Tretinoin vs Retinol: The Difference Between Retinol and Retinoid

Your relationship with your skin is personal. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you, so if you’re choosing between prescription-strength Tretinoin and over-the-counter retinol, understand the difference before you put something on your face.

Here’s the scoop: Retinoids are a broader category of skincare topicals that Tretinoin and retinol belong to. Retinoids contain vitamin A derivatives used to improve the texture, tone, and appearance of the skin. In addition to Tretinoin (also known by the brand name Retin-A) and retinol, other popular retinoids on the market include adapalene (Differin), isotretinoin (Accutane), tazarotene, retinyl palmitate, and more.

Tretinoin is a more potent retinoid than retinol and will show results faster. While these active ingredients both combat signs of photoaging (aka wrinkles, rough skin, uneven skin tone, and enlarged pores), Tretinoin-based products like Night Shift are more effective for fighting acne.


Retinol is like the training wheels for Tretinoin and other dermatology-grade retinoids. They have similar benefits and can be used on any skin type, though Tretinoin is more often recommended to treat acne and is FDA approved for photoaging. Tretinoin is the more potent of the two, so it will show results faster.

before and after

Ref: Mukherjee S, Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging, Clin Interv Aging, 2006, 1, 327-48, DOI: 10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327

A major difference between retinol and retinoid is that retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid that doesn’t require a written prescription. It’s the precursor to Tretinoin and goes through several conversion steps before it becomes pure Tretinoin. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sheila Krishna, “This also makes retinol less stable than Tretinoin and more prone to degradation upon exposure to light and air.” So retinol is less potent than Tretinoin and has a shorter shelf life. Though it’s easily tolerated and less likely to dry out skin than Tretinoin, it may take longer to reach your skin goals.

Tretinoin (aka retinoic acid) is a prescription retinoid you can get from a doctor. It’s 20 times more potent than OTC retinol and achieves faster results 1. Tretinoin is also the only FDA-approved retinoid to treat photoaging (i.e., premature skin aging due to long-term sun exposure).

Studies have shown a significant improvement of fine lines and wrinkles after just four weeks of Tretinoin use, while the same level of improvement takes an average of 12 weeks for retinol 2. So you’ll achieve the same level of improvement eventually, but Tretinoin shows results faster.

Though Tretinoin can be more drying than retinol, a good moisturizer and sunscreen will help maintain skin hydration.


Tretinoin and retinol are both beneficial to improve the appearance of wrinkles, make skin smoother, minimize pores, and improve pigment distribution.

Tretinoin is also a proven acne-fighter. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lana Kashlan, “If you have acne, then there’s no question you absolutely have to use Tretinoin. Retinols really don’t do anything for acne.” This is a huge difference between retinol and retinoid. Treating acne can take some trial and error to get the right products at the right concentrations for your skin, so talk to your dermatologist for help developing the right skincare regimen for acne treatment.


Fine lines and wrinkles are a natural part of aging, but external factors—like sun damage—can speed up their appearance. Tretinoin and retinol excel at counteracting premature wrinkles by accelerating the production of collagen.

Collagen is a protein that’s responsible for the skin’s structure. After the age of 20, collagen production in the skin drops by about 1% every year. As it does, fine lines and wrinkles appear.

Retinol and Tretinoin have both been shown to increase collagen in the skin in clinical studies 3. One study found that with daily Tretinoin application, collagen in the skin increased by up to 80% over 10 to 12 months 4.



Pores appear larger when they get clogged by dirt, oil, and dead skin cells. By increasing skin cell turnover, Tretinoin and retinol enhance the skin’s ability to exfoliate, clearing that debris and allowing pores to return to their normal size.

The skincare products and makeup you use can also cause pores to get clogged. So if you’re acne prone, check your products for comedogenic ingredients (aka pore-blocking ingredients) and replace what you can to reduce buildup in the first place.

Retinoids also reduce the size of the oil gland, meaning less oil production and less buildup—particularly helpful for oily skin.


Lingering dead skin cells can lead to dry, flaky patches on the skin. The exfoliating powers of Tretinoin and retinol help reduce this layer of dead skin cells, making skin smoother. This is an area where there is not a major difference between retinol and retinoids - they both  improve skin texture.

Tretinoin and retinol also increase glycosaminoglycan (GAG) 5. A GAG you’re probably familiar with is hyaluronic acid. GAGs play a key role in keeping skin hydrated and making it firmer and more elastic, thereby looking and feeling more smooth.


Hyperpigmentation is an increase in melanin production that makes skin tone look uneven or darker than usual. Uneven skin tone can happen with sun exposure, hormonal changes, medications, skin injuries, disease, and aging.

Retinol and Tretinoin make skin pigmentation more even by dispersing melanin granules 6.



Tretinoin will get you in the fast lane to clearer, firmer skin with 20 times the potency than retinol 7. But if you don’t want to dive in headfirst, you can start with an over-the-counter retinol product, then step up to something more potent when you feel comfortable.

If your primary goal is to reduce the effects of photoaging, Dr. Kashlan says, “using an over-the-counter retinol makes sense, especially in the beginning.” Retinol can give your skin a chance to get used to the increased cell turnover and see how your skin reacts.

But when you buy retinol over the counter, you have no control over the formulation, and it’s hard to figure out the right concentration for your skin. With prescription-grade Tretinoin, your dermatologist can tweak the concentration for your unique skin needs and adjust over time as needed.

Got sensitive skin? Sensitive skin or people with skin concerns like psoriasis can still benefit from Tretinoin. In fact, it’s a proven part of an effective skincare regimen to treat psoriasis symptoms 8. Just be sure to mention any concerns you have to your dermatologist so they can start you at the right concentration.

Minimize potential side effects by using moisturizer as part of your morning and nighttime skincare routines and sunscreen when you go out in the sun. And listen to your skin. You can always reduce frequency to let your skin adapt or talk to your dermatologist about lowering the concentration.

Until now, a big difference between retinol and retinoid was that you could only get retinoids like Tretinoin at an in-person doctor’s consult. But we’ve made it easier than ever to get a prescription-strength formula tailored to your skin from the comfort of your own home with an online consultation.



The most effective retinoid can’t be bought in a store, but getting a doctor’s consult shouldn’t be a pain either. Night Shift is a dermatologist-formulated Tretinoin serum tailored to your skin by doctors online. It contains hyaluronic acid to combat dry skin. Your doctor might even start you on a starter strength if it’s appropriate to give your skin a chance to get used to the increased cell turnover. Perfect for sensitive skin and retinoid newbies.

Get started by sharing your skin story. A doctor will evaluate your skin profile and write a prescription for your tailored Tretinoin serum, if applicable. Voilà! Your tailored Tretinoin serum will be delivered to you in the mail. Check out our before and after blog to see what’s possible with this magical retinoid!

Every skin journey is unique, so keep talking to your provider about your experience so they can adjust the formula if needed.

Got questions? Skincare can be confusing, but we’re here to help. Feel free to reach out at if you ever want to chat skincare!

  1. Mukherjee, S., et al. (2006, December). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Retrieved from
  2. Mukherjee, S., et al. (2006, December). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Retrieved from
  3. Kong, R., et al. (2015, November 18). A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Retrieved from
  4. Griffiths, C., et al. (1993, August 19). Restoration of Collagen Formation in Photodamaged Human Skin by Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid). Retrieved from
  5. Casale, J. & Crane, J.S. (2021, January). Biochemistry, Glycosaminoglycans. Retrieved from
  6. Boswell, C.B., MD (2006, March 1). Skincare Science: Update on Topical Retinoids . Retrieved from
  7. Mukherjee, S., et al. (2006, December). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Retrieved from
  8. Kaidbey, K.H., MD, et al. (1975, August). Treatment of Psoriasis With Topically Applied Tretinoin and Steroid Ointment. Retrieved from