What is the Difference Between Retinol & Retin-A?
Among the multitude of anti-aging skin-care products on the market, one ingredient stands out: retinol. And it’s no surprise why. Dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and aestheticians alike agree that this miracle ingredient (and its derivatives) has the power to make skin look younger, smoother, and simply better.
But with all the skin-boosting benefits of retinol, how do you know which type— be it a drugstore brand or a prescription-strength product—is right for you?
1. Over-the-Counter: The lowest level of retinol
Over-the-counter products that contain retinol can be found at drugstores, beauty boutiques and online, and usually offer retinol in low strengths. Over-the-counter formulas slowly convert retinol into retinoic acid, the active ingredient found in prescription versions. Most retinol products are available as a serum (which is the best way for the skin to receive the ingredient) and are purchased through a retail outlet.
What percentage is over-the-counter strength retinol?
Most over-the-counter retinols do not contain over 1%, instead they will be very mild and cause little reaction. It is very hard to know what strength is in over-the-counter products because they state retinol is in the product, but it is at a very low percentage that is not disclosed.
Who it’s for: All skin types and those who want to defy the first signs of aging
Who it’s not for: Those with serious acne and sun damage may benefit from something stronger
When to use: At night
2. Medical-Grade: Non-prescription-strength retinol
Stronger than over-the-counter versions but not as intense as prescription-strength products, medical-grade retinols are commonly found at doctors’ offices and can be obtained without a prescription. Medical-grade formulas slowly convert retinol into retinoic acid, which is the active ingredient found in prescription versions. For the most part, medical-grade retinols are available as serums, creams or in a gel-like consistency.
Some medical-grade retinols do not actually contain true retinol but rather a retinyl palmitate, a retinol ester. To tell if your product contains retinol or retinyl palmitate, just look at the color of the liquid—if it’s yellow, then it’s probably retinol.
SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex 0.50 is a favorite of Dr. Randy Rudderman, a Board Certified Plastic Surgeon located in Alpharetta and Midtown Atlanta. “Our patients rave about the results they see with SkinMedica’s Retinol Complex 0.50. They feel it is strong enough to show real results, yet not so strong that it aggressively peels the skin. It is a very effective, well-balanced retinol product.
What percentage is medical grade strength retinol?
When purchasing a cosmeceutical grade retinol, the strength is disclosed. The best way to approach medical grade strength retinol is to consult with an aesthetics provider who will be able to help the patient to start at a low strength treatment, like .5% and titrate up to a stronger strength if needed.
Who it’s for: Those who can tolerate a harsher concentration
Who it’s not for: Those with extremely sensitive skin
When to use: At night
3. Prescription Strength: The strongest option
Available only with a prescription from your doctor, these retinoids are the strongest option on the market and tend to provide results in about 12 weeks. Medically known as tretinoin, prescription-strength retinoids work quicker because they’re formulated as retinoic acid, so the body doesn’t need to convert retinol into retinoic acid.
Retin-A has been the standard for aging skin, but it’s strong, and a lot of people can’t tolerate it, so we recommend using it slowly. Most prescription-strength retinoids take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks to see results.
What percentage is prescription strength retinol?
All retinol converts to retinoic acid. Over-the-counter and cosmeceutical grade have a lower concentration of retinoic acid. The slower the conversion, the less irritating and less effective, but not everyone can tolerate high strengths of retinoic acid.
Prescription retinoids, or retinoic acid, come in many forms like foams, gels, creams, and ointments. They also come in many strengths, as low as .025% and high as 1%, but one must remember that is not the same compared to over-the-counter retinol strength. Also, it is important to consider products that can be formulated with a time-released formula.
Who it’s for: Those with acne and sun-damaged skin
Who it’s not for: Those with sensitive skin
When to use: At night
What Makes Retinoids Different?
Retinol and Retin-A are both forms of retinoids derived from Vitamin A to promote skin cell turnover. The chart below compares the two.
|Potency||.025% – 1%||.025%, .05%, 1%|
|Availability||Available over the counter (OTC) and Medical Grade||Prescription-only|
|Primary Use||Acne, acne scarring, sun damage, anti-aging, melasma, texture. Depends on the patient.||Acne, acne scarring, sun damage, anti-aging, melasma, texture. Depends on the patient.|
|Uses||Only use at night. Start slowly possibly every other night and titrate up to every night.||Only use at night. Start slowly possibly every other night and titrate up to every night.|
|Side effects||Peeling, irritation, sun sensitivity. Depends on the patient.||Peeling, irritation, sun sensitivity. Depends on the patient.|
|Reaction Time/Results||6 to 12 weeks||8 to 12 weeks|
Shop Our Retinol Products
- Revision Skincare Retinol Complete .25%
- Revision Skincare Retinol Complete .05%
- Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0%
ZO Skin Health
ZO Skin Health offers a variety of retinol products that are available for purchase at our Midtown Atlanta and Alpharetta locations. If you are interested in purchasing these products you can call the office or shop in-office at our Midtown Atlanta and Alpharetta locations.
- Retinol Skin Brightener .25%
- Retinol Skin Brightener .05%
- Retinol Wrinkle & Texture Repair .05%
- Retinol Radical Night Repair 1.0%
We carry retinol Société Skincare products in-office at our Midtown Atlanta and Alpharetta locations. Please call the office in you are interested in purchasing these products.
- Refinishing Complex
- Refinishing Plus Complex
Obagi Tretinoin (prescription only)
Tretinoin is prescription only and available in the following strengths.
- Obagi Tretinoin .025%
- Obagi Tretinoin cream .05%
- Obagi Tretinoin cream .1%
- Obagi Tretinoin gel .05%
Please schedule a consultation to determine what will work best for you.
Schedule an Appointment
If you’re not sure which retinol products are right for you, contact our Midtown Atlanta or Alpharetta office and set up an appointment with our skilled staff. We’d be happy to help find you the perfect product!