Retin A vs Retinol – Secret to Youthful Skin?

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Retin A Cream

If there is something that most Dermatologists seem to agree on, it’s that women over a certain age should be using Retin A or Retinol, also known as Retinoids in their daily skincare routine. Considered the holy grail for wrinkle prevention, Retinoids, when applied topically provide a slew of anti-aging benefits.  This has been clinically proven over the years through a gazillion studies.  In fact, Tretinoin (Retin A) was the first retinoid approved by the FDA to treat wrinkles.  What exactly is a retinoid? Retin A vs Retinol, what is the difference?  And which one should you be using?

Retin A vs Retinol Explained

I often talk about my Anti Aging A-List.  It’s my list of 5 holy grail ingredients, backed by science, that are key to keeping skin youthful looking as we age.  When it comes to skincare ingredients, Retinoids are as close to the fountain of youth as you can get and they are number 1 on my Anti-Aging A-List.  Retinoid is an “umbrella” term used to describe over the counter retinols and prescription retinoids, also known as Retin A.  Both are made from Vitamin A and promote faster skin cell turnover.  They work by neutralizing free radicals in the skin that may be causing collagen damage.  Collagen is essential for youthful looking skin.  Unfortunately, as we age, our bodies begin to produce less collagen and existing collagen begins to break down.   This can contribute to thinner skin, sagging skin and fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinoids help promote new collagen production and work to fill in and reduce the appearance of existing wrinkles and help prevent new ones from forming.  Retinoids can also improve skin texture, skin tone, age spots and skin hydration levels.

You Might Also Like:  Learn about Number 2 on my Anti aging A-List.  Discover the amazing benefits of Niacinamide Here.

Tretinoin Retin A vs. Retinol
Considered the most effective, Retin A vs. Retinol requires a prescription from your Doctor.

Prescription Strength Retinoids (Retin A)

Prescription strength retinoids, commonly referred to as Retin A, fall into one of these three groups:

  • Tretinoin – Marketed under the brands Atralin, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Renova.
  • Adapalene, such as the brand Differin
  • Tazarotene, such as the brand Tazorac

Retin-A products are approximately 100 times stronger than the average retinol cream you get over the counter.  The reason for this is that Retin A  does not need to be broken down by the enzymes in your skin before it can be used.  This strength comes with amazing and speedy results that can normally be seen within 3-6 months.  And the longer you use it, the better it gets!

Tretinoin and Tazarotene are generally considered the most effective.  Both require a prescription in the U.S.  Your Dermatologist can determine which formula would be best for your skin and prescribe the proper strength.

Retin A Cream
Adapalene was formerly available by prescription only but is now available at the drug store!

Adapalene is often lumped into the retinoid-group.  While the active ingredient in Adapalene isn’t technically a retinoid, it works largely the same way and has been proven to be very effective.  The once prescription only medication is now available over the counter.  Marketed under the brand name Differin, you can pick up a tube of this on Amazon or at your local drug store!

Retin A vs. Retinol
Look for a minimum percentage of 0.25% in over the counter Retinol products for the best results!

Over the Counter Retinol

Over the counter Retinols are considered 100 times less effective than Retin-A.  However, they still provide anti-aging benefits, it just takes longer.  When applied topically, enzymes in your skin convert retinol into retinaldehyde and then into retinoic acid. Because of the two-step conversion that it has to undergo before the skin can use it, this means the results are slower.  The conversion into retinoic acid can take at least a few weeks, which is why you should use retinol products consistently for a few months before expecting to see any results.

Over the counter Retinol comes in multiple strengths.  The most common are 1%, 0.5%, and 0.25%.  If the product doesn’t specify the percentage of retinol on the label, it usually means the concentration is weaker than .25%, which may not give you the full benefits of retinol.  Studies suggest you need to use at least 0.25% retinol to be effective so look for products that specify the percentage and make sure that the percentage is at least 0.25%.  Below are some good options that contain at least the minimum percentage.

Radha Beauty Miracle Retinol Moisturizer

With over 5000 four star Reviews on Amazon, Radha Beauty Miracle Retinol Moisturizer contains the highest available percentage allowed over the counter at 2.5%.  With other good for your skin ingredients like Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin E, Green Tea and Jojoba Oil, this product generally won’t irritate the skin and contains no artificial fragrances and no parabens. It is gluten free and not tested on animals.

$18.99 USD 1.7 oz.

SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0

Developed by a Dermatologist, SkinMedica Retinol Complex enhances skin tone, texture, and resiliency. Diminishes appearance of fine lines and coarse wrinkles. Enhances skin tone and texture.

$93.00 USD 1 oz.

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream

A-Passioni Retinol Cream is the wholly grail for those with sensitive skin.  Like all of Drunk Elephant’s products, you won’t find any of the ‘suspicious 6’, (SLS, fragrance, dyes, essential oils, chemical screens, drying alcohols, silicones and SLS) in here. Instead their 1% retinol has been blended with soothing botanical extracts, passionfruit, kale, apricot and cherry, so it won’t irritate the most sensitive skins.

$74.00 USD 1 oz.

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate

First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate combines Retinol and peptides to trigger collagen and elastin formation and to bring elasticity back to skin.  Hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and colloidal oatmeal plump, soften, and soothe, making this serum a great pick for sensitive skin types.

$58.00 USD 1 oz.

Radha Beauty Retinol Moisturizer Cream for Face

Another product with over 5000 four star Reviews on Amazon, this Radha Beauty’s Retinol Moisturizer Cream contains 2.5% active Retinol, Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin E and Green Tea.  It is safe for all skin types – free of fragrances, dyes, and parabens and is cruelty free.

$18.95 USD 1.7 oz.

Side Effects

Both Retin A and Retinol have side effects, especially for those with sensitive skin.  The general rule of thumb is to start slowly. Begin using Retin A or Retinol 2-3 times per week working up to every other night, then to every night as your skin can tolerate it.  Side effects may include dryness, redness and skin irritation.

TIP: Apply your retinol cream or serum FIRST and follow with a GOOD moisturizer. This will help prevent skin irritation & dryness.

Don’t Forget Sunscreen!

Retin A and Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the Sun’s harmful UV rays.  This is a fact.  It is especially important to use an SPF 30 daily to protect your skin.  Of course you should be doing that already anyway! If you are not, please start using an SPF 30 daily!  I know people are concerned over recent reports about the chemicals in sunscreens.  I’m concerned too!  But that doesn’t mean go without.  I’ve recently switched to Mineral Sunscreens.  They are generally considered safe and much better for sensitive skin.  For more information on sunscreens that are safe to use, see my Facebook post Here.

Final Thoughts – Retin A vs Retinol

I’ve been using Retinol products for years.  I can personally tell you they work.  I started using an over the counter product around ten years ago and changed to a Retin A Cream three years ago.  My current routine consists of alternating between Differin, which you can get over the counter and Tretinoin (Retin A) prescribed by my doctor.  I apply my retinol at night as the first step in my skincare routine after cleansing.

If you have issues with your skin that you would like to correct such as sun damage, fine lines & wrinkles, age spots or lack of firmess, consider adding Retin A or an over the counter Retinol to your routine.  I am certain you will be glad you did!

Do you use Retinol or a Retin A Cream?  I would love to hear about your experience with it.  Thank you for reading and please leave a comment below!

Until next time…






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About Susie 112 Articles
Founder & Editor, 40andholding Beauty Blog. All things Beauty, Makeup, Anti-aging & Skincare for Women Over 40!


  1. You had me at Drunk Elephant. I love their products for my sensitive skin. I’ll give the retinol a try. My dermatologist does not want me to think out my skin because of too many skin cancers on my face. But I like your description of DE. PS> I’m over 70!

    • I’m with you Sandra! I love just about everything I’ve tried from Drunk Elephant! They’ve really nailed it with their clean ingredients & products that actually produce results! Thank you so much for stopping by & reading!💕💕

    • Thank you Loretta!🙏. From everything I’ve read, that is a myth. Dermatologists say that it actually helps to thicken the skin by stimulating collagen production. I’ve been using it for years & haven’t had any issues. Always best to talk to your doctor if it’s a concern though.💕💕

  2. Thank you for all of the details!! I have tried a few of these products over the past couple of years, most recently my doctor prescribed Tretinoin, which you mention and I probably did not give it a fair chance. I did find it very drying but was also never told to followup with a moisturizer, easy enough to look up on my own, bit was nervous about taking away from the benefits of using the cream. I will try it again now.

    • Yes Tretinoin can be very drying & cause all sorts of side effects! You can use a moisturizer after OR before using it & it will help. It also helps to start slow, using it once or twice a week working your way up to every day or every other day. Thank you so much for stopping by & reading!💕💕

  3. Thank you Susie, for a complete and thorough description of retinoids, and Retina A. I’m going to see what is available here in Europe. I’m excited to try one of these products.

    • Yay! I think Retin A is available in Europe without a prescription! Let me know if you try & thank you so much for stopping by & reading!💕💕

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