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Retinoids: How Do Retin-A, Retinol and Retinova Differ?

By HERWriter
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how are the retinoids Retin-A, Retinova and Retinol different? Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock

We frequently hear the names Retin-A, Retinol and Retinova used but it can be confusing to understand how all these skin products are different.

Retinoids are the name for this class of skin treatments because they are all chemically related to vitamin A. However, each has different formulations and strengths.

Retin-A is the brand name for tretinoin. Tretinoin was originally approved as a prescription-strength treatment for acne by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over 30 years ago.

Tretinoin contains the active form of vitamin A, which is called retinoic acid. Dermatologists discovered that Retin-A not only helped with acne but it helped with fine lines, wrinkles and other signs of photoaging during the 1990s.

Retinova was developed by taking the active ingredient in Retin-A (tretinoin) and combining it with more moisturizers since it was intended to be used on an older population with drier skin.

Retinova has the same active ingredient as Retin-A but is only formulated into a cream so is less penetrating, while Retin-A comes as a gel or cream.

Retinol is the non-prescription formulation of vitamin A, but is not in the acid form of retinoic acid like in Retin-A or Retinova. Retinol is thought to be gentler to use.

Retinol is combined with enzymes to make it absorb better into the skin but less than 10 percent actually coverts into the active form of Retin- A as tretinoin, or may not convert at all.

“Many skin care products tout their products containing Retinol as working as if they contained tretinoin. This is definitely a case of buyer beware,” stated Dr. Neil Schultz from DermTV.

There are a few other formulations of tretinoin, some stronger and some weaker, but they all fall into the category of retinoids.

The cost for prescription retinoids like Retin-A is about $75 a tube. Generic tretinoin costs about $40. Retinol products cost under $25.

Side effects:

Retinoids can cause redness, flaking and itching of the skin, especially when you first start to use them.

It is suggested that, “for the first two weeks, apply a retinoid every third night, says Leslie Baumann, MD, director of the Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute at the University of Miami. “If your skin isn't irritated, ramp up to every other night for two weeks.”

You can advance to using it every night if your skin remains without irritation.

Use only a pea-size dab to cover your entire face waiting 15 minutes after washing to apply. Wait another few minutes, and then apply a basic moisturizer.

Avoid using benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids during the same session when applying retinoids, as they will reduce the effectiveness of the retinoids.

Retinoids are best used before bed because the ingredients themselves are sun-sensitive, not because they make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, according to Doris Day, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.

However, it is still important to apply a sunscreen with a SPF above 30 during the day.


- Do not use retinoids if pregnant or breastfeeding.

- Do not use retinoids on skin for several days before having that area waxed due to the potential of excess redness and irritation.

- A certain percentage of people never will tolerate retinoids. If you are one of those people, talk with a dermatologist about alternate ways to improve the appearance of your skin.


Difference Between Retin A, Retinoids, Retinol and Renova
Episode #408 / May 24, 2012. DermTV. Retrieved July 9, 2012.

Your Skin's New Best Friend By Jenny Bailly. Retrieved July 9, 2012.

Gel vs. Cream. The difference between gel and cream retinoid formulations. Retrieved July 9, 2012. Skinacea.

Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles/

Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.