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  5. Retinol, Retin-A & Retinoids: What's The Difference?

Vitamin A and its derivatives like retinoids, retinol and retin-A have a multitude of benefits for the skin. No wonder they have been around for a long time in the skincare industry. But while picking up a skincare product, have you ever wondered if retinoids, retinol and retin-A are the same things or different?

This article aims to answer that question and a few others about these vitamin A derivatives, so that you can make the right choice for your specific skin concerns.

What Are Retinoids?

Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A. They are used extensively in skincare, especially to prevent premature signs of aging. Retinoids fight off the free radicals that are one of the primary agents of skin damage. It also boosts the production of collagen in your skin making it firmer, thus preventing fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinoids are also effective to some extent in the prevention of photodamage to your skin due to exposure to UV light. Also, some clinical studies have shown that these vitamin A derivatives strengthen your skin’s immune system and support the friendly microbes on your skin (microbiome).[1] Thus the topical application of retinoids can help fight certain types of acne.

What Is Retinol?

Vitamin A in its natural form, is known as retinol. It is present in orange coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots.[2] Retinol boosts the turnover of skin cells, which leads to the formation of new cells in the skin. Thus it is a preferred ingredient in anti-aging skincare.

However, it takes a while before you can see any visible effects of using retinol. The reason behind this is, retinol in cosmetic products is used in forms that cannot directly act on your skin. It has to be enzymatically broken down in your body to retinoic acid. It is the retinoic acid that evens out your skin tone, brightens your complexion and makes your skin smoother.

What Is Retin-A?

Retin-A, also known as tretinoin, is a synthetic or man-made version of vitamin A.[3] Retin-A is a medicine that can be only prescribed by your doctor. Retin-A being a prescription drug is more potent than retinol products, thus giving faster results.

Retin-A is effective in reducing lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and making your skin look fresher and healthier. Besides improving your beauty, Retin-A can also be used to treat certain skin conditions such as acne, actinic keratoses etc.

Which Is Better: Retinol, Retin-A Or Retinoids?

The answer to this question depends on your skin type as well as the reason behind your usage of these products. Retinols usually are gentler on the skin. So if you are using vitamin A products for the very first time, it may be a good choice for you, as you have less chances of getting severe side effects.

The same goes for retinoids which are mostly available over the counter or are used in cosmetic products. Since retinoids have to be converted before they can act on your skin, they will be slower and have a lesser impact on your skin.

Retin A on the other hand is a very potent medicine, which albeit gives you faster and quicker results. But on the downside, if you are sensitive to vitamin A products, you may get flare ups or reactions such as redness, rashes, or some peeling of your skin.

Difference Between Retinol, Retin-A & Retinoids?

All three of these are vitamin A or its derivative, but the difference lies in the strength of the product. The strength is determined both by the concentration of these ingredients present in the formulation and its availability at the time of usage.

Typically used in cosmetic products, the percentage of retinol cannot be strictly controlled. However, as Retin-A is a prescription drug, the exact composition and strength of which is precisely mentioned by the manufacturer.

Also, retin-A being in its native form can be utilized directly whereas retinol and retinoid need to be converted to their active form before they can work on the skin. But functionally all of them, more or less, do the same job.

What Is Best For Each Skin Type?

As already discussed, Retin-A is the strongest ingredient among the three. So if you have sensitive skin or you are using vitamin A skincare for the very first time, it is best to start off with a retinoid or a product containing retinol.

If you have a lighter complexion, experts will suggest that you use a retinoid once every three days, to check your skin’s tolerance to the product. If you have a complexion that is on the darker side, then use retinoids just once a week to check how well your skin tolerates it.

To know your skin better and to receive skincare products customised for your skin type, take SkinKraft’s AI-enabled KnowYourSkin quiz here.

Vector poster stages of using topical retinol acne treatment

When & How To Use Retinol, Retin-A & Retinoids?

  • Never apply vitamin A products during the daytime as it may adversely affect your skin. Use it in the evening or just before going to bed.
  • Clean your face before using the product. Use only a pea sized amount of product initially and scale up if need be. Make sure not to overdo it, because that can adversely affect your skin causing extreme dryness, irritation or peeling.
  • Avoid using vitamin A products too close to your eyes. Consult a doctor immediately if the product gets into your eyes accidentally.
  • Also do not forget to apply a gentle moisturiser, as vitamin A products can make your skin dry and thirsty.
  • Lastly, do not forget to lather a generous amount of high SPF sunscreen on your skin every morning when you have used these products on the night before. Vitamin A products can make your skin more sensitive to light, causing photodamage to your skin.

Who Can't Use Retinol, Retin-A & Retinoids?

  • Do not use retin-A if you are already using acne treatment formulations containing benzoyl peroxide.
  • Since the effects of vitamin A products in pregnancy are not clear, it is best to avoid them while you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • If you have extremely sensitive skin that tends to break-out easily, these products can add to your woes.
  • Also avoid vitamin A products if you are using a strong exfoliant, as these products have an exfoliating effect too.

Wrapping Up

Retinol, retin-A and retinoids are all related to vitamin A and thus have a number of uses in skincare. These ingredients can increase the turnover of your skin cells, boost collagen production and production of other beneficial proteins in your skin like elastin.

Thus they are effective anti-aging agents which reduce lines and wrinkles, make your skin look firm and even toned. Additionally, they also exfoliate your skin, reduce hyperpigmentation and help fight acne.

But you should understand which of these products is best for your skin before you start using them. You can always get in touch with your dermatologist to decide which among retinol, retin-A or retinoids will meet your skincare goals and help you achieve clear, glowing and healthy skin.

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