Retinoids are derived from Vitamin A, which a common vitamin in human skin. They can be naturally derived or synthetically (i.e., lab) derived. Most retinoids are applied to the skin (i.e., topically) to treat age-related changes to the skin and/or prevent age-related changes to the skin. Those changes, called photoaging, include wrinkles, dark spots, and texture irregularities. Retinoids exert their effects by encouraging the formation of youthful collagen and discouraging the breakdown of collagen in the skin. Retinol is a form of retinoid. Tretinoin is another form of retinoid. Retinoids achieve their effect by acting as hormones. They are easily absorbed by the skin, which is unique compared with other products applied to the skin. This likely contributes to their effectiveness. It is important to have a discussion with a physician as to whether a retinoid such as retinol or tretinoin is appropriate for your face.
Retinoids versus Retinols: What's the Difference and Which is Better?
Dr. Jeffrey Harmon
Tretinoin is an FDA-Approved Prescription Retinoid
Tretinoin is the best-studied prescription retinoid medication for photoaging. It is important to note that, although tretinoin has been FDA-approved for the treatment of photoaging, there is strong evidence for its effectiveness in preventing the effects of photoaging as well. Even better, much of this data utilizes high quality research, including randomized, controlled studies, which I explain more about in this blog post.
Retinol is a Cosmetic Ingredient that is Not FDA-Approved
Retinol is a metabolic precursor to tretinoin. This means that, when retinol is applied to the skin and absorbed, it is converted into tretinoin over multiple steps. Tretinoin is the compound with the anti-aging effects. Retinol is included in many over-the-counter skincare products but is not FDA-approved. That is why it is not a prescription medication. There is evidence, however, that it is also effective in treating the signs of photoaging.
Both Tretinoin and Retinol are Effective Topical Retinoids
First and most importantly, the evidence in the medical literature demonstrates that both tretinoin – the FDA-approved prescription medication – and retinol – the cosmetics ingredient that is not FDA-approved – are effective in treating age-related changes to the skin. The earliest and best data came from research on tretinoin. More data, however, is being published to support the effectiveness of retinol. It is just that no company to date has chosen to go through the time-consuming and expensive process of getting FDA approval for retinol in one of their cosmeceutical products. The lack of FDA approval does make it difficult to choose the best over-the-counter product, because it is not regulated like a medication. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the most effective retinol-containing product.
Side effects of retinoids include redness, skin irritation, and skin peeling. The severity of these symptoms is dependent on both the dose and frequency of use. However, people tend to develop tolerance to these compounds over time. Retinols are less likely to cause the above symptoms. Therefore, some suggest starting with retinol and transitioning to tretinoin with a gradual increase in dose and frequency of use once tolerance has been built. One also should consider the fact that the ingredients are very sensitive to the sun, becoming inactive very quickly with sun exposure. Many recommend applying them at night for this reason. It is important to discuss any plans to start using tretinoin or retinol with a physician.
Bakuchiol is Being Promoted as an Alternative to Topical Retinoids
There is a plant-derived product called bakuchiol which is currently being marketed as an alternative to retinoids (e.g., tretinoin and retinol) with fewer side effects. There is a long history of its use in Chinese and Indian medicine. However, the evidence for its effectiveness is currently weak. See this blog post for more information on bakuchiol.
Trust Your Face to a Facial Plastic Surgeon
It is important to seek a fellowship-trained specialist in plastic surgery of the face and neck when you have concerns about your face or neck. It is important to seek the advice of a dermatologist if you have concerns about your skin and feel a prescription retinoid such as tretinoin may be helpful to you.
Request a Consultation
Request a consultation with Dr. Harmon at Harmon Facial Plastic Surgery in Cincinnati. Visit our clinic. You will learn more about Dr. Harmon’s credentials, style, and approach. Build a relationship with our dedicated team. Do not stop at searching “plastic surgery near me.” Get in touch with us to learn more!
Baumann L. Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients. McGraw-Hill Education; 2015.