Let’s talk about what they have in common before we discuss tretinoin vs retinol. Retinol and tretinoin are both Vitamin A derivatives. You can find this naturally occurring substance in meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Our bodies cannot produce vitamin A so we depend on outside sources for it.
They smooth and exfoliate skin, while reducing oil production and acne, along with fighting sun damage. Both retinol and tretinoin improve skin tone and texture. They also both induce important proteins and cellular mechanisms. These promote healthy, supple skin and block the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays.
Retinol is in over-the-counter products and is a weaker retinoid. Retinol is the precursor of tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid. The skin tolerates it well and doesn’t generally dry out. However, retinol may not offer enough benefits to the skin. Tretinoin is a more effective retinoid that requires a prescription and will offer a better improvement on skin tone, texture, and appearance. Tretinoin may generally be more drying, but a moisturizer and sunscreen offset this.
However, retinol is 20 times less potent than tretinoin and must undergo several conversion steps before it becomes pure tretinoin. This makes retinol weaker than tretinoin but generally less irritating. This also makes retinol less stable than tretinoin and more prone to degradation upon exposure to light and air- this is especially important in topical products, where the base can vary considerably. Tretinoin is much more stable and mixes well with a variety of bases, depending on the specific formulation. Both tretinoin and retinol improve skin quality after 12 weeks of use, but tretinoin is more effective for fine lines and wrinkles.