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Retinoids vs Retinol vs Retin – A- Everything Else You Need to Know about choosing the right Vitamin A

It is common knowledge that if you want to deal with aging skin i.e., fine lines, wrinkles, photo damaged skin, etc, then retinol is the most powerful ingredient in your skin care arsenal. At the same time, when you are dabbling in anti-aging products you hear similar sounding ingredients like retinol, retinoids and Retin -A, and if most of you have guessed that it is some form of Vitamin A, then you are right.

 And if you are one of those who is slightly confused about what to choose, then you are not alone!

Are Retinoids, Retinol and Retin-A the same? Do they have the same effect on your skin? Well, here is where things get slightly complicated. So, lets get to the bottom of it.

So, in simple words-

What are Retinoids?

Retinoid is a generic term used for a group of compounds derived from Vitamin A- something like an umbrella term for the entire line of Vitamin A derivatives.

Few types of retinoids are-Retinol, Retinoic acid esters, Retinol esters, Adapalene, Tretinoin, Tazarotene, Isotretinoin(mainly in the pill form and is taken orally) and Trifarotene.

During the 1970s this drug was largely used for treating ‘acne’. When applied topically, the retinoid gets converted into retinoic acid and it is this form that works on the skin. The conversion process looks something like this: Retinol esters – Retinol- Retinaldehyde- Retinoic acid.

Irrespective of what retinoid you choose, your skin will only use retinoic acid, which is the active form of Vitamin A. Retinoic acid helps in cellular repair and renewal by binding to the retinoid receptors in our bodies. As the compound gets closer to retinoic acid, the efficacy increases.

Over time researchers proved that it is an effective tool to combat several other skin conditions

Topical Retinoids are used for:

  • Reducing acne scarring and treating stubborn adult acne.
  • Long term treatments help reduce fine lines, wrinkles, solar comedones and reduce pre-cancerous skin condition called actinic keratoses.
  • It exfoliates the skin and helps in unclogging the pores.
  • Additionally, they also help even skin pigmentation, boosts collagen production, fades age-spots, increases the turnover rate of superficial skin cells and softens rough patches of skin.
  • Adapalene is an OTC drug, approved by FDA for acne treatment (in a 0.1% formulation)
  • Tretinoin, Isotretinoin Tazaroteneare very strong forms as they are pure retinoic acid, hence available by prescription only.Tretinoin is the first drug to be approved by FDA for the treatment of wrinkles.

Side effects of Retinoids:

Since retinoids are stronger than the other derivatives of Vitamin A, the side effects are more pronounced:

  • Redness
  • Itchy skin
  • Flaking and scaling
  • Dryness.
  • Some other significant side effects, although rare, include extreme sensitivity to sunlight, blistering, swelling, and acne flare ups. There are cases which also show eczema flare ups.
  • Women of childbearing potential are advised to stop using both topical and oral retinoids, at least six months to a year before conception, due to its teratogenic effects.
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How to use

Take a pea-sized amount of retinoid and apply it to the face and neck once a day. Keep in mind that you apply the retinoid only after 20 -30 mins after washing your face. And the use of moisturizer and SUNSCREEN IS A MUST. There is no debate here.


Retinols, even though more popular, are much weaker/milder than retinoids and are easily available OTC and these do not require prescription. They are also found in many skincare products.

Uses of Retinol

  • The uses of retinol are quite like that of retinoids, but the effects are slow.
  •  It helps in reducing fine lines and wrinkles, reduce acne scarring, evens complexion and brightens the skin, boosts collagen production thus improving skin’s elasticity, and reduces signs of photoaging.
  • It gently exfoliates the skin

Side Effects

  • Even though retinols are milder, they still come with some side effects like redness, dryness, peeling, increased sensitivity, itchiness and scaly patches.
  • Just like retinoids, retinols also have the same rare side effects such as acne breakouts, eczema flare ups, swelling and at times skin discoloration.
  • Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are advised not to use retinol.

How to Use

On a clean face, apply a small amount at night twice or thrice a week. Moisturize the skin well and never skip on sunscreen. Make sure to avoid the delicate areas like around the mouth and eyes.

If at all your skin care regime includes Vitamin C, then it is advised to not use retinol along with it as it can be too harsh on your skin. Discontinue the use of Vitamin C while using retinol.

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In case you are undergoing an acne treatment, make sure to consult with your dermatologist before using retinol.


Retin A is another derivative of Vitamin A and it is a prescription medication which is used to treat moderate to severe acne. However, this is available only in topical forms and comes in both cream and gel forms. Retina A is a brand name for ‘tretinoin’. However, there are some other medications as well which contain tretinoin- Renova, Avita and Retin A-Micro.

Even though the main ingredient is tretinoin, these medications act differently on the skin. For example, unlike Retin A, Retin A-Micro is formulated in such a way that it tends to be less irritating and less drying than the traditional Retin A.

Uses of Retin A

  • It acts as a comedolytic, which prevents the blocking of pores which prevents pimples and blackheads from forming
  • It helps in reducing enlarged pores.
  • The other uses are very much similar to that of retinoids and retinol.

Side effects: Retin A displays side effects similar to retinoids and retinol.

A Note of Caution

People with sensitive skin type should avoid using any form of retinoids as it would aggravate your skin condition. Even if you decide to use them, make sure that you use small quantity and then wash it off within an hour. Follow with heavy moisturizing. The best non-Rx forms for sensitive skin type are retinol and retinaldehyde.

Retinoids, Retinol and Retin A are powerful anti-aging ingredients, and we all are inclined to use it. It is important to understand that every treatment takes its own time to work and the effects vary from person to person.

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When you initially begin using any of the above three ingredients, your skin will pass through a phase called “retinization”. This is the phase where your skin is adjusting to the retinoids. It is common that your skin feels dry, itchy and you notice redness. It generally starts a few days after you first begin using it. You need not panic because your skin needs to develop tolerance to these strong ingredients. These symptoms will finally settle.

Things to keep in mind

  • It is best to prepare your skin before you decide to use retinoids. Make sure that your skin is properly hydrated as a moisturised skin has better barrier function.
  • It is best if you look for moisturisers that contain hyaluronic acid, antioxidants or peptides that relieve redness.
  • You can first apply a layer of moisturiser on your face followed by the retinoid of your choice.
  • Alter your skincare routine a bit. Try and avoid over exfoliating the skin as it could aggravate the redness and tingling sensation of the skin. It is also advisable to stop using your masks and peels.
  • Avoid products that contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, Vitamin C and glycolic acid while using retinoids.

Do remember that this is going to be a long game and you need to be patient about your results. If you are in too much pain or have an allergic reaction or develop a rash, then immediately consult your doctor. If you have questions, do not be reluctant to ask.