Retinoids: Defining the Difference

Skin care advice from the experts at UW Health Transformations Jeune Skin Care:


UW Health Transformations Jeune Skin Care Aestheticians Angie Byer, Lisa Klein and Danielle Kalscheur

If you're concerned about persistent, aggressive acne that may require a visit to your doctor or a dermatologist, or if you're looking to prevent and correct signs of aging, you have most likely heard of or used some form of retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A.


There are different types of retinoid products that are available in various brands (different companies, brand names, generics), and with each type, the retinoid is the active ingredient. The formulations are usually gel or cream and range in percentages: 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%.


Most retinoids are natural retinoids, but some are synthetic. Some retinoids are available at the drug store, while others can only be obtained by physician prescription, such as Isotretinoin, an oral prescription drug used to treat severe cases of acne. All of these factors influence the strength and effectiveness of each type of retinoid.


Retin-A, Retin-A micro, retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, isotretinoin, tretinoin and tazarotene, among others, are all various forms of retinoids, which in turn are various forms of vitamin A.  


Learn more about Tretinoin:

How to Choose Retinoid Products


The various types of retinoid products range in strength from weakest to strongest. Retinyl palmitate is the weakest formulation. Retinaldehyde is next (or retinal, vitamin A aldehyde), followed by most retinols. Some medical grade retinols are considered as strong and effective as prescription strength Tretinoin (Retin-A) without all the possible skin irritation, and can be found in medical spas. (Check out SkinMedica .25%, 0.5% and 1.0% Retinols available here at UW Health Transformations.)


Next on the list is Tretinoin, then Tazarotene, and finally Isotretinoin, which is the strongest (usually reserved for severe cases of acne). Retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde and most retinols are available over-the-counter (OTC). The rest of the retinoids are only available only through prescriptions.


All over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids have to be first converted to retinoic acid by your skin before they can even be used. Prescription strength retinoids (e.g., Retin-A) can be used immediately by your skin because it is already in its proper form.


Things can get quite confusing when determining which type of retinoid to use. Factors such as product formulation, gel-based or cream-based and natural versus synthetic retinoids all play a factor in retinoid strength. Deciding which type to use often comes down to what your skin can safely tolerate. Keep in mind:

  • Gels tend to be stronger than creams because they enhance penetration whereas the oils in cream bases act as slight buffers.
  • Retinoids with an alcohol-based gel are stronger than water-based gels, which in turn are stronger than cream-based ones.
  • Usually, gel-based retinoids are a preferred choice for those who have acne.
  • Cream-based retinoids are best suited for more mature, oil-dry skin types, aiding in skin rejuvenation.
  • Synthetic retinoids tend to be less irritating to the skin as they do not target all of the retinoic acid responders. For some people, natural retinoids may not be strong enough, even though they do target ALL retinoic acid responders.

There is a vast amount of information on the topic of retinoids just on the internet alone - this newsletter could easily turn into a college essay. Bottom line: Find one that works well with your skin and use as directed by your physician or aesthetician, or follow the instructions listed on the bottle if it is an OTC product. Remember not to use any form of retinoid while you are trying to conceive, are pregnant or lactating, as they may not be safe for your baby.

Whether mentioned in magazines or web-based articles, stocked on the shelves of health and beauty stores and spas, or available only by prescription from a physician, retinoid products are widely available to aid in clearing acne and help with skin rejuvenation. 


In the end, a stronger formulation is not necessarily better if it is causing too much redness, sensitivity and skin irritation. The key is being consistent with usage (just like exercise) and knowing when to back off (just like exercise). Positive, visible results will take some time… just like exercise. So be patient.


Available at UW Health Transformations Jeune Skin Care:

  • Obagi Tretinoin Cream 0.05% - 20 gram: $83.00*
  • Obagi Tretinoin Cream 0.1% - 20 gram: $93.00*
  • SkinMedica Retinol 0.25% - 1 fl oz.: $60.00*
  • SkinMedica Retinol 0.5% - 1 fl oz.: $75.00*
  • SkinMedica Retinol 1.0% - 1 fl oz.: $90.00*

* Prices subject to change without prior notice


Stop by UW Health Transformations, 2349 Deming Way in Middleton, to browse our skin care products and cosmetics. We're open Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm and on Mondays and Wednesdays we have extended hours from 8am-7pm.


Request an Appointment TodayShare This Story


Call (608) 836-9990 or (866) 447-9990 (toll-free) to request a free UW Health Transformations Jeune Skin Care consultation or to schedule an appointment. You may also request a consultation online:


Request a Free Jeune Skin Care Consultation