In recent years, over-the-counter retinol treatments have gained a popular following. Dramatic before-and-after transformations have provided hope to those who suffer from severe acne, rough skin texture, and others who would simply like to turn the clock back a few years. Regular users of retinol may also be familiar with tretinoin, a similar but more concentrated solution.

Just how similar are they? How much more powerful is tretinoin? Could tretinoin be too harsh on your skin? Read on to learn the difference between these two game changers and see which one may be right for you.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a type of vitamin a available via both prescription and over-the-counter, typically applied on the skin to reduce the appearance of aging. With consistent use, results will be visible within a few weeks. This is a powerful ingredient, so there are some side effects to be aware of. 

As your skin adjusts to retinol, it may peel, be drier than normal, and you may experience some redness. Retinols come in serum, moisturizer, or heavier cream forms, with both mild daytime and stronger nighttime concentration levels available.

What Is Tretinoin?

Also a derivative of vitamin a, tretinoin is retinol’s tougher big brother. This topical formula is not available over-the-counter and requires a prescription. Most formulas are about 20 times stronger than regular retinol, something to be aware of if you have more sensitive skin. While retinol is great for lessening the appearance of aging, tretinoin also helps those who suffer from severe, cystic, and “blind” acne, which is a pimple that forms beneath the skin.

Does Tretinoin Help Blemishes?

Tretinoin can also help reduce the appearance of pitted scars, a common side effect in those who have suffered from problematic long-term acne. These markings are not always the result of picking at and popping pimples—they could also be caused by leaving them alone. If a cyst or boil ruptures beneath your skin’s surface, it can infect your other surrounding skin cells, which sometimes leaves a lasting mark. 

After your first few applications, your skin may “purge” itself before healing and readjusting, in addition to the usual dryness and red spots. With gradual application and minimal exposure to other irritants, this intimidating process can be a more controlled experience, leading to stunning results. Contact your prescribing dermatologist if your “purge” period lasts longer than six months.

What Is the Proper Application of Retinol?

Those new to retinol should only apply the product two or three times for the first week, then gradually increase use as your skin becomes more accustomed to this new step in your regimen. Doing too much too fast can burn your skin. 

After cleansing, pat your face dry and apply your eye cream. When your skin has fully absorbed the eye cream, apply your retinol of choice very sparingly. A pea-sized amount will be enough! 

You could also try using smaller “dabs” of product across your face. Two or three dabs on your forehead, the lower portion of your face, and across your nose and cheeks is plenty. Remember, you only need a thin layer across your face; no need to saturate it.

Sensitive skin types and those new to this ingredient may even consider diluting the product with moisturizer. If you need to dilute, moisturizer is the only product you should mix it with. Whether you opt to thin out your retinol or not, you should always apply a proper, separate layer of moisturizer after you have finished applying retinoids. 

Not only will this hydrate your skin and make any redness or dry patches more comfortable to deal with, but it serves as a barrier to help lock in your retinol to make sure you are getting the most use out of it as you can.

What Should I Know About Tretinoin Application?

Tretinoin is also available in a cream, gel, or moisturizer form. Just like retinol, only a pea-sized amount of product is necessary to cover your whole face. Consider using a dab method similar to how you would apply regular over-the-counter retinol.

Wash your face with a mild cleanser and ensure it is dry. Using a pea-sized amount for your whole face (again, this is super important to remember with such a concentrated formula), spread the product across your face and let it dry. It’s essential to wash excess product off of your hands at this point to prevent any accidental burns. 

Give the tretinoin about 20 minutes to soak into the skin before applying a moisturizer. If your skin is flaky the morning after, which can be expected, you can use a (very) gentle scrub or washcloth to make it less noticeable. After patting your skin dry, apply a water-based moisturizer. This will help lock in moisture and lessen any irritation you may be experiencing.

A Few Things To Remember

Again, tretinoin users specifically may experience symptoms of “purging.” As tempting as it is, do not pick at any red spots, squeeze or pop blemishes, scratch rough patches, or excessively touch other inflamed spots which might pop up. 

If your skin is purging, that means the product is working, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you don’t normally experience problems with blemishes, your skin still might purge itself. Contact your dermatologist if this part of the process lasts longer than six weeks.

Both retinol and tretinoin are best used in the evenings as skin becomes more sensitive to sunlight and UV rays after use. Furthermore, sunlight decreases the effectiveness of the product's ingredients. To be super safe, it’s a good idea to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen the morning after using retinol or tretinoin, with SPF 30 or higher.

Who Should Try Retinol or Tretinoin?

If you haven’t used retinol before, starting small before progressing onward is best. Try out a mild over-the-counter topical and see how your skin reacts. 

Be wary of your sun exposure, too. Summer may not be a great time to experiment. For example, if you are a lifeguard, consider waiting till the off-season to try it out due to sun sensitivity.

If your skin is generally sensitive overall, it’s a good idea to try an over-the-counter option before diving in headfirst with tretinoin. Again, tretinoin is not available over-the-counter and requires a prescription for a good reason.

If you have a history of serious problems with acne or issues with rough texture or scarring, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist. Even then, a professional may recommend you try out an over-the-counter treatment first to gauge your skin’s reaction before attempting a prescription-strength product.

What Are the Risks of Retinol and Tretinoin?

Before officially incorporating retinol or tretinoin into your routine, consider your current regimen. Do not mix this new step with any other active ingredients like vitamin c, alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids, or benzoyl peroxide. Not only can these products counteract and deactivate each other, they can over-exfoliate your skin, dry it out, and cause some uncomfortable (and unflattering) side effects.

You should also avoid retinol or tretinoin use in conjunction with chemical peels, lasers, waxing, or other similar procedures, as this can also cause serious skin issues.

If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you may need to avoid using retinoids or consult your doctor before trying products containing retinoids. 

Other ingredients, like vitamin c serum and hyaluronic acid, have been deemed safe skincare alternatives for those who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding. 

The Bottom Line

In short, over-the-counter retinol can be purchased where most skincare products are sold and is typically easier on the skin than tretinoin. Retinol works gradually and can sometimes cause mild side effects like redness or irritation.

On the other hand, tretinoin is only available by prescription due to its strength. It is fast-acting but commonly causes side effects like redness and peeling.

If you’re new to this type of skincare, over-the-counter retinol is a great way to experiment with vitamin a and get your feet wet. Consistent and correct use of retinol can make your face look more rejuvenated and fresh and help with texture. 

No matter which route you choose, consistent and correct use of active vitamin a topicals can yield powerful results.



Retinol: Cream, Serum, What it is, Benefits, How to Use | Cleveland Clinic

Tretinoin (Topical Route) Precautions | Mayo Clinic

Do topical retinoids cause acne to "flare"? | NCBI