Tretinoin vs Retinol: What's the Difference in Skincare?

If you use any type of cleanser or moisturizer on your skin, you’re probably used to seeing a bunch of different science-sounding words on the packages. While you might not pay too much attention to them, it can be helpful to know what some of them mean so you can best determine what’s right for you.

Some common words you may recognize are tretinoin and retinol. While both of these are used to reduce the appearance of acne and enhance your skin, there are some key differences between them.

Let’s take a look at the key disparities between tretinoin and retinol as well as how you can use either of them to make the most of your skincare routine.

What Is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a prescription medication that is used to treat acne and sun-damaged skin. It can also help improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and other age spots on the face.

Tretinoin is a type of retinoid, which is a synthetic form of vitamin A. Sometimes, tretinoin goes by the name retinoic acid, but it’s not to be confused with retinol. 

Although it might seem strange, tretinoin works by irritating the skin. It speeds up the life cycle of skin cells to make them divide faster and die faster. This lets newer and healthier cells take their place. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a very well-known skincare ingredient that you can probably find in any one of the cleansers or moisturizers in your medicine cabinet. Retinols are over-the-counter versions of retinoids, such as tretinoin.

Retinol goes deep beneath your skin into the dermis, which is the layer underneath the epidermis on the outside. They neutralize free radicals to boost elastin and collagen production, which are the two main fibers that make up plump and healthy skin. Not to mention, retinol has an exfoliating effect that can help remove dead skin cells.

Retinol is not as potent or strong as prescription-strength retinoids. 

They are made from a natural derivative of vitamin A. These are generally less irritating on the skin and are more applicable for sensitive skin types, thus explaining why they can be purchased over the counter.

Main Differences Between Tretinoin and Retinol

While both tretinoin and retinol can help you to gain clearer and more youthful skin, one might be better suited for you than another. Understanding the differences can help you decide which of these powerful exfoliants will get the job done.

Prescription vs. OTC

The most striking difference between tretinoin and retinol is that tretinoin must be prescribed by a physician, whereas products containing retinol can be purchased over the counter at your local cosmetic store. This is because tretinoin is stronger.

The reason for this is because retinol doesn’t have immediate effects. Instead, the enzymes on your skin must convert it into retinoic acid before it can actually start producing benefits. While it still works, it just takes longer and usually isn’t as pronounced compared to products that don’t require tretinoin.

Tretinoin’s potency comes from the fact that it is retinoic acid, meaning your skin’s enzymes don’t need to break it down. However, that also means it can be harmful to certain skin types. 

Side Effects

When using any new skincare product, it’s possible to experience some side effects. Tretinoin and retinol are no exceptions. With that said, tretinoin’s side effects are a bit more pronounced due to its strength.

For tretinoin, dryness, redness, and peeling are normal as your skin adjusts within the first weeks of treatment. However, you should stop using tretinoin if these symptoms don’t go away within a few weeks or if you develop signs of:

  • Blistering
  • Swelling
  • Excessive redness
  • Temporary change in pigmentation

One benefit of retinol, as opposed to tretinoin, is that its side effects are more mild. While your skin may become irritated during the first few weeks of using the product, it should even out over time. Other side effects include redness, itchiness, or peeling.

Which Is Better: Tretinoin or Retinol?

Neither tretinoin or retinol is necessarily better than another. Since tretinoin is a prescription-strength option, it may be able to help reduce acne redness and swelling or work as an exfoliator to a higher capacity than retinol. 

Meanwhile, retinol is much more accessible since it can be purchased over the counter, and it’s less abrasive on sensitive skin types.

But despite their differences, both products are effective at achieving their intended purpose. 

Research indicates that tretinoin is beneficial in reducing redness and swelling caused by acne and helping to clear the early onset of acne blemishes. As for retinol, it’s less irritating on the skin and can improve the appearance of photo-aged skin, to a lesser degree.

Both work to mitigate some of the effects of aging by thickening the epidermis. They also increase the production of natural chemicals in your skin to keep it moist while stimulating collagen production to inhibit cellular breakdown. This helps to pause or reverse the signs of skin aging.

In general, we recommend that people with acne, fine lines, or blemishes try an over-the-counter retinol cream first. If that doesn’t work, try talking to your dermatologist about using a stronger medication like tretinoin.

How To Use Retinol

To get the best results out of your retinol product, there are a few simple steps you can take. 

First things first, make sure you wash your face and apply Eye Revival Cream to get your face clean and hydrated. Next, pat your face dry with a towel and wait a few minutes until it is completely dry.

Next, apply a pea-sized amount of retinol to your fingertips. Starting at your chin, apply the product in upward and outward motions until you’ve covered your entire face. Then, finish with the Replenishing Deep Sea Moisturizer.

Since retinol can make the skin more sensitive, the sun becomes a bigger threat than ever. Make sure you apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to keep it protected. Also, you may decide to use retinol at night so that you don’t need to worry as much about sun exposure.

How To Find High Quality Retinol Products

Walk into any skincare aisle, and you’re bound to find tons of creams and lotions with retinol printed on the label. While retinol itself is effective, you should also take some time to look at the other ingredients in your product to ensure you’re getting the best value.

Products that are entirely chemical-based tend to be abrasive and irritating for most skin types. This might do more harm than good if you’re trying to alleviate inflammation and acne in the first place.

It’s best to look for products that use natural, sustainable ingredients so you can feel good about your purchase. Not to mention, it’s always a better choice to go with products that are cruelty-free and are not tested on animals.

One Ocean Beauty hits all those marks and more.

We believe that the unique properties of marine microorganisms like algae or marine collagen can be sustainably sourced for healthier skin. Not only do they provide unique hydrating benefits that chemical alternatives can’t, but they’re less irritating and are more applicable to all skin types.

In Conclusion

Tretinoin and retinol are both different types of retinoids that can help to reduce acne and reverse some of the signs of skin aging. However, the major difference is that tretinoin is a more powerful, prescription-strength medication, whereas retinol can be purchased over the counter.

Retinol must be broken down by the skin’s enzymes to be converted into retinoic acid, but tretinoin is already retinoic acid. This means that tretinoin has more potent effects, including more pronounced side effects.

Neither is necessarily better than another, though retinol might be the initial line of treatment as it can easily be purchased from a cosmetics brand. If it doesn’t help clear up your acne or fine lines, then you can talk to your dermatologist about using tretinoin.

Either way, healthy and clear skin is in the palm of your hands!



Tretinoin: A Review of Its Anti-inflammatory Properties in the Treatment of Acne | NCBI

Do retinoids really reduce wrinkles? | Harvard Health Publishing.

Does retinol deserve the hype? A Stanford dermatologist weighs in | Stanford Medicine