Retinol is another name for vitamin A in its most natural form. It’s hailed by dermatologists as a multi-purpose skincare product. With regular use, it can produce smoother, brighter, more even-toned skin overall.

The importance of retinol (vitamin A) was discovered during World War I and subsequent research showed that its deficiency gives rise to dry skin and other skin disorders.

The retinoid drug project was launched in 1968 to synthesize compounds similar to vitamin A by chemical manipulation of its molecule to improve performance and safety. The use of these substances in therapy dates back some 3000 years to ancient Egypt, where liver was used to treat night blindness. The modern history of retinoids, however, began in 1909 when an essential factor in the viability of an embryo in the fatty extract of the egg yolk, called vitamin A, was discovered. Retinoids finally were introduced into the treatment of dermatoses including photoaging more than two decades ago.

Retinoids teach aging cells how to behave like younger, healthier cells by encouraging them to turnover more rapidly. This makes way for new cell growth. Retinoids have also been shown to increase the production of collagen, the protein that gives skin strength and elasticity.

Retinoids are the catch-all term, but both Retin-A and retinol are essentially vitamin A in its most basic form. The difference between them lies in where you get them.

Retin-A is what you get from your dermatologist. It’s a prescription that is FDA approved, meaning it has been tested and OK’d for both safety and efficacy. Whereas, retinol that is available over-the-counter is not as closely regulated.

Over-the-counter products contain lower strengths of retinol than the prescription you get from your dermatologist, which includes emollient ingredients that help soothe and moisturize skin to cut down on much of the redness, dryness, and peeling that can be associated with Retin-A. These versions are best for sensitive skin that may be prone to irritation.

Those with sensitive skin or certain skin conditions, like eczema, may have trouble tolerating a prescription-strength Retin-A cream. Also, proceed with caution if you have a darker skin tone. Darker skin types can experience temporary dark patches if the skin gets too irritated. To be safe, ask your dermatologist for a product recommendation if you have compromised skin and you’re interested in retinol.