Tretinoin vs Retinol: The Differences Explained

In this blog, we will tackle a topic that is often shrouded in confusion: the difference between tretinoin and retinol.

Tretinoin and retinol are both derivatives of Vitamin A that are known as retinoids. As skincare ingredients they work to stimulate skin cell turnover for the improvement of skin tone, texture, and appearance. They are often recommended as part of anti-ageing skincare regimens, though tretinoin may also be prescribed to treat acne.

Despite their similarities, there are a number of key differences between them, including potency, availability, how they work, and how they affect the skin.

In this blog, we’ll go through each of these differences so you can make an informed choice about which ingredient is right for your skin.


Tretinoin is considered to be the more potent retinoid as it delivers retinoic acid, the active form of Vitamin A, directly to the skin. This direct mechanism comes with the downside of making it more likely to react with or irritate the skin.

By contrast, retinol is a precursor to retinoic acid. Upon application it undergoes a multi-step conversion to reach the active form of retinoic acid. This conversion process makes it gentler and less likely to irritate the skin.

Because retinol is considered to be a ‘milder’ retinoid than tretinoin, this has led to the impression that it is less effective than tretinoin.

However, recent research has demonstrated that when it comes to anti-ageing goals, modern retinol formulas perform better over months of use.

Don’t be fooled into thinking tretinoin must be better because it is ‘stronger’ – its suitability entirely depends upon your skincare goals and skin type.

Availability - prescription vs over-the-counter

Due to the higher risk of reactivity and irritation, tretinoin is only available by prescription from a doctor. It is often prescribed to treat acne in moderate to severe cases.

Talk to your dermatologist if you think tretinoin is right for you. The exact strength and formulation that they prescribe will vary depending on your skin type and aims.

Retinol is available over-the-counter in many skincare products and is best suited to those with anti-ageing skincare goals. You can talk to a dermal clinician about which product might be right for you. Or, if you prefer to choose the product yourself, be sure to consider its strength and formulation.

If this is your first time using retinol, or your first time using it in a long time, choose a lower-strength formulation, such as Dream Team Regular 0.625. Higher-strength formulations such as Dream Team Advanced 1.25 are best suited to those who have experience with retinol products.

Do not use retinol or other Vitamin A products if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive.

How tretinoin and retinol work

Tretinoin delivers active retinoic acid directly to the skin, where it binds to retinoic acid receptors (RARs) within skin cells. This stimulates collagen production and skin cell turnover for firmer and more youthful-looking skin. It also addresses acne by helping to prevent the formation of clogged pores and promoting the shedding of dead skin cells. Be aware that if your doctor prescribes tretinoin for your acne, it may make the condition worse before it gets better. This is known as ‘purging’ – a short-lived increase in acne due to sudden accelerated exfoliation.

When retinol is applied, it undergoes a multi-step conversion within the skin from retinol to retinaldehyde to the active form of retinoic acid. It then acts in the same way as tretinoin, binding to RARs to promote skin cell turnover and the production of collagen for firmer, smoother skin.

You can think of tretinoin as having a direct effect on the skin, while retinol has an indirect effect due to it needing to convert to its active form upon application.

How tretinoin and retinol affect the skin

Due to the direct way it stimulates the skin, tretinoin is more likely to cause skin reactions and irritation. It is not suitable for all skin types, and those with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as rosacea and eczema are not recommended to use this ingredient.

If you have acne or especially advanced anti-ageing skincare goals and are considering using tretinoin, talk to your doctor to see if it is suitable for your skin type and concerns.

While retinol also has the potential to irritate the skin, by choosing the right product and following application instructions carefully, you can easily manage this.

Encapsulated retinol is usually considered to be the gold standard of modern retinol formulations. This refers to retinol that has been encased in liposomes, which function as a slow-release mechanism to deliver a dose of retinol to the skin over the course of hours rather than all at once.

This formulation makes encapsulated retinol far gentler and less likely to irritate the skin than traditional retinol products.

Our Dream Team serums and Eye Dream are proudly made with encapsulated retinol for this very reason.

For any help in choosing the right retinol product for your skin, please do not hesitate to contact us on 03 9826 9988. Our friendly dermal clinicians will be happy to answer any questions you have. For help creating a skincare regimen, you can visit our Skin Quiz at

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