Explainer: A simple breakdown of the difference between Vitamin A and Retinol skincare.

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Here’s what we know about Retinol: Beauty Editors love – and rave – about it. It’s an anti-ageing superstar. And sometimes, if you get a little too carried away it can make your face peel off.

But anything deeper than that often gets shoved into the “too hard and sciencey” basket, because it’s all just a little too complicated.

But it shouldn’t be, because not all vitamin As were created equal, and they’re definitely not all the same, so understanding a little more about it (science overload or not) will help you choose better when you’re faced with the 43294732 varieties in the cosmetics aisle.

We spoke to the experts to make the whole thing a lot clearer.

The basics.

The first thing we need to get clear is all the terminology. While you may be familiar with retinol, the words retinal, retin-A and retinoids are all used liberally in the beauty world, and what they all have in common is that they’re all part of the Vitamin A family.

“Vitamin A is known as the ‘normalising’ Vitamin as it’s fantastic at supporting and normalising the skins functions creating a healthy skin,” says Emma Hobson Education Manager for the International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica.

And the reason we hear so much about retinol more than other types is because “it’s considered to be one of the best performing vitamin A ingredients to effectively address the signs of premature ageing and photo damaged skin”, she says.


But here’s where it gets a little complicated. Although part of the same family, each form of Vitamin A has its own personality and characteristics that makes it behave differently on the skin. Mukti, founder of Mukti Organics explains it for us.

Beta-carotene or provitamin A

“Provitamins or natural precursors of vitamin A include alpha carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin,” Mutki says. What the “precursor” part actually means is that they convert to vitamin A in the body, rather than already being in that form.

It’s a powerful antioxidant that can be found in many vegetables and is known to combat acne, eczema and psoriasis and help with sun damage.


These refer to the collective group of chemicals that are derivatives of Vitamin A, and as Mukti explains they “work on a molecular level because skin cells actually contain retinoid receptors that help regulate certain functions.”

Retinal (retinaldehyde)

“Retinal or retinaldehyde is the aldehyde form of vitamin A,” says Mukti.

This is an active, transitional form of vitamin A and, she explains, it’s created in the conversion of retinol to retinoid or retinoic acid, and can “assist with minimising the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, but less commonly used in skincare formulations, as this form may be irritating at certain doses.”

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Retin-A and Tretinoin

Not to be confused with retinal, this is a brand name for a prescription-only version of tretinoin that is a synthetic derivative of Vitamin A. It used to be prescribed for serious acne, until they saw it had other benefits to the skin also (like reducing fine lines).

Retinoic Acid

Confusingly, this is also another name for tretinoin.  This is “biologically active” form Vitamin A, which means “when it’s applied to the skin, the body can utilise the retinoic acid immediately without having to first metabolise vitamin A, and for this reason it’s classified as a drug”, says Mukti.

Many studies have shown the benefits of retinoic acid including helping to stimulate collagen and elastin, reversing photo ageing, but in this form is extremely potent and can cause inflammation, peeling and burning.

Retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate

The most common and mildest form of vitamin A, these work primarily as antioxidants and convert to retinol. “They are more stable in light and are less irritating than retinol, but not as effective,” says Mukti.


This is probably the type you are most familiar with, as it’s commonly used in at-home skincare. Retinol is the alcohol form of vitamin A and is also the most useable as it and absorbs easily and is processed by the skin. Topically it boosts collagen, increases skin thickness (which in turn lessens the look of wrinkles) combats acne, and can also reduce sun damage.

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Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR)

“HPR is an ester of retinoic acid and works in a similar way to tretinoin (retin–A) minus the irritation profile,” says Mukti. Essentially, it’s the next gen of retinoids that has tested positively and with less irritation with continued use than other forms of Vitamin A, plus as it’s not a “drug” it can be used in cosmetics.

How it works.

The key difference with all these types is how the skin converts it. Most forms of retinoids need to be converted into retinoic acid (by enzymes) in the skin in order for it to work its magic, because retinoic acid is the only form of Vitamin A that the skin can process.

The exception is HPR which binds directly to the skin’s retinoid receptors. Retinol works by encouraging cell communication, that is, it basically tells the cells to speed up production and the renewal process and stimulates the production of collagen.

So, is there “natural” version of vitamin A?

Yes! True Vitamin A is actually found in a lot of foods like meats, fish, egg yolks, poultry and dairy, so there’s no need to fear it as an ingredient.

“It is important to note our bodies naturally produce Vitamin A and it’s critical for healthy vision, bones and cells, it is an antioxidant and fights free radical damage,” explains Marie Enna-Cocciolone, founder of O Cosmedics.

It’s also found in many fruits and vegetables like leafy greens, watermelon, passionfruit, grapefruit and apricots, and is called Provitamin A in that form.

Some plant based oils also contain high concentrations of naturally occurring Vitamin A, including carrot, rosehip, avocado, apricot, buriti and sea buckthorn berry oil, which Mukti says “are good alternatives to synthetic retinol because they have a high vitamin A content that provides the skin with retinol benefits, minus any side effects.”

Before you use it, know this.

The side effects of retinol are well documented. First, there’s the fact that your skin needs to “build a tolerance” to it, which seems counter-intuitive to the good it actually does.

The skin needs time to grow accustomed to retinoid use by using it a little at a time, and at first, only every other day, otherwise you may find it can cause redness, dryness and flakiness.

Emma suggests “starting with a 0.5% cream that allows you to build your skin tolerance and mixing a buffer cream with it initially, as it will ensure you’re preventing any sensitivity.”

Then, there’s the sun sensitivity. On one hand, retinol can help with pigmentation by inhibiting melanin production and lightening spots, but on the other hand it makes you more susceptible to sun damage – so a complete contradiction. As Marie explains, this is because “retinol encourages skin turnover, stimulating healthy cells and skin making the skin photosensitive, which is why retinol products should only ever be applied at night be used in conjunction with a SPF 30+”.


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You also want to avoid retinol based products for at least 72 hours after waxing, laser or exfoliation, and definitely not use on sunburned skin.

And finally, it’s a no-go for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. This is because it’s one ingredient that’s absorbed by the skin in very high doses it has been found to cause birth defects.

Essentially Vitamin A, and all its derivatives are gold standard anti ageing ingredients for a reason: they target a multitude of skin concerns and give the kind of results we all want (plumper, less-wrinkly, smoother, glowier skin).

But, it’s all about understanding it, and how to use it – and having some patience! Retinoids are not ones for overnight results (it may take up to eight weeks!) but the end game is definitely worth the wait. 

Do you use Vitamin A? Tell us about the product in the comments! 

P.S. For more no BS beauty advice, get the latest episode of our You Beauty podcast in your ears below.

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