Retinol is the science name for Vitamin A and all its derivates. These derivates are lumped together and called retinoids. Retinoids are then put into different categories from weakest called retinoid esters to the strongest called retinoic acids. They are different.
For example, take dogs. There are many breeds of dogs in the world. They range from massive – great downs down to a corgi. But they are all called dogs.
Pretty much they do the same things, be loyal, have adorable floppy ears, chase balls, insist on sleeping on the couch. Yet they are all very different.
Some are better at chasing balls; some are better at floppy ears. All of them are dogs.
Retinol vs Retin A, are they different?
Retinoids are what I like to think of as, the dogs of the skincare ingredient world. They come from the same family; they are just different breeds. They all do basically the same thing just differently and with different abilities.
Let me put in this infographic to make this a little clearer.
What is Retinol?
You can see from the above infographic that retinol sits in between the weakest form of retinoids, the retinyl esters and it’s stronger cousin retinal. Retinol is also confusingly the umbrella term for vitamin A.
When it comes to skincare, most people think of retinol as the serum of youthful skin-plumping awesomeness. This is because marketing and hype have done an excellent job of taking an ingredient and elevating it to hero-like status.
Don’t get me wrong. Retinol as a ‘brand’ and retinol as an ingredient is very worthy of skin hero status; it’s just confusing for consumers.
Marketers like confusion it makes you buy more products.
Let’s just briefly recap.
Retinol means the vitamin A derivates retinoids. Retinol is also an ingredient in skincare and as part of the retinoid family.
How Retinol Works in Your Skin
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means that it dissolves in fat and oil. It is stored in the fat of your body and released when it’s needed to do stuff.
Your skin epidermis (The outer layer of your skin) is lipophilic, which means it loves fat. Because retinol is fat and your epidermis loves fat, it allows retinol to penetrate through the subcutaneous layer of your epidermis.
Science loves putting things into groups and layers. To keep everything organised and tidy. So skin is not just the stuff that stops your organs from falling on the floor. Skin is an organ in itself and its made up of layers.
There are 3 layers the subcutaneous, the dermis and the epidermis. The epidermis is then divided into 5 more layers. Here comes another infographic.
Because retinol can penetrate your skin is known as an ‘active’ ingredient. To be considered active, a skincare ingredient has to meet the Kingman standard. This means it has to penetrate the stratum corneum, which is actually not that easy to do!
The stratum corneum (Latin for the horny layer) acts as an interface between you and the outside world. It’s made up loosely interlocking keratin plates. That’s why its called a horny layer. It does a great job at keeping things in and also keeping things out.
When it comes to retinol the molecule is small enough and fatty which the stratum corneum likes. It is the ability of retinol to penetrate the epidermis that makes it so effective. Unfortunately, it is also what makes it so irritating to the skin.
Which brings us neatly to Retin A.
What is Retin A?
Retin A is the brand name for the retinoid called tretinoin. Tretinoin is the strongest of the topical retinoids and is known within the retinoid family as retinoic acid.
It was discovered in the late 1960s by the mildly controversial American dermatologist called Dr Albert Klingman. He invented Retin A, and Johnson and Johnson licensed it. In 1971 Retin A entered the market.
Not long after prescribing Retin A to his Adult patients who suffered from acne, they started to report back that not only was the acne better, but their skin looked ‘younger’.
Obviously intrigued by the possibility of a cream that lessened wrinkles and plumped out the skin, he went back into his lab. In 1996 the prescription-only Renova was introduced by Johnson and Johnson to the antiwrinkle market.
To recap Retin A is a prescription-only acne product made from the retinoic acid, tretinoin.
How Does Retin A work
Since tretinoin is a vitamin A derivate, it works by penetrating the stratum corneum and interacting with the deeper layers of the epidermis, dermis, and a small degree of the subcutaneous layer of the skin.
Retinoids come in different strengths, and the most potent kinds are the retinoic acids, AKA tretinoin.
If all retinoids act within the skin in the same way why is tretinoin prescription only, but I can buy retinol from Sephora or the chemist?
This is because of how your skin uses retinoids. When you apply retinoic acid to the skin, it penetrates immediately into the deeper layers and gets to work doing all the things that retinoids are now famous for doing.
- Reduction of both wrinkles and fine lines
- Increases collagen production
- Smoothes skin texture
- Increases skin thickness
- Improves elasticity
- Diminishes acne
- Improves overall skin tone
- Diminishes hyperpigmentation
- Increases skin hydration
- Stimulates skin repair
- Decreases enlarged pores
Tretinoin is already a retinoic acid, so it acts fast. If you come down one level in the strength, you get to retinaldehyde or retinal. I call it by its full name retinaldehyde so as not to confuse it with retinol.
Retinaldehyde has to be converted by enzymes in your skin into retinoic acid before it can penetrate the skin. This extra step your skin takes to use the retinaldehyde makes it less irritating to the skin. However, retinaldehyde is still too irritating for most people to use regularly.
If we come down one more step in the strength, you come to retinol. Retinol needs to go through two metabolic processes in your skin. It is first turned into retinaldehyde and then into retinoic acid.
This extra step in the process makes retinol less irritating to the skin the retinaldehyde.
There is a reason that retinol has received a lot more attention than the other type of retinoids. It also explains why retinol has become a brand in its own right—cosmetic elegance. Retinol is what is known as being cosmetically elegant.
Whats Cosmetic Elegance?
Cosmetic elegance is the industry term for making a product that is both a pleasure to use and effective at delivering its promise. The problem with tretinoin and retinaldehyde is irritation. They both can cause a hellish amount of skin purging.
There is no point in creating an amazing product if no one will use it because it causes purging and irritation.
Even though skin purging is temporary and beautiful skin is on the other side of the shredded skin pile, many people do not like the purge process. So they stop using your product. This is why retinol is the most popular retinoid.
You don’t need a prescription to get access to it, and while it may still cause skin purging, it’s much more gentle than tretinoin.
It strikes the perfect balance between being effective and giving all the benefits without irritating tretinoin or retinaldehyde. It’s cosmetically elegant. It also is significantly cheaper to make than tretinoin or retinaldehyde.
Of course, we live in times where we want results fast! When it comes to retinoids, I would advise caution and little patience.
There really is no need to push your skin through purging and irritation when you can get the same benefits, just a little slower.
What is Better Retinol vs Retin A?
Yes indeed. What’s best will depend on you and your skin. I can’t advise you to start using Retin A because it is a prescription-only medicine/drug in most countries. You will need to see a dermatologist to access to Retin A.
Because of Retin A’s side effects even if a dermatologist does prescribe it, I would proceed slowly.
If you have moderate to severe acne and it’s really starting to affect your self-confidence, then you absolutely should consider Retin A.
In cases where your skin is making you miserable then 2 – 6 weeks of skin purging will be preferable to suffering through acne for weeks, months or sometimes years.
Retin A in combination with a good skincare routine can make a rapid improvement to acne fast.
If you’re looking for improved collagen production, diminished fine lines and wrinkles, to treat hyperpigmentation or smooth texture. Then you should be food with an over the counter retinol.
Of course, retinols also come in various strengths and combinations with other ingredients, so it’s not just as simple as ‘buying retinol’. Here are a few things you should consider about adding retinol into your skincare routine.
The first question, and if you answer no to this, then you shouldn’t use retinol.
Do you use SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every day? Even on days, you don’t go out much. Damaging UVA rays can penetrate glass. UVA rays do not give you sunburn, but they are the UV rays responsible for premature ageing. So it’s important to wear sunscreen every single day.
It’s also important to wear enough sunscreen.
It would be best to use 2.5ml or half a teaspoon full on your face and neck. 2.5ml is a lot of sunscreens. 90% of people do not put on nearly enough on.
Let me scare you with this little fact I learned from the great Australian dermatologist Davin Lam.
If you only put on half the amount of required sunscreen you get half the SPF protection!
Sunscreens are not only important to stop ageing and hyperpigmentation. Sunscreen can save your life because it gives you protection from the formation of skin cancers.
You obviously care about your skin if you are here reading this. It would be a shame to waste all the time, effort and money you have put into looking after your skin but not using sunscreen.
If you are using retinoids its very important to wear sunscreen every day. Retinoids make your skin even more sensitive to the damage caused by UV rays.
If you are not good at wearing sunscreen, then please don’t use retinoids.
Retinol is great, and you can avoid many acclimatisation issues with retinol by starting with the right one or you. As long as you wear sunscreen and go with caution, then you can add retinol into your skincare routine without too much drama.
Where to start with Retinol Strength
Retinol comes in strengths as low as 0.01% up to 2.0%. 2.0% is the highest you can go without needing a prescription from a dermatologist. There are some debates about whether a very low strength retinol is effective, especially in concentrations of under 0.25%.
The lower the strength of the retinol, the less it will irritate your skin. Also the longer it will take to work.
Does Retinol Vs Retin A go bad?
How you store retinol and all retinoids are very important. They can oxidise when not stored properly. Oxidisation occurs when oxygen binds to the active ingredient in a product turn it from a negative to a positive charge. This process is very irritating to your skin and also risks increasing your chances of UV skin damage.
Should I Use Retinol vs Retin A?
Unless you are under the care of a dermatologist, then you should be using retinol. Retin A is a prescription-only form of retinol, that is way too powerful to be used as an anti-wrinkle, sun damage correcting product.
Having said that, most people can and should use retinol. It is always on dermatologists and skin nerds recommendations, and it’s fully backed by science and clinical research as being true to what it claims to do.
The Bottom Line For Retinol vs Retin A
Retinoids which include retinol and tretinoin (Retin A) are great for your skin and have multiple proven benefits such as:
Retinol is the chemistry term for vitamin A. Vitamin A derivatives are called retinoids. Retinol is an ingredient that is included in creams lotions and serums. The science behind using retinol is now very conclusive that retinol does have anti-ageing and protective, repairing abilities when applied to the skin.
Retin A is a topical cream devised in the late 1960s by Dr Albert Klingman to treat severe acne. It is only available via prescription because it is made from tretinoin which is retinoic acid.
Retinoic acid is taken up immediately by the skin and penetrates deeply through the epidermis and into the dermis. Where it actively promotes cells to renew. This very active process can cause skin purging when the skin becomes red, itching, and irritated and can flake or shed off.
Retinol is the best and most used form of over the counter retinoid because it has all the benefits of tretinoin and causes much less irritation. It is also more cost-effective to produce.
When it comes to Retinol vs Retin A, they are the same. But they work differently.
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