9. Don’t forget to layer it with a non-comedogenic moisturizer.
  10. Start with using it twice a week & then gradually increase it to every other night.
  11. Try & avoid any other potential irritants like acids or chemical exfoliants when you’re beginning your retinol journey. This can minimize your excess flaking or chances of over-exfoliation.

Who should not use Retinol /Tretinoin?

  1. If you’re trying for pregnancy, are pregnant, or breastfeeding. DO NOT use any of the Retinoids.
  2. People with Rosacea and Eczema shouldn’t use Retinoids.

What other ingredients are Retinol/Tretinoin compatible with?

Niacinamide, Hyaluronic acid & Azelaic Acid

Extra tip when using Retinol/Tretinoin? (Only for experienced pros)

Exfoliate the skin before applying to maximize skin receptivity. (Just once a week)

How to handle a Retinol/Tretinoin burn or irritation?

Over peeled skin of a girl due to an exceeded amount of retinol usage

Peeled skin due to exceeded Retinoid quantity

First, don’t panic. Skin will eventually come back to normal, but you can help it heal faster. See how

  1. Avoid using cleansers or moisturizers with fragrances.
  2. No makeup for a while.
  3. Use Thermal spring water to calm the skin (Try from La Roche Posay)
  4. Take cold showers or ice your face (wrapped in a thin cloth). Avoid hot showers at any cost.
  5. Don’t use any exfoliating fancy gadgets to wash your face, simply hands.
  6. Now give a lot of moisture and hydration to the skin for it to feel better. Like moisturizers loaded with ceramides (Helps in skin barrier) & Hyaluronic acid.
  7. After Moisturizer, seal the skin with a light layer of Vaseline. It locks in all the goodies we’ve given & lets the skin heal faster.
  8. Stop using any other exfoliants, acids, AHAs, BHAs, peroxides, and salicylic acid until you are completely healed.
  9. Glycerin and Aloe vera, both are great soothing & calming agents for the skin
  10. Product suggestion- Try Avene- Cicalfate + restorative protective cream
  11. DO NOT forget to apply sunblock before stepping outside. Remember your skin is already in a vulnerable state. UV rays at this point can make it worse.

Follow these points & your skin will be good in no time & remember, everyone does something wrong in the Retinoid journey, even aestheticians do. Trust me.

How to buy Tretinoin and Retinol? Does their packaging matter?

Absolutely! YES! Let me help you.

Retinol/Tretinoin packaging is literally everything, which surprisingly very few people know of & I really want you to be a pro when choosing or using your product. Air Exposure means retinol death. So read on,

There are 4 types of packaging in the market.

  1. Tubes (Best)
  2. Pump bottles (Better)
  3. Serum bottles (Okay)
  4. Jars (NAH)

Tubes are undoubtedly the best & the safest form to use any of the Retinoids. If you can’t find those, you can go for Pump bottle packaging but beware of the Jars with those big lids. They literally don’t make sense.

Diagram of tube form of retinol

Tube form

Does storage condition also matter? Very much!

Retinoids are not a stable ingredient in nature & perhaps they like staying in cool, dark places. Quite away from Sunlight, (almost like a vampire) to extend & maintain its shelf life. Hence, your bathroom cabinets could be a good place.

Happy skin with safe & proper use of retinol

Consistent & proper use of Retinoids will give desired results

The Conclusion (Tretinoin vs Retinol – what’s better)

If you’re struggling with mild acne & also looking for anti-aging, go for Retinol. If you’re struggling with moderate to severe acne & aging symptoms go for Tretinoin. Tretinoin will obviously be more effective but comes with more precautions & (Don’t miss the tips above on ‘when you start with Retinoids’)

Love~ Beauty Stroll

By Aayushi S
By Aayushi S
Aayushi is a New York based freelance writer and a content strategist. She is a computer science graduate, a health and skincare fanatic and is also the founder of “Beauty Stroll “. She aims to make science-backed skincare easy to understand for her readers.

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