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Adapalene vs Tretinoin vs Retinol: What’s The Difference & Which is Best?


There is a big difference between Adapalene vs Tretinoin vs Retinol. They are all similar in that they are forms of Vitamin-A but their molecular composition varies. If you’ve been confused by the difference, trust me you’re not alone.

You may see many over-the-counter expensive creams and products containing retinol but I’m going to break it down so you know what the difference is between Adapalene vs Tretinoin vs Retinol, which is better, and why.

I have worked in the skincare industry for over 10 years and have used all three. Once we go over the difference, then I recommend heading over to my article on how to properly use these ingredients in your skincare routine to avoid the dreaded Tretinoin purge.


Tretinoin vs. Retinol

Let’s start with what is the difference between Tretinoin vs Retinol. In simple terms, Tretinoin is a much stronger version of Retinol. Both ingredients are forms of Retinoids which are derivatives of Vitamin A. When applied, Retinol must be converted by enzymes into retinoic acid making it slower to affect the skin. This also makes it more gentle. While it will take longer to see the positive effects on the skin, it also does not have many of the unwanted side effects that Tretinoin can have.

Tretinoin, also known as Retonoin Acid and Retin-A, is much stronger. It typically comes in strengths 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. Unlike retinol, tretinoin contains pure retinoic acid. Retinoic Acid is easily absorbed by the skin and does not need enzymes to convert. Therefore it works immediately once applied. Retinoids (Tretinoin and Adapalene) are at least 20 times more potent than retinol.


Adapalene vs Tretinoin

Since Adapalene became available over the counter many have wondered about the difference between Adapalene vs Tretinoin. Both Adapalene and Tretinoin are stronger than Retinols. They are also both the stronger form of Retonoin Acid, however, the Adapalene you can get over the counter is not as strong as prescription Tretinoin.

Adapalene vs Tretinoin: Which is better for Anti-Aging

Adapalene has primarily been studied for its benefits on acne. Tretinoin on the other hand has been studied for both acne and as an effective anti-aging treatment.

Adapalene is far less irritating than tretinoin. This active ingredient is generally better tolerated by all skin types.

Should I Buy Over the Counter Retinol Creams?

In my opinion, it is a waste of money to use over the counter retinol creams when you can simply purchase Adapalene or Differin Gel over the counter for $13. Cosmetic companies use the term Retinol as a way to charge ridiculous prices for a cream that is less effective than a know over the counter Retonoin Acid.

Before using Tretinoin, I used Adapalene by simply adding a bit to my serum in the evening and then a moisturizer over top. While studies may be primarily for acne, they all have the same effects on cellular turnover and produce the same benefits.

Results of Tretinion on anti-aging

Pictured above is a make-up and filter-free selfie taken after the shower to show the effects of Tretinoin on anti-aging and acne. I am 42 years old. Here is my entire skincare routine.

How does Tretinoin Work for Wrinkles?

Studies have shown that Tretinoin is an effective treatment for wrinkle reduction and a 2016 study has also shown it increases collagen production. This is because Tretinoin increases cellular turnover at a rapid rate. Putting it simply, Retinoids cause your skin to deeply exfoliate. This is why a common side effect is peeling.

What are the benefits of Retinoids & Retinol (Adapalene, Tretinoin, & Retinol)

When used properly, Retinoids have numerous benefits on the skin. Below is a list of all the skincare benefits.

  • wrinkle reduction (primarily Tretinoin)
  • reduction in acne (Tretinoin or Adapalene)
  • skin smoothness and improved texture, also known as glass skin
  • skin clarity and even skin tone
  • reduction in acne scars
  • increased collagen production


Side Effects of Tretinoin and How to Avoid Them!

Since Retinols are very gentle they tend not to have any adverse reactions. However, when it comes to the use of Tretinoin, if not used properly, there can be numerous side effects, such as what is referred to as the “Tretinoin Purge“. Though Adapalene is much more mild, even using too much or too high of a dose can cause unwanted side effects.

When it comes to Tretinoin, I have personally learned that less is more. Below are many of the side effects and how to avoid them.

  • Hyperpigmentation: when going outside, always use a high SPF 50 sunscreen. The best I’ve found is a Japanese sunscreen called Skin Aqua Milk SPF 50. It is safe for both acne, fungal acne, and sensitive skin. It’s also nice, moisturizing, and does not pile under makeup or when combined with other moisturizers.

  • Peeling & Skin Irritation: never skip moisturizer when you begin using Tretinoin, even if you have oily skin. I highly recommend using Cerave Moisturizing Cream in the evening after applying Tretinoin. You can also mix your Tretinoin with a little hyaluronic acid serum to slightly reduce its potency and add in more moisture.

  • Tretinoin Purge: Here is our complete article on “How to Avoid the Tretinoin Purge“. If you are severely purging and having an increase in acne, it is because you are using too high of a dose. Back down. Additionally, I recommend not using a Tretinoin cream, but using a gel or even better, a micro gel. Micro-Gel Tretinoin is a slow-release formula that is less irritating.

Where can I buy Tretinoin?

Most people get Tretinoin prescribed by their doctor, but remember, you can still use Adapelene over the counter which is better than any Retinol cream on the market. There are now numerous companies that will prescribe you Tretinoin over the computer like Nurx and Apostrophe.

I found my source for Tretinoin from a Reddit group and use 0.025% Tretinoin Gel or Micro-Gel depending on what’s in stock. I’ve been using this tretinoin for over 2 years now and my skin has never been ore clear and smooth than it is now.

I should note that when I originally used one of the services like Nurx and Dermatica, they moved me to a 0.05% Tretinoin that was a cream and my skin was the worse I’d ever seen. I stopped taking their advice and went down to 0.025% and used a gel form instead. My skin is now crystal clear and my skin texture is so smooth it almost looks airbrushed.

If you have any questions or found this article helpful, please leave a comment below and let me know!


DSC_1770 cropSondra Barker
I created this site for purveyor of exceptional eats and escapes; our team is always on a journey to find the perfect bites in the most wonderful places.

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