Healthy skin: Retinoid vs retin-A and retinol

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What you need to know:

  • Retinoids describe an entire range of vitamin A derivatives.
  • Retin-A is also 100 times stronger than a retinol that you can get over the counter. 

If you are one of my avid readers, then you know I am all about Retin-A. I think it’s the bee’s knees.

 It was on pretty much every prescription dermatologists signed off on. And it made my skin glow. In Kenya, we can buy Retin-A at any pharmacy.

In certain parts of the world like the United States, however, it isn’t an over-the-counter (OTC). It requires a doctor’s note. But there is more to the retinoid/retinol/Retin-A family, and today we break it down.

Retinoids describe an entire range of vitamin A derivatives. That includes Retin-A, retinoic acid, retinol and retinal. Think of it as the mothership. These are responsible for faster skin turnover - which means it speeds up the process of skin shedding.

Retinoids are used to treat acne because they unclog the skin, and fine lines by boosting collagen, so they are considered a treat for ageing skin.


There are both OTC and prescriptive retinoids. In Kenya, OTC retinoids include Retin-A (tretinoin) that come in ranges 0.1%, 0.05% 0.025 %, in gel or cream form, and Adapalene, known more as the brand Differin. Differin is included in the retinoid family because it acts like a retinoid, but it is, in fact, not a retinoid. In the US, they are prescriptive.

Retin-A is also 100 times stronger than a retinol that you can get over the counter. Retin-A can cause burning, itching, scaling and peeling as side effects. It is applied once daily, at night, on clean dry skin. If the skin gets inflamed, try every other night or first apply your moisturiser as a buffer, then apply Retin-A. In the beginning, Retin-A makes the skin worse before it gets better.

This is why you need to give it two to three months to work. Retinoids are also used to treat psoriasis and hyperpigmentation.

Retinol is a natural and chemical form of vitamin-A. The difference between retinol and Retin-A is strength and how it interacts with the skin. While the latter is more direct, a retinol has to first be converted by skin enzymes into retinoic acid to be effective. This process takes some time. It is said some skins are far more receptive to retinols than others.

Retinol takes its time working your skin so you would be wise to give it six months. For this reason, they are gentler than Retin-A, which makes their side effects similar, but not as intense. Like Retin-A they come with different strengths. It is great for sensitive skin. If you have acne though, Retin-A


I’ve talked about Retin-A (tretinoin), but what is tretinoin? Tretinoin is also known as retinoic acid. Its brand name is Retin-A. Tretinoin is the ingredient that directly penetrates the skin, boosting collagen production, increasing the speed with which your cells turnover. It is responsible for improving fine lines, enlarged pores, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and acne.

Doctors have also discovered that this ingredient can reverse sun damage. Retinoids, retinols and tretinoin (the active ingredient in Retin-A) have the same effect with use. If you are using insurance to see your dermatologist, then Adapalene (aka Differin) and Retin-A will be covered. Retinols are available as one of but not the most active ingredient in face creams. It is usually tamped down. It can also be an introduction to this world especially if you are not struggling with skin issues and are possibly in your 20s. These products promote the growth of new cells, which is how you are left with that glow.

These products can, and do, leave you with dry skin. Retin-A has also been known to peel the skin. These products increase your sensitivity to sunlight, which is why a combination ofretinoids/retinols/tretinoin demand that you use sunscreen by day.


This is the combination that packs a double wallop. If a doctor prescribes Retin-A, ask them to also prescribe sunscreen. If you are pregnant, consult with your doctor on what the effects of retinoids could be to your unborn child. Research is still uncertain on how Retin-A interacts with the foetus.

On that note, the most popular treatment for severe acne tends to be an ingredient called isotretinoin, and it comes in the form of a pill. The brand name used to be Accutane. Accutane has since been banned from the market for its severe side effects and a number of lawsuits.

Isotretinoin can be found under these brand names: Claravis, Myorisan Amnesteem and Sotret. When women were placed on Accutane, they were also prescribed birth control to be safe because Accutane affected the foetus.

On that note, retinoids and retinols are usually not prescribed for breastfeeding women either. The same goes for isotretinoin, which falls under a retinoid.

Warning: Do not take vitamin A supplements while using these products. It builds up quickly in your system and can become toxic.