What Is The Difference Between Retinol and Retin A?

Published Categorized as Beauty Tips

Retinol, Retin-A, Retinoid … if you are looking for the most advanced anti-aging skin care, you’ve probably seen these terms on a lot of products. But what are they really, and how do they work? Most importantly, which is best? In this article, we will be exploring and explaining retinoids, so you can choose the best products for your skin. Starting with, what is the difference between Retinol and Retin A?

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Table of Contents

What are Retinoids?

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Retinoids are a class of chemicals that are derived from vitamin A, or closely chemically related to it. Because the word refers to a whole class of chemicals, specific retinoids have their own names, and different retinoid products also have brand names.

Retinoids have many functions in the body, including supporting the health of bone tissue, helping to regulate the immune system, suppressing tumors, and supporting good vision, but most people are familiar with retinoids because they are important for the growth and health of skin cells. Retinoids are used to treat skin inflammation, skin cancers, wrinkles, skin damage, acne, and psoriasis.

Get to Know Your Retinoids

Since retinoids are a class of chemicals, there are specific retinoid compounds that commonly appear in health and beauty products. Some of the most common retinoids are:


Retinol is the isolated form of vitamin A, used to treat vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A is also a powerful antioxidant, and necessary for human health. Retinol is available as “active” vitamin A, which are the retinoids retinaldehyde and retinol, or as a provitamin. A provitamin is a precursor; it provides the body with the raw materials needed to make active vitamin A within the body. Retinol provitamins can be consumed in foods rich in carotenoids, the most famous being β-carotene, found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables.


To make things a little bit more confusing, retinal is another form of vitamin A. In animals, it is necessary for vision — it converts light to energy inside the body. Animals can get retinal from eating meat, or by eating carotene-rich foods.


Also called all-trans retinoic acid, or ATRA, tretinoin is a metabolite of vitamin A. In other words, when animals consume retinol or retinal in their foods, they then convert it into retinoic acid for the body to use. As a medication, it was first developed in the late 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania, which patented it as Retin-A and licensed it to pharmaceutical companies. Retin-A was first recognized as an effective acne medication. Because the patent has now expired, tretinoin is now marketed in the US as Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Atralin, Avita, Refissa, Renova, and Tretin-X. In recent years, these products have been marketed for their anti-aging benefits as well as their effectiveness against acne.

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Isotretinoin is an isomer of tretinoin and is a more powerful acne medication. Originally patented and sold as Accutane, the patent has expired, and it is now marketed under a huge variety of names. Isotretinoin has high risk of acute side effects, so it must always be taken under strict medical supervision and is not known to have beauty and anti-aging benefits like tretinoin.


Yet another retinoid that has medical benefits is alitretinoin. It is used to treat some cancers and lesions and has been approved to treat chronic eczema in the hands.

Alitretinoin is less commonly used by prescription to treat acne and psoriasis. It is known by brand names Hanzema, Panretin, and Toctino.


Adapelene is a third-generation retinoid used to treat mild or moderate acne. It is the mildest topical retinoid, with the least severe side effects. It is also used off-label to reduce keratosis pilaris, calluses, warts, and other keratin disorders, along with reducing signs of photoaging and hyperpigmentation. Adapelene is sold as Differin, Pimpal, Gallete, Adelene, Adeferin, and others.

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Tazarotene is another third-generation retinoid used to treat acne, psoriasis, and to reduce wrinkling, age spots, and photodamage in the skin. It is marketed as Tazorac, Avage, Zorac, and Fabior.

That’s quite a list, and it doesn’t include all the retinoids there are. But these are the retinoids that are most common in medications and ointments, and the brand names you may be familiar with.

So, What’s the Difference Between Retin-A and Retinol?

To make a long story short, when you eat vitamin A or carotene-rich foods, your body gets lots of retinoids like retinol and retinal. In the body, these retinoids are broken down into smaller retinoid compounds, like tretinoin, that do specific jobs to maintain the health of your eyes and skin.

Retin-A is a brand name for tretinoin, and there are a huge number of vitamin A compounds sold with brand names like Retin-A, Differin, Accutane, Tazorac, etc.

Is Retinol Better than Tretinoin?

For Treating Acne

In the United States, tretinoin is not sold over the counter, and is only available by prescription. But many over-the-counter acne treatments are allowed to contain retinol, because it is milder, safer, and has fewer side effects.

The most powerful and effective retinoids for treating acne are only available by prescription, under the supervision of a physician. If you are looking for a retinoid to treat moderate to severe acne, seek the advice of a dermatologist.

For Treating the Signs of Aging

Generally speaking, retinol and retinaldehyde are effective at fighting the signs of aging, with less risk of irritation and inflammation caused by retinoids tretinoin and tazarotene. Studies are underway to see how tretinoin and tazarotene can be made more stable and less irritating, so expect to see them in the market in the coming years.

Interested to learn more? Check out our blog:

What’s your experience on the dangers of retinol cream and other retinol products? Share your experience of retinol and other retinoids with us!

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  1. I did not know the difference between retinol and retin A before reading this. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  2. Always happy to help, Nancy! And thanks for sharing your retinol experience with us!

  3. It is interesting to learn about the different types of retinoids. I had retinol prescribed to me last year and it works great even though I face some peeling skin. The different ingredients are interesting – these are the factors that really make a difference with getting your skin cleared! Thanks for sharing these facts!

    Nancy ✨

  4. I just started Tretinoin this year and I really like it- it’s powerful!


  5. I didn’t know about retinoids.
    It was really interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I had no idea what retanoids were in general, let alone the different types so this was really insightful! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  7. This is so interesting and helpful! As I’m getting older I know I need to be taking care of my skin in different ways than I have before, but seeing different words like Retinol on packages is just confusing. Thanks for breaking all of these down for me 🙂

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