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Beauty 411: Retin-A vs. Retinol

Reviewed by Emmy M. Graber, MD

WebMD Magazine - Feature

What's the difference between Retin-A and retinol?

Both are retinoids. They're both made from vitamin A and promote faster skin cell turnover. And they're some of the most proven, effective, and powerful options for treating skin issues ranging from acne to signs of aging.

Retinoids come in prescription form and in a range of over-the-counter products. Prescription-level retinoids fall into these groups:

  • Tretinoin, including the brands Atralin, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Renova
  • Tazarotene, such as the brand Tazorac
  •  Adapalene, such as the brand Differin

All three groups prevent the buildup of dead cells in the skin's pores and follicles, and all three promote the growth of healthy cells. Common side effects include dryness, redness, irritation, and skin peeling as well as making skin more sensitive to the sun. 

Retinol is found in many products that don't require a prescription.  Retinols are much weaker than prescription retinoids. Unless vitamin A is listed as one of the top five ingredients and the product is packaged in an airtight opaque bottle, what you're getting might not be all that effective.  Neither retinoids nor retinols should be used by breastfeeding or pregnant women.

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