POSTED: 8 Jun 2022

Tretinoin Vs Retinol: What’s The Difference?

Many of our clients at City Skin Clinic ask us what the best products are to use on their skin. How and which type of Vitamin A should I use on my skin are probably two of our most commonly asked questions. Tretinoin and retinol are two popular Vitamin A products consistently used in the skincare industry, but which one is best? This guide will discuss both in their entirety and explore their uses and side effects – to shed light on which one is more beneficial for your skin. 

What Is Retinol? 

Retinol is the most basic or direct formulation of Vitamin A. It can be purchased over the counter in the UK and has been known for decades for its anti-ageing and hyperpigmentation treatment properties. 

Although this is an old skincare ingredient, it is still one of the few non-prescription anti-wrinkle skincare products that have been extensively studied and validated by independent researchers. It is however still relatively underutilised despite more elaborate skincare products and trends such as exfoliating acids and K-beauty skincare which have taken the world by storm in the last decade. 

Part of this may be a lack of awareness about Retinol’s clinically proven effects and also because any effect it has on reducing the appearance of lines and wrinkles is modest (something like 30%) and also takes time (around 8-12 weeks). Added to that, Retinol can initially irritate the skin so skin care enthusiasts are often put off by this and hence do not use it for long enough to see its benefits. Nonetheless, most skin care companies have a retinol product as part of their repertoire and as such retinol is available in many different forms: 

  • Gels
  • Creams
  • Emollients
  • Liquid serums

Retinol is largely used as a topical treatment. Clients are advised to regularly apply it to their skin to enjoy the benefits that it offers (we will explore these benefits later in this guide). Retinol penetrates the superficial layer of the skin and promotes cell turnover. 

This helps reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, lightens hyperpigmentation and regulates oil as well as acne symptoms. It also increases vascularisation of the skin and reduces the breakdown of collagen – a protein that enhances your skin’s structure, plumpness and bounciness. Normally we advise starting on the lowest concentration of retinol and applying it every 2-3 nights at night to clean dry skin then increasing the dose and concentration gradually. This allows your skin to get used to the product and reduces the risk of skin irritation.

What Is Tretinoin?

Also known as retinoic acid, Tretinoin is a well-known medication that has been used to treat issues such as acne, hyperpigmentation, skin ageing and the effects of sun damage. This synthetic and active derivative of Vitamin A comes in the form of topical cream or gel that must be prescribed by your doctor. It works by increasing cell turnover which exfoliates the skin and reveals younger fresher skin underneath. It also improves vascularisation and increases collagen production and reduces its breakdown. 

Tretinoin is a very effective acne treatment and is also used to treat hyperpigmentation, reduce lines and wrinkles as well as smooth skin texture and scarring. It is sold under many different brand names with Obagi Tretinoin being one of the most popular and it comes in a variety of concentrations. Like Retinol, Tretinoin can irritate the skin and even cause purging when first used. As such, it is important to start on a low dose and frequency which can both be built up gradually as your skin tolerates it.

Tretinoin Vs Retinol

Although tretinoin and retinol are related, they are very different. Retinol is the original form of Vitamin A whilst Tretinoin belongs to a group of products called retinoids (chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A). Both can be used to treat various conditions such as acne, fine wrinkles, and sunspots

However, tretinoin is considerably stronger than retinol as it is the active form of Vitamin A and hence can get to work as soon as it is applied to the skin. Retinol and other weaker retinoids, on the other hand, require further reaction steps by your skin to activate them to work. This is what makes Tretinoin so effective and strong but also more irritating than retinol. In addition to wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, Tretinoin is also used by doctors to treat a wider set of skin conditions like acne, scarring and rosacea. 

Both Retinol and Tretinoin also differ in availability. You won’t have to travel far to find a range of skincare products that contain retinol, and you can easily purchase them over the counter. 

When it comes to buying over the counter, you won’t have the same luck with tretinoin. This is because tretinoin is the stronger of the two – and will require a prescription from your doctor. As such, Tretinoin is also more expensive.

 As a general rule, if you are a newbie to retinoids or active skincare, it is advised that you try retinol first. This is because it has a lower concentration, meaning skin irritation will be more manageable and as it is cheaper and widely available you can try it out with little commitment and see if Retinol alone can help improve your skin’s appearance. 

Tretinoin And Retinol Benefits

As tretinoin and retinol are both vitamin A derived products, they share similar benefits. Despite this, there are differences in how they are used.  Tretinoin is generally considered better for treating acne and acne scarring and so patients are often started on that rather than Retinol if they have exhausted more basic acne skincare routines.  As retinol is less irritable on the skin, it is usually preferred for patients with sensitive skin who are looking to use it as part of an anti-ageing skincare routine. Very often patients looking to treat lines and wrinkles, sun damage and skin texture usually start Retinol by themselves and once they feel they’ve reached the maximum benefit from that, switch to Tretinoin. Regardless of which one you choose to start with or stay with, these are the benefits: 

  • Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles 
  • Makes skin smoother
  • Corrects any uneven skin tone or colouring and treats hyperpigmentation
  • Regulates oil production and minimises the size of pores

Collagen is an essential protein that our skin needs. It helps maintain its structure, so the skin appears glowing and youthful. Both retinol and tretinoin increase collagen in the skin, helping to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Additionally, both products also exfoliate the skin, removing any dead skin cells, which helps to improve the texture. Therefore, you can get a smoother and brighter complexion with either of these products. 

Tretinoin Vs Retinol Side Effects

Despite being widely used for many years, like most skincare products, both tretinoin and retinol have potential side effects. Although they share similar side effects, tretinoin has been known to have a greater risk of side effects than retinol – due to its strength. Familiarise yourself with the list of potential risks below: 

  • Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark patches form on areas of the skin) – although both can treat hyperpigmentation they can also cause it if you use too high a concentration or frequency initially
  • Photosensitivity (increased skin sensitivity that can significantly increase your chance of sunburn and sensitivity to other skincare products) – to avoid this you will need to use sunscreen daily
  • Irritation – retinoid creams have a high concentration so that they can cause irritation of the skin and purging
  • There are some pregnancy risks associated with Vitamin A which may affect foetal development. If you want to use tretinoin or retinol you must not be pregnant or breastfeeding.

These side effects are manageable and won’t happen to everyone but it’s important that you’re aware of the risks before you start a course of treatment with either product. 

Can I Use Retinol And Tretinoin Together?

As both products are derived from Vitamin A and offer similar effects, there is no need to combine the two. In fact, because both retinoids irritate the skin, using both together is not recommended. This is because it can accelerate side effects and increase the skin’s sensitivity – making the texture a lot drier. Ideally, you should start with retinol as it is the less potent of the two and turn to tretinoin if you are not achieving your desired results. Our highly-qualified team at City Skin Clinic can give you our expert advice to steer you in the right direction. 


Both retinol and tretinoin share some similarities. They are derived from Vitamin A – and offer similar effects – and benefits. However, tretinoin is the stronger of the two, and although it provides quicker results, the side effects can be a lot more severe if you do not start at the most appropriate dose and frequency for you. So, this is something to bear in mind. Retinol can be purchased over the counter, but you will need a doctor to access tretinoin which you can easily do so through our virtual clinic. Whether you choose tretinoin or retinol in your skincare regime, you must use them correctly and educate yourself on the side effects. 

If you would like to discuss your skincare journey with an aesthetic medical professional, don’t hesitate to contact one of our team members at City Skin Clinic. Book a virtual skin consultation today for personalised treatment plans tailored to your needs and skin. 


Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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