Retin-A vs. Retinol

Posted on November 9th, by Helen in Obsessions, Products, Reviews, This vs That. 7 comments

Retin-A vs. Retinol

One of my gal pals, Amy, who is a striking 42-year-old real estate agent, has been raving about her improvement in skin texture and tone from using generic Retin-A for the past few months. Considered the grand daddy of retinoic acid, this prescription grade cream takes exfoliation to the max! As a reminder, exfoliation is the key to maintaing and revealing a smooth complexion and youthful glow. Dead skin cells suck the luster from your face, and not only that, they clog your pores and highlight fine lines too.

So what is Retin-A?

Retin-A is a brand name for the ingredient tretinoin, part of a family of related products known as retinoids, which derms consider to be the gold standard ingredient in anti-aging topicals. Retin-A is sold at the pharmacy under other brand names like Micro, Renova, Avage and Tazorac. Its less potent over-the-counter form, retinol, which is considered to be Retin-A’s little sister, is found in products on department and drugstore shelves. Those are the forms I’ve been using for the past year, as I am still building up my tolerance to this powerful exfoliator/blemish fighter/wrinkle preventer.

After several years of using OTC retinol creams and serums, Amy is convinced that she’ll never waste another cent on any other form of this proven skin-saver. She says, “Retin-A is so much cheaper and clinically proven to be more effective than retinol.” She sent me this older NY times article about Retin-A; it was this article that made her ditch, what she calls, “all those sexy versions of retinoids.” I’m totally intrigued, but I’m still wary about making the big switcheroo. I peeled like a banana with my first retinol night cream. Read about it here.

Amy says that she peeled like crazy after the first day of using Retin-A, and that she had to apply moisturizer to her face every hour for the next few days. Her skin has gotten very use to it now, and she doesn’t peel at all anymore. Amy has been using OTC retinol creams for a decade now, so I’m not quite ready to follow her to the Rx side just yet. If you’re like me, over age 30 and want to do everything in your power to ward off the signs of aging and get your skin to a level where you don’t need to wear foundation, try my Top Three Picks for OTC retinol creams. These are in order of strongest to weakest, based on my experience. (Note: I have normal skin, neither oily or dry, so I can tolerate some intense sloughing.)

#1 SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 night cream, $70 at skin clinics, is serious stuff. According to my SkinCeuticals rep, “It is equivalent to up to .025% retinoic acid (Retin-A). It mitigates collagen degradation and stimulates collagen synthesis when induced by UV light exposure. The results: Epidermal thickening and other positive skin tone and texture changes. As well as, significantly less irritation, redness, and desquamation (skin-speak for scaly skin) compared to retinoic acid while promoting the same benefits to the skin.” My skin desquamated (new favourite word, btw) like crazy after using this cream for just two days! In fact I’m slathering on a heavy cream moisturizer right now to conceal my scaling rosy face from my co-workers. Just call me the lizard lady! Meant for problematic, aging and photodamaged skin, it is the maximum strength exfoliator in this very evidence-based line to ”dynamically improve skin texture, tone and clarity, stimulating cell regeneration and building collagen,” according to its press release.

As a prerequisite, SkinCeuticals recommends starting with their Retinol 0.5 to build your skin’s tolerance. **UPDATE** Monday November 12 (four days after initial application): My face was peeling and looked sunburnt all weekend long, but it is a lot calmer today. There’s just a bit of peeling on my smile lines and chin, but the silver lining: This morning I noticed that the little whitehead-like bumps I had on my left cheek have flattened out. So the minimal downtime was definitely worth getting smoother skin for. Another plus is the amazing glow my skin has. No need for blush or bronzer today!

#2 Vichy LiftActiv Retinol HA, $50 each at Shoppers Drug Mart, is a really nice moisturizing line because it contain hyaluronic acid (a.k.a. the moisture magnet). Much like how pizza is my comfort food, this line is my comfort retinol. Both the white day day cream and the blue nighttime cream melts right into the skin, and each one has a mousse dispenser tip, which allows you to precisely control the amount of product you want to use. Neither one made me peel, but if you’re a retinol newbie, your skin might get slightly red after the first use of the night cream. Keep up with it though, because after four months of regular use, my skin felt really really really soft and supple. Like a baby’s bum, which is what you can expect from using a baby retinol.

#3 Philosphy Help Me retinol night, $20 at Sephora, is a cheap and cheerful option that would also work well for retinol newbies. This products was an Allure magazine editor’s pick from 2007, so that’s what their company is referring to when it calls it “an award-winning” formula. I found it to be comparable to the Vichy one.


Retinol-based products may make your skin sensitive to the sun, so it is critical that you wear a moisturizer with SPF 30 in the morning to protect your skin from further UV damage.


  • daly_beauty

    Interesting! Do you plan to keep using the Skinceuticals? Also, have you tried La Roche Posay Cicaplast? It would help soothe your skin post retinol treatment. Also, the Skinceuticals Phyto Corrective Gel is really healing & feels terrific after chemical exfoliating treatments I’m ordering more, it’s does wonders for healing acne as well.

    • Helen Vong

      Ooh I’ll look into that gel! My skin got worse since yesterday…not gonna lie, I look like a burn victim! Yesterday I was slathering on a heavy white cream by PCA skin but found that it wasn’t retaining the moisture. My skin just ate it up! So I went to see my derm, Dr. Lisa Kellett, and she gave me a sample of her Gel Moisturizer and it’s doing wonders so far. My skin feels hydrated for much longer than with the cream and it feels soothing. I’ll try the skinceauticals retinol 1.0 again when my skin has completely healed. Link to the gel moisturizer

  • Sarah Boxer

    And I don’t know much about retinoids, but Retin-A and Tanzorac are both for the treatment of wrinkles and other skin conditions. They’re for spot treatment only and having used both, I wouldn’t use either around my eyes.

    I use Lady Soma’s Renewal Serum. It’s amazing. I’ve run out and need to get some more and since running out I’ve noticed a difference in the suppleness and softness of my eye area. Its seems to have smoothed out the wrinkles, and made my skin tone even. Love it!

  • Andrea K

    Thanks for the review. I’m really looking into Tretinoid products but just like you, I’m not ready to go Rx. Have you tried Glo Therapeutics or Avene Retinal?

    • Helen Vong

      Hi Andrea, this post was written over a year ago. Since then I’ve been using my derm’s 1% retinol serum religiously at night (this one: I really like it over the other products mentioned here because it’s easy to use and effective for my combination/pigmented skin. I would never go back to using retinoid derivatives from the drugstore. They’re just too wimpy for my concerns (large pores, sunspots, and breakouts).

      • Andrea K

        You like that one better than the Skin Ceuticals? My skin is pretty dry though. What would you say is the main difference of this one product you mention…I ask cause is over 200 so if I am going to get it… Thank you Helen!

        • Helen Vong

          I would say texture is the main difference. The SkinCeuticals retinol is a basic cream whereas the Kellett is an elegant serum with a watery consistency. In terms of efficacy, I’ve seen great improvement in skin tone, acne reduction, and texture with the Kellett — after just one month of use. After a year of use, my skin has been consistently baby smooth, brighter than last year, and breakouts are fewer and farther in between. It’s gentle enough to use around the delicate skin around the eyes too, which is important to me because eye creams tend to give me hard little white bumps called milia. Yes, the Kellett serum is more expensive but considering that you can use it to turn ANY cheaper OTC product that you’re currently using into pharmaceutical-grade by mixing a drop of the Kellett serum into it, it’s a sound investment in my opinion. Hope that helps!