Difference Between Retinol, Retinoids, and Tretinoin

11.04.2017, 11:27 CDT | Posted In: Acne & Blemishes, Lines & Wrinkles, Signs of Aging, Texture, Health & Beauty, Products, Skin Care

Woman with molecule

Retinoids are a class of synthetic and naturally occurring Vitamin A compounds and derivatives that include retinol and retinoic acid, which are naturally occurring in humans.1 Some retinoids, such as retinoic acid (tretinoin), are available with a prescription only. Other retinoids, such as retinols, are cosmetic. Retinoids work to provide smoother-looking skin.1

Retinoic acid: a prescription-only treatment

Tretinoin is the generic name for synthetic, first-generation all-trans-retinoic acid.1 Topical tretinoin first arrived on the dermatology scene in the 1960s.1,2 It is a prescription drug approved to treat acne,5,6 and in a few FDA-approved products, to treat fine facial wrinkling,7 limited psoriasis, and other conditions.1,† Patients who use tretinoin may experience skin irritation and photosensitivity in the first few weeks of treatment, which can sometimes be counteracted with less frequent application or a less potent strength.2 Obagi offers topical tretinoin in prescription-only creams and gels*:

Retinol: a cosmetic treatment

Topical retinol has been used in cosmetic skin care products for more than 30 years2 to help diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Generally a well-tolerated treatment, retinol users typically experience minimal skin redness and irritation.2 A plethora of cosmetic creams, gels, and serums contain retinol. Obagi offers 2 concentrations of retinols to help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. In a clinical study, patients reported a noticable difference in 1 to 3 weeks.3,**:

  • Obagi Retinol 0.5%—an entrapped form of retinol is gradually released, improving the look of uneven skin texture and minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles with minimal irritation.2,4
  • Obagi Retinol 1.0%—a higher concentration retinol formula improves the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture with minimal irritation.2,4

Contact a skin care physician to see which retinoid is right for your skin.


The exact method of action of tretinoin is unknown.

*RENOVA (tretinoin cream) 0.02%, Obagi® Tretinoin Cream 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%, and Tretinoin Gel 0.05% prescriptions may not be available in certain states. Please check with your physician.

**Study results for daily application of the Obagi360 System in a 12-week study; N=40.

Tretinoin Cream and Gel


Tretinoin Gel 0.05% and Tretinoin Cream (0.1%, 0.05% and 0.025%) are indicated for the topical treatment of acne vulgaris.

Important Safety Information

If a reaction suggesting sensitivity or chemical irritation occurs, discontinue use of Tretinoin.

The skin of some patients may become dry, red, or exfoliated while using Tretinoin and patients may need to temporarily reduce the amount or frequency of application, or discontinue use temporarily or altogether.

Tretinoin should not be used on eczematous or sunburned skin due to potential for severe irritation. Patients should protect their skin from sun, tanning lights, and extreme wind or cold. Use of effective broad spectrum sunscreen products and protective clothing over treated areas is recommended when exposure cannot be avoided.

Caution should be exercised when using Tretinoin with products that have a strong drying effect, particularly those containing benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid.

Tretinoin Gel should be used with caution in patients allergic to fish due to potential for allergic reactions to fish protein; patients who develop pruritus or urticaria should contact their healthcare providers.

Tretinoin should be used during pregnancy only if the potential benefit justifies the potential risk to the fetus, and it should be used with caution in nursing women.

The safety and efficacy of Tretinoin have not been established in the treatment of patients younger than 10 years of age (gel) and 12 years of age (cream).

The most common adverse reactions are dry skin, peeling/scaling/flaking skin, skin burning sensation, and erythema. In some subjects the skin-related adverse reactions persisted throughout the treatment period.

Please click here for Prescribing Information for Tretinoin Cream, including Patient Information.

Please click here for Prescribing Information for Tretinoin Gel, including Patient Information.

RENOVA® (tretinoin cream) 0.02%


RENOVA (tretinoin cream) 0.02% is a serious prescription medication that may reduce but will not remove fine facial wrinkles. RENOVA 0.02% WILL NOT REPAIR SKIN, ELIMINATE WRINKLES, OR REVERSE AGING.

Important Safety Information

  • Do not use RENOVA if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant or are nursing.
  • RENOVA should be used as part of a total skin care program that includes avoiding direct sunlight (by using protective clothing and broad spectrum sunscreens with a minimum SPF of 15) and using other moisturizing facial creams without tretinoin, the active ingredient in RENOVA. It is not known if RENOVA is safe or effective if used longer than 52 weeks.
  • RENOVA is for use on the skin only. Avoid contact with the eyes, ears, nose, or mouth.
  • You should not use RENOVA if you are sunburned, are highly sensitive to the sun, have eczema, have irritated skin, or are allergic to any of the ingredients in RENOVA.
  • Tell your doctor about any other medications or skin creams you are using. RENOVA increases your sensitivity to sunlight and should not be used with other medications or skin care products that increase sensitivity to sunlight.
  • RENOVA can irritate the skin. Most patients experience one or more local skin reactions, including peeling, dry skin, burning/stinging, itching, and redness. These are usually mild to moderate and occur early in treatment, but can be severe. Contact your doctor if the side effects are a problem.

You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit www.fda.gov/medwatch or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

Please click here for full Prescribing Information, including Patient Information.


1. Chew A-L, Bashir SJ, Maibach HI. Topical retinoids. In: Elsner P, Maibach HI, eds. Cosmeceuticals and Active Cosmetics: Drugs vs Cosmetics. 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group; 2005. 2. Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Intery Aging. 2006;1(4):327-348. 3. Bruce S, Investigator. An open-label study to evaluate the anti-aging effects of three months of treatment using the Obagi 360 System in subjects with photodamage: final analysis. Protocol OMP360-01; April 2014. OMP, Inc. Data on file. 4. Final report: A facial irritation evaluation of a cosmetic retinol product after 3 weeks of product use. 1.0% Retinol Cream Formula Number 006-40-11 (GS BK-12-01309. April 22, 2013. OMP, Inc. Data on file. 5. Obagi Tretinoin Cream [prescribing information]. Bridgewater, NJ: Obagi Medical Products, Inc., a division of Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America LLC; 2015. 6. Obagi Tretinoin Gel [prescribing information]. Long Beach, CA OMP, Inc., a division of Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America LLC; 2014. 7. RENOVA [prescribing information]. Bridgewater, NJ: Valeant Dermatology, a division of Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America LLC; 2015. 8. Symphony Health Solutions (formerly Wolters Kluwer Health), Source® PHAST data, January 2015-December 2015.

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