Retinol vs tretinoin vs retinaldehyde

retinol vs tretinoin vs retinaldehyde

Which Vitamin A is the best for you?

Vitamin A has so many benefits for your skin. It reduces the severity of acne, psoriasis, fine lines and wrinkles, and sun damaged skin to name a few of its abilities. If you have ever tried to buy vitamin A to add to your skin care regime, you may have found yourself unable to find it, or thinking you need a prescription. We have put together a handy guide for all things vitamin A related to assist you to choose the best vitamin A product for your skin type.

Topical vitamin A skin care

You have probably read about how amazing vitamin A is, not just for overall skin health, but in its ability to reduce the appearance of aging. Sometimes, vitamin A is difficult to find on the list of active ingredients for skin care. This is because it is rarely listed as its common name and often referred to by its different components as it is metabolised by the body. “Retinoids” refers to vitamin A and its various compounds derived from it. You can purchase Retin-A which requires a prescription, or over the counter variations such as retinol or retinaldehyde to add to your skin care regime.

Skin cells contain retinoid receptors, and as you age, these begin to act more erratically, resulting in visible aging.  Vitamin A derived products applied to the skin help to normalise cells and therefore, reduce the effects of aging on the skin. Vitamin A thickens and stimulates the dermis, the underlayer of the skin. Vitamin A products communicate directly with cells, signalling for them to grow at a faster rate, slowing the breakdown of collagen and elastin. Resulting in the faster shedding of older, damaged skin cells being replaced, as well as firmer skin, due to the preservation of collagen.

It is important to note that skin treatments containing vitamin A, whether in the form of retinol, retin-A or retinaldehyde may not be suitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or people who experience certain skin conditions. Medical or skin care professionals should be consulted first, before adding vitamin A to your skin care regime.

Serum or cream?

The first step in choosing which skin care treatment to use is to know your skin type. Is your skin oily, dry or a combination? If you have oily skin, you will probably find that a cream leaves your face greasy or shiny. Cream or lotion is best suited for those with dry skin, as it is thicker than a serum with added oils and lipids. Creams are designed to prevent moisture loss and hydrate the skin. However, if you are after the maximum benefits of an anti-aging treatment or have oily skin then a serum is most likely your best pick. Serums are water based, and not as heavy. Serums are more easily absorbed by the skin as they are lighter and allow for the active ingredient to penetrate the skin better. For some people, a combination of a serum and a cream work well, but the key is knowing your skin type before making your selection.


Retinol the form of vitamin A found in the skin and used in skin care products. Retinol, however, cannot be accepted by the cells and undergoes conversion. For vitamin A to be accepted into the body’s cells, it needs to be in the form of retinoic acid. Retinol converts to retinaldehyde then to retinoic acid, before it enters the cells. It is due to this two-step conversion process that retinol loses some of its potency. Retinol promotes the rapid shedding of skin cells, which can cause irritation, however, retinol a gentler option than prescription only vitamin A products. The use of topical retinoids increases the rate of skin cell shedding, encouraging more youthful, healthy skin cells to emerge at a faster rate. This stimulation of the production of new skin cells reduces fine-lines and wrinkles. The enzymes which damage collagen and elastin in the skin are inhibited by retinol based serums or creams. Using retinol on oily skin also helps to balance sebum production, reducing that shiny appearance of skin.

Retinoids in skin creams and serums, however, are not all the same and vary quite considerably in their concentration. The highest concentration of retinol in over the counter products in 2%. At this potency, however, it can cause irritation, such as redness or dryness. It is recommended to start with a lower concentration, such as 0.25% to acclimatise your skin to retinol, especially if you are prone to sensitive skin or have never used a retinol based product before. Once you have built up a tolerance, the concentration can slowly be adjusted.

Retinol is ‘unstable’ and its potency is affected by exposure to light and air. So be sure to keep yours in a dark spot and buy a product in a decent container to ensure its longevity.

Retin-A/ Tretinoin

Retin-A or known generically as retinoic acid or tretinoin was the first vitamin A prescription which FDA (USA’s Food and Drug Administration) approved for the reduction of fine lines, mottled pigmentation and rough skin texture. This form of vitamin A is prescription only as it is more concentrated that retinol. Retin-A, is often misunderstood as patients use too much, too often and experience negative side effects, subsequently, they stop using it too soon. Referred to as ‘retinoid dermatitis’ patients may experience redness, itching, dryness or scaling of their skin. It is recommended that no more than a pea-sized amount be applied to your face once or twice a week until your skin becomes accustomed to Retin-A. Side effects can last for up to eight weeks, however, most patients see dramatic improvement within 24 weeks of beginning treatment.


Retinaldehyde is gentler on the skin compared to retinol and does not require a prescription like retinoic acid. It requires only one step to retinoic acid and cell entry, thereby making it gentler on the skin and more potent in its delivery. Countless studies have shown how the application of topical retinaldehyde significantly increase epidermal and dermal thickness, repairs UV damaged skin and it better tolerated by patients. Retinaldehyde also is effective in the treatment of acne. Due to its potency, however, skin care products with the active ingredient of retinaldehyde can be expensive in comparison.  


Vitamin A has immense benefits for your skin. Not only can it combat aging, reducing fine-lines and wrinkles, it can also repair skin that has been damaged by exposure to UV. Vitamin A is one of the few beauty products whose medicinal qualities have been proven time and time again in countless studies. Vitamin A and its derivatives are worthwhile adding to your skin care regime.  

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