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What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin and Retinol?

If you’ve been looking for a treatment for your fine lines and wrinkles, you’ve likely come across the terms tretinoin and retinol. Spoiler alert: both are great for transforming your skin! But how do you know which one is right for you? Learn more about the differences between tretinoin and retinol so you can add one to your anti-aging regimen.

Tretinoin vs Retinol: What’s the Difference?

Before we talk about how tretinoin and retinol are different, it’s probably best to start with their similarities. Both are derived from vitamin A. Your body can’t make vitamin A on its own, so getting it through diet, supplements, or skincare products is crucial. Vitamin A retinoids can be used to minimize fine lines and wrinkles, reduce pore size, and much more. You’ll often find them in topical creams that allow your skin to directly absorb them.

Retinol is a natural retinoid. It has to be converted by enzymes in the skin to retinoic acid — the active compound that triggers changes in your skin — before it becomes active. This less active form of vitamin A is not as potent as tretinoin, and while less irritating and can be tolerated by most people, it is also not as effective

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Retinol is available over the counter. You can buy a pure form of retinol or version that appears in a serum featuring other skincare ingredients.

Tretinoin is up to 20 times more potent than retinol. In fact, it’s so strong that it doesn’t have to be converted to retinoic acid like retinol — it functions as a trigger for skin changes on its own. And people often start to see improvements in their skin quickly, sometimes in as little as three to six weeks.

You need a prescription from a licensed provider for tretinoin. There are different strengths available to prescribe depending on your specific needs. You might also see tretinoin called Retin-A, which is a brand name for one range of topical medications that contain tretinoin.

What Are the Benefits of Tretinoin and Retinol?

Both tretinoin and retinol are heavy hitters when it comes to an anti-aging regimen. They offer plenty of benefits for both men and women who are starting to notice the visible signs of aging on their skin and want to slow its progression.

Minimize Fine Lines and Wrinkles

First of all, both can help improve collagen production in your skin. Collagen is a protein that gives your skin elasticity. After the age of 20, collagen production in the skin decreases by about one percent each year without intervention. As collagen production slows, you’ll start to notice a loss of volume or “fullness” of the skin and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

More collagen production stimulated by retinol or tretinoin helps your skin stay firm and filled out so your wrinkles don’t look as noticeable.

Reduce the Appearance of Pore Size

If you feel like your skin’s pores look like black holes, there’s good news — both tretinoin and retinol can help with that. As retinoids, they can clean oil and debris from the skin to help unclog pores. They also help your body shed dead skin cells that can be blocking pores. The result is less inflamed pores that appear noticeably smaller.

Improve Skin Texture

On average, it takes about 28 to 42 days for your skin cells to completely turn over, but that time frame lengthens as you get older. This can make skin appear duller and more textured as you age. The good news is retinoids are well-known for their exfoliating properties. They help your skin shed its top layer of worn cells and quickly produce fresh new ones. The result is smoother, less bumpy skin.

Even Out Skin Tone

If you struggle with irregular skin tone or dark spots, research suggests that both tretinoin and retinol can help. As we mentioned above, retinoids help to increase skin cell turnover, meaning you’ll get a fresh and healthy layer of skin with fewer imperfections. Not only that, but they can also help improve blood flow to the skin by stimulating the production of new blood vessels. 

Limit Acne Breakouts

When you have too many dead skin cells clogging your pores, it can lead to breakouts. Like we already mentioned, retinoids are great at clearing away dead skin cells that are causing problems. This can reduce troublesome pimples, blackheads, and more — as well as prevent acne scarring.

Which One Is the Best Fit for My Skin?

Now that you know all that tretinoin and retinol can do for you, you might want to dive head-first into a treatment regimen. But not so fast! First, you need to choose the right product for your skin. Otherwise, you might not get the results you want — or even worse, you might experience unpleasant side effects.

Retinol Is Better Suited for Younger People

Overall, retinol is probably the best choice for you if you’re still in your 20s. At this point, most people don’t have extensive signs of aging and might not need all the power that tretinoin offers. Still, it’s never too early to start treating fine lines and wrinkles! Being proactive in your skin care regimen can do wonders for keeping you looking younger for longer.

Retinol Is Better for Sensitive Skin

Because tretinoin is so powerful, it can sometimes be a little too harsh for sensitive skin. This is especially true when you first start using it, as your skin needs some time to adjust. If you’re worried about experiencing irritation, redness, or itching, it’s best to start with retinol. It’s mild enough that you are less likely to experience these types of symptoms. As your skin becomes acclimated to retinol, you can gradually move towards transitioning to the more powerful tretinoin.

Retinol Is Better for Dry Skin

Another side effect of tretinoin is dryness. Of course, if you already have dry skin, this means your face could turn into the Sahara Desert. That’s why we recommend starting with retinol. It shouldn’t be as drying and will provide a more comfortable experience for you. Similar to sensitive skin, as you become used to retinol, you can switch to low dose tretinoin. 

Tretinoin Is Better for Treating Acne and Aging at Once

If you’re dealing with the double whammy of aging and acne at the same time, tretinoin might be the answer to your prayers. Its potency is able to tackle both of these problems at the same time. In particular, tretinoin is great at reducing acne inflammation, which should help reduce your pimples as well as even out your skin tone.

Tretinoin Is Better for Fine Lines and Superficial Wrinkles

As you get into your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, you’ll likely see more fine lines and wrinkles appear on your face. Tretinoin is a more potent treatment than retinol for visible signs of aging  While tretinoin is effective for fine lines and wrinkles, it will not take care of deeper static wrinkles.  

Tretinoin Is Better for Photoaging

If you’re suffering from photoaging — damage from too much sun exposure — then tretinoin is a must. It’s one of the only FDA-approved topical retinoids that can help with photoaging. Photoaging can cause sun spots, fine lines, uneven skin tone, and more — but because it’s a result of structural changes to the skin, milder treatments like retinol just aren’t enough to help.

Tretinoin vs. Retinol: Both Can Work!

Whether you’re seeking the mild and gentle power of retinol or the truly transformative touches of tretinoin, Nurx can help you get both retinoids delivered straight to your home. Through our telehealth services, we’ll pair you up with a dermatologist that can address all of your concerns. They’ll help you decide for sure whether retinol or tretinoin would be best for your needs. Then, we’ll ship your retinoids directly to your door — no time-consuming office visit or trip to the store required.

See for yourself how retinoids can improve your skin by learning more about our skincare and anti-aging treatments today!

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