Updated: May 19
You'll often see the words “retinol” and “retin-a” being thrown around interchangeably, but they are not the same. They are best to be considered cousins—related but still very different. Understanding the difference between all these similar-sounding words is important especially if you're embarking on a skincare journey involving any of them. I hope these descriptions (and my experience) offer some clarity to those who want to start their retinoid journey or those who are considering transitioning from one type to another.
Retinol: Retinol is a gentle version of vitamin A and is found in many OTC skincare serums and moisturisers at pharmacies, beauty boutiques or online. Retinols require enzymes from our skin to first convert it to retinoic acid in order to be effective, which is why retinol usually takes a longer time to show results. The benefits of this ingredient are many and include smoothing out skin, speeding up skin cell turnover (and boosting new healthy skin cells), evening out pigmentation, diminishing fine lines or wrinkles. Since retinol is available without a prescription, it can generally be incorporated into anyone's skincare easily without much irritation. However, this may not be the best solution for those with moderate to severe acne.
Retin-A: This is a brand name for a topical medication called tretinoin and contains a synthetic type of vitamin A. Tretinoin is a concentration of pure retinoic acid and is considered an active ingredient, in other words, there is no need for our skin to convert it into retinoic acid, therefore, making it more potent with faster results. This makes tretinoin one of the best products for those with moderate to severe acne when compared to other products. However, it is also known to lead to dryness, peeling, reddening and sometimes even itchiness especially for those with sensitive skin- which is one of the reasons it is usually only available through prescriptions. Retin-A comes in many concentrations such as 0.25%, 0.5% and 1% which indicate their strength. Beginners usually start with the lowest dose once or twice per week, then gradually increase its strength over time based on how your skin responds. Your dermatologist will prescribe you the recommended percentage, frequency and accompanying products to avoid irritation or drying.
Isotretinoin: Commonly known under its trade name, Accutane, is an oral form of oral retinoid and is often prescribed to those with severe and persistent acne. To date, the efficacy of isotretinoin has not been surpassed by any other ingredient. However, isotretinoin can cause side effects, some of which are potentially serious which is why you shouldn’t start it without consulting with a doctor first. Your healthcare provider will assess your skin and health to see whether isotretinoin is recommendable for you, and if they decide to prescribe it to you they will continue monitoring your health in order to prevent any negative outcomes from occurring.
Retinoids: All of the above fall under the category of retinoids. When you use a product that contains retinoids, your body will either recognize it as retinoic acid (tretinoin) or convert it into retinoic acid (retinol).
So now that we’ve got all that covered, I hope you have some clarity on these treatments, their effects and what you can expect while using them. I have personally used all three types of retinoids from different brands and have finally come to understand what currently works best for my skin but there sure has been a lot of trials and errors along the road. I hope there are fewer bumps on yours!