Retinol, Retinoids + Tretinoin…What’s the Difference?

September 12, 2021


I’m sure you have heard of retinol and it’s powerful anti-aging benefits, but there seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding the purity of the active ingredients, which retinoids are more powerful than others, and what the heck is Tretinoin? So let’s clear it up.

Retinoid is an umbrella term used to describe an entire family of Vitamin A derivatives including active ingredients that are available over the counter, as well as active ingredients that are prescription only. These forms of Vitamin A differ in purity and potency based on the chemical structure of the active ingredient. Generally, the use of a retinol is going to reduce signs of aging, hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and with more pure forms – acne.

When choosing the right product for your skin care regimen, it is important to understand how our body absorbs and uses retinol products. 

Retinol esters convert to retinol which converts to retinaldehyde which then converts into usable retinoic acid. No matter which form of retinol you apply to your skin, your body is only able to absorb retinoic acid. Retinoic acid binds to the retinoid receptors in our bodies, where it normalizes cellular renewal and cellular repair processes. This is how retinoids work their magic on lines, dark spots and more! 

The strongest retinoid, Tretinoin, is pure retinoic acid, meaning it is absorbed and used immediately – yielding the strongest results, but also the strongest side effects. This is why this product is not sold over the counter, and available only by prescription. It is shown to be 20x more potent than Retinol.

Gentler, over the counter retinoids have to be converted into retinoic acid before they can be used and absorbed in the skin. This can happen in one, two, or three steps. The closer the compound to retinoic acid, the more readily it converts—and the more effective it becomes. 

  • One step: Retinaldehyde is the direct precursor to retinoic acid. Compared to retinol, this form, often called retinal, is processed 11x faster and is directly converted into retonic acid. 
  • Two steps: Retinol first converts to retinaldehyde, and then from retinaldehyde into retinoic acid. This is one of the more common active ingredients to be found in over the counter skin care but shows to be about 20% less potent than retinoic acid. Yielding results, but at a slower pace.
  • Three steps: Retinol esters, the most gentle and slow correcting of the retinoids, convert to retinol, then from retinol to retinaldehyde, and finally from retinaldehyde to retinoic acid.

This conversion process can slightly change person to person. Some will metabolize and convert active ingredients more quickly than others. Other contributing factors include the dosage of the retinoid as well as considering if it has degraded or passed expiration. All retinoids are studied to provide anti-aging benefits. However, with Tretinoin, there is specifically the added benefit of treatment of acne due to its ability to regulate sebum oil production. Based on your goals, skin sensitivity, and skin concerns, your provider will give you the best recommendation for the type of retinoid you should use. However, if you are shopping for yourself, it is important to consider and look at the active ingredients of the products you are using. Most over the counter products will contain less pure active ingredients, yielding slower result time and more product usage. 

At skinBe Med Spa, we offer Retinol 0.5% serum with hydrating lipids. This is effective and gentle even on the most sensitive skin types. We also carry Obagi’s three prescription strength Tretinoin creams, in 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. During your complimentary Anti-Aging and Wellness Assessment, we will review your goals, skin sensitivity, and previous retinol usage to determine which product would be best for your skin regimen.

Healthy skin is always in.