The Difference Between Tretinoin, Retinol, and Retinoids

Published July 19th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Topical treatments like tretinoin, retinol, and retinoids for acne and wrinkles can be a little confusing to understand what each one is and what it does. What exactly is the difference? We’ll break each medication down for you and give you a strong basis to start a conversation with your dermatologist.

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin, also known as all-trans retinoic acid or ATRA, is a treatment that is used for skin treatments for acne, fine lines, and wrinkles, and for treatment of a certain type of leukemia. When treating acne or skin conditions, tretinoin is applied topically by a lotion, cream, or gel. However, when it is used as a treatment for cancer it is taken orally. Today we will only be talking about tretinoin that is taken topically for skin treatments and NOT the oral form in pills. This distinction is necessary as the topical form's common side effects are much milder.

Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A and is different from tazarotene and adapalene because it's not related to compounds found in vegetables. It can be prescribed for the treatment of acne, also known as acne vulgaris because it targets each major cause of pimples: clogged pores, oil production, and inflammation. Let's take a deeper look at how tretinoin achieves treating all three of these causes of acne.

How does tretinoin treat acne and help your skin?

Tretinoin treats all three causes of acne for clearer looking skin. First, tretinoin's ability to reduce the production of sebum, or oil in your pores that can lead to clogged pores and breakouts. It does this by allowing blood to flow to the sebaceous glands that are next to your hair follicles. Sebaceous glands are the glands that produce the natural sebum in your body. This leads to less oil and dead skin cells from forming microcomedones, which are the clogged pores that start acne.

Tretinoin also reduces inflammation, which explains why it has been found effective for those with rosacea as it manages erythema, redness on the skin. The way tretinoin fights inflammation caused by acne is twofold. First, all retinoids including tretinoin, are man-made vitamin A derivatives that bind with two receptor families in certain skin cells. These receptors then compete for the same proteins that cause inflammation which reduces your chances of experiencing inflammation. Second, it down regulates or dampens the expression of a receptor that has been noted to cause the inflammatory response in acne.

Additionally, tretinoin strengthens the epidermal layer of your skin, exfoliates dead skin cells away from your pores, and promotes collagen production giving skin an overall healthy appearance. It can reduce wrinkles by improving elasticity and reversing the effects of photoaging, or damage caused by long exposure to the sun. This produces a much healthier skin tone and skin texture.

What is retinol?

Retinol, commonly referred to by its brand name of Retin-A, is another treatment for acne and another form of vitamin A. Retinol is a retinoid just like tretinoin, with the main difference that retinol can be taken as an oral supplement or as a topical treatment, while tretinoin is used topically on the skin when treating acne or the effects of aging. Tretinoin comes in topical treatments and is more potent than retinol. Retinol is available both over-the-counter and by prescription, while tretinoin is only available by prescription from your doctor or dermatologist.

How does retinol treat acne and help your skin?

Retinol, a retinoid just like tretinoin, helps treat acne in the same way. The same three factors come into play when treating acne with retinol. First, it helps stop sebum production which also causes blocked pores. Next, it helps reduce the inflammation associated with acne. Both of them also have the same beneficial properties for preventing skin aging.

What are the differences between tretinoin, retinol, and retinoids?

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to these three words and we hope to dispel any questions you may have about them.

Let's begin with the fact that both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids. What is a retinoid though? A retinoid is any compound that is a type of vitamin A or is chemically related to it. Some are manufactured artificially while others occur naturally in nature.

Now let us simplify the difference between the two retinoids: retinol and tretinoin. There are scientific differences but we want to make it easy for you to understand the primary distinction. The biggest difference is the potency, or lack thereof, of retinol compared to tretinoin. With retinol, the effects may take longer to be felt due to its relative lack of strength. Tretinoin, when applied, can immediately be absorbed by the skin.

Another big difference is the form in which you take the medicines. Retinol is available to take orally with a pill or as a cream to put on your skin. Tretinoin is predominantly used as a topical solution when treating skin conditions. A pea-sized amount should be used to avoid irritation, working up to using the product three to five times a week.

Finally, due to strength discrepancies, retinol is available over-the-counter and by prescription in the U.S. while tretinoin is only available by a prescription from your doctor. If you have any further questions we urge you to talk to your physician or pharmacist.

What is the best option for me?

Retinol products are widely available over-the-counter at most pharmacies across the U.S. We recommend starting with these, preferably after consulting your physician, as the side effects are usually very mild. Naturally, with tretinoin being a much stronger prescription, the side effects can be stronger with this medication.

The answer to whether retinol or tretinoin is the best option for you will vary. We suggest that you talk to your dermatologist for the best results. What might work on someone with oily skin may not work on someone with dry skin or vice versa and everyone's body reacts differently to different drugs. If you experience any side effects while taking retinoid products, please stop using the product and consult your doctor or pharmacist.

Where can I get tretinoin and retinol?

Retinol is an over-the-counter medicine and should be widely available at most pharmacies across the country. For a prescription, you will need to see your doctor.

Tretinoin also requires a prescription so you must see your dermatologist and ask for one. If you are not able to do that, we will offer our business partner sites below that have tretinoin available. Each of these sites have medical professionals available to meet with you online or by phone. If you need a prescription, they can write one for you immediately and send it to your house. These services offer unmatched convenience and discretion when it comes to the prescriptions they offer.



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Both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids which means they are both derived from vitamin A. Treating acne and signs of aging are the two main uses for each of the medications. The main difference between the two is that retinol is a much weaker retinoid than tretinoin. This means that tretinoin is only available as a prescription and in topical form for the treatment of acne while retinol comes in both pill and topical form. Please consult your dermatologist to determine which skincare product is best for you.


U.S. National Library of Science – Comparison of Retinol 1.0% and Tretinoin 0.02% in the Treatment of Moderate to Severe Photodamage and Wrinkles – Topical retinoid acne treatment approved for OTC use 

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