All the Different Types of Retinoids. Which One is Best For You?

There are different types of retinoids and different products with each type of retinoid as an active ingredient.

Retinol, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, and tazarotene are all various forms of retinoids. It can get pretty confusing but this list will hopefully clarify things:

From weakest to strongest.


(or retinal, vitamin A aldehyde)  

(synthetic retinoid)

(or retinoic acid)

(synthetic retinoid)
  • Tazorac - 0.1% gel or cream
  • Avage - 0.1% cream
  • Zorac
    • 0.05% and 0.1% gel
    • 0.05% and 0.1% cream

(synthetic tretinoin)
As you can see from the above list, retinoids are available in various brands (different companies, brand names, generics), types (retinol, tretinoin), concentrations (0.25%, 0.1%), and formulations (gel, cream). Most retinoids are natural, but some are synthetic. Some retinoids are available at the drug store, while others you can only get at the doctor's office. All of these factors influence the strength and effectiveness of each type of retinoid.

How are the types of retinoids different?

Retinol and retinaldehyde are available over-the-counter. The rest of the retinoids are only available through prescriptions, though some online pharmacies (Canadian, Indian, or otherwise) offer various generic versions without one. You usually need a doctor's prescription to legally order a generic of a brand name prescription product, but different online pharmacies operate under different policies, especially if they are in other countries.

Tazarotene is the strongest retinoid, while retinol is the weakest. The strength of a retinoid depends on the type of retinoid. Your skin is only able to use a retinoid when it's in retinoic acid form. Therefore, all types of retinoids are converted to this state by your skin before it can even be used. How does this have anything to do with a retinoid's strength? Allow me to explain.

When you apply a retinoid product that is retinoic acid (ex. Retin-A), your skin is able to use it immediately because it's already in the proper form. However, if you use a product with retinol, the retinol first has to be converted into retinaldehyde and then the retinaldehyde has to be converted to retinoic acid before your skin can use it. Therefore, retinol is weaker than retinaldehyde and retinaldehyde is weaker than retinoic acid. Retinol is the weakest because it takes your skin two extra steps for it to be converted to retinoic acid before it can be utilized. For each converstion step, there is also uncertainty as to how much active product was actually converted in the oxidation process. Therefore, the fewer the conversions to get to retinoic acid, the stronger the retinoid.

Aside from the type of retinoid, each individual product also has its own individual retinoid concentrations. For example, Retin-A comes in 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% formulations. The 0.025% would be the weakest version of Retin-A, while the 0.1% would be the strongest. The formulation of the retinoid also has a factor in its strength, but you can read more about the difference between gel and cream vehicles here. It might also be helpful to familiarize yourself with how natural and synthetic retinoids are different.

So, which type of retinoid is the best?

Deciding on which type of retinoid and which percentage strength is best for you will depend on how your skin tolerates the retinoid. Generally, you go with the strongest retinoid you can tolerate with the least amount of irritation, even if that retinoid is considered weak. If your skin can't handle tazarotene, there's no reason to subject it to Tazorac. The irritation would far outweigh the benefits.

Most dermatologists initially prescribe Differin for acne because it is the gentlest one out of all the prescription retinoids. However, if Differin isn't strong enough for you, you could try moving up to Retin-A. If you feel Retin-A isn't doing a good job, you could then give Tazorac a try. It takes trial-and-error to figure out which retinoid is best for you.

Things can get pretty confusing because there are so many different types of retinoids, percentages, and product formulations. Some retinoids are also used for acne treatments, while others target anti-aging. Dermatologists always have lots of samples, so make sure you test some retinoids out for a few weeks before purchasing the real thing. Having lots of patience and using retinoids the right way is the key to finding the best type of retinoid for your skin.

Thanks for reading! What do you think?


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