Understanding Retinol Percentages and Retinoid Strengths

Understanding Retinol Percentages and Retinoid Percentages

Strengths of retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, and trifarotene

There are many different types, percentages, and strengths of retinoids.

Retinoids listed in order of strength from weakest to strongest are:

  1. Retinyl palmitate
  2. Retinaldehyde
  3. Retinol
  4. Adapalene
  5. Trifarotene
  6. Tretinoin
  7. Tazarotene

Keep reading to learn how the retinoid % and formulation also contribute to retinoid strength.

When you use retinoids in your skin routine also determines how effective the retinoid is.

Retinol vs tretinoin vs adapalene vs tazarotene vs trifarotene

The strongest retinoids work best on acne, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

However, if you are beginning a retinoid for the first time, choose a weak retinol and work your way up to tretinoin and tazarotene which are stronger.

Using the lowest strength retinol correctly will help you adjust to retinoids and minimize side effects.

We can help you find the best retinoids for your Baumann Skin Type!

Retinol Strength Chart

When comparing strengths of retinoids, it is important to understand that each Vitamin A compound is different and has different potency.

Retinol 0.025%, tretinoin .025% and tazarotene 0.025% are not the same strength even though they are all 0.025%.

The retinoid strength chart below compares retinoid potencies when compared at the same percent.

The chart shows that tazarotene and trifarotene are stronger than tretinoin.

Adapalene and retinol are not as strong as tazarotene and trifarotene.

Retinal (retinaldehyde) and retinyl esters like retinyl palmitate or not very potent and are considered weak retinoids because they do not penetrate well into the skin. 

retinol strength charts

What is stronger than tretinoin?

Tazarotene is stronger than tretinoin when the % is the same. 

Tazarotene 0.1% is stronger than tretinoin 0.1%

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Is tretinoin stronger than 1% retinol?

0.1% retinol, also called 10x retinol, is only a little weaker than tretinoin 0.025%.

There is no retinol 1% available

Is Tazorac the strongest retinoid?

Yes. Tazarotene 0.1% is the strongest retinoid.

Is tazarotene cream the same as tretinoin?

Tazarotene and tretinoin can be considered the same because both bind the retinoid receptor in skin to cause the same effects.

However there are differences. between tretinoin and tazarotene:

  • Tazarotene is stronger than tretinoin
  • Tazarotene is stable in light
  • Tazarotene can be used in the day
  • Tazarotene has more side effects because it is stronger

Research Studies Comparing Retinoid Strengths

Is Tazarotene Stronger Than Tretinoin?

Yes tazarotene is stronger than tretinoin.

Tazarotene 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1% cream were compared to tretinoin 0.05% emollient cream in a study that looked at effectiveness on aged mature wrinkled skin.

The fastest and best results were seen with tazarotene 0.1% which produced significantly higher improvement of wrinkles than tretinoin 0.05% emollient cream at week 12 and week 20.

Both tazarotene and tretinoin showed improvement of wrinkles, but tazarotene 0.1% showed the most improvement the fastest.

At week 24 in this study, treatment success rates based on global responses were:

  • 67% with 0.1% tazarotene
  • 52% with 0.05% tazarotene
  • 36% with 0.025% tazarotene
  • 41% with 0.01% tazarotene
  • 55% with 0.05% tretinoin
  • 22% with placebo vehicle

Retinoid side effects, as expected due to increased potency, were more frequent with the higher concentrations and were generally mild to moderate.

Which Is The Strongest Retinol Prescription?

Retinol is not prescription, so you probably meant to ask “Which is the strongest prescription retinoid?”

As shown in the table above, Tazarotene 0.025% is stronger than tretinoin 0.025%.

Tazarotene comes in 0.025%, 0.05% and 0.1%.

Although trifarotene is also a very strong retinoid, there is less data comparing it to the others.

The strongest retinol without a prescription is retinol 2.5%, however that is not available right now.

To learn more about the basics of retinoids and the retinoid family of compounds click here.

What is the strongest retinol without a prescription?

Retinol 1% is the strongest.

One of the strongest retinols is SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0%.

There are many high strength retinols that are very effective that are 1% strength (these are also often called retinol 10x).

Here is a list of the strongest retinol skin care products:

You can shop for the strongest retinols here:

What Is The Most Effective And Strongest Retinol?

The strongest over the counter retinol is 1.0% in a formulation that contains penetration enhancers like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.

However, 1.0% is way too strong when beginning retinol. To learn how to begin retinol click here.

You cannot get retinol 2%, retinol 2.5% or retinol 3%.

How do you know what strength retinol to use?

It depends on your Baumann Skin Type.  We can help.

Take the quiz and shop by your Baumann Skin Type to find the correct strength of  retinol  for YOUR skin.

What is Retinal?

Retinal is another name for retinaldehyde.

Retinal has poor skin penetration and therefore is less effective than retinol.

Retinal is a very weak retinoid and not very effective in treating acne, hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

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Retinoid Cream Vs Gel Vs Lotion- Which Is Strongest?

There is a difference in strength between a tretinoin cream, gel or a lotion.

How a retinoid is formulated affects the strength by increasing or decreasing absorption.

Strength of retinoids in order of lowest to highest based on formulation:

  • Cream
  • Lotion
  • Gel
  • Ointment

Gels are more potent than creams because they absorb better into the skin.

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The formulation of retinoids plays an important role in how effective the retinoid is.

When the formulation has glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and other penetration enhancers added, more will be absorbed. These are often called emollient creams.

The strength of the retinoid depends upon whether it is a cream, lotion, or gel but also if it has hyaluronic acid in it.  

Here is an example:

There are many brands of tretinoin 0.05% on the market including Retin A and many generic forms.

The 0.05% strength comes in creams, gels and lotions.

Altreno is a brand of tretinoin in a lotion formulation that is 0.05% tretinoin and has glycerin.

The fact that it has glycerin and sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid) means that Altreno 0.05% slightly stronger than the  tretinoin 0.05% cream version because of increased penetration.

The strength of the retinoid also depends when you use it in your skin care routine.

Retinoids are stronger when used before a moisturizer.

Common retinol percentage questions:

What percentage is prescription strength retinol?

There is not a prescription strength retinol. The strongest prescription strength retinoid is tazarotene 0.1% gel. 

What is the highest over the counter retinol concentration?

The highest over the counter retinol concentration is 3% but only 1% retinol is currently available. 

There is much more to the story about retinol strength than just the concentration or retinol percentage.2

What determines how strong a retinol skin care product is?

  • Type of retinol
  • Strength of retinol
  • How retinol is manufactured
  • Packaging: airless pump, jar or bottle
  • What other products are used in the skin care routine
  • when the retinol product is used

Many products that say they have retinol, actually have retinyl palmitate or retinol which are not effective.

Often the retinol percentage on the label does not match how much retinol is actually in the product.3

If retinol is not formulated, manufactured, bottled, and stored properly (which is often the case!!!) then the efficacy of the product is questionable.

For this reason, you must seek help in deciding which retinol is best for you. 

We can help you find the best retinol strength for your skin type!

These are the most common doses or strengths of retinol found in the retinol products: 

Low strength retinol = 0.025% or 2X and 0.03% or 3X

Mid strength retinol= .05% or 5x

High strength retinol =0.1% or 10x

Some products claim to be retinol 2.5% or retinol 1% or retinol 3%, however most of these products are not formulated correctly and therefore are actually not very potent.

We recommend sticking with 0.025%- 0.1% retinol products and avoiding retinal or retinyl palmitate containing products.

What percentage of retinol is effective?

The higher the strength a retinoid is- the more effective it is.

Even low strength retinols can be effectvie.

Research studies that show what retinol strength is effective

The best data we have on retinol effectiveness on wrinkles is a study that showed that 0.4% retinol was effective at improving wrinkles under the arms in elderly people.

Wrinkled underarm skin skin improved after 24 weeks of 3 times a week use.4

We recommend staying at a low strength retinol like 0.025% and slowly increasing the strength as tolerated.

When beginning retinol for the first time, start with a low strength retinol.

Shop by your Baumann Skin Type® to find the best retinol for your skin.


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References

  1. Kang, S., Leyden, J. J., Lowe, N. J., Ortonne, J. P., Phillips, T. J., Weinstein, G. D., ... & Gibson, J. R. (2001). Tazarotene cream for the treatment of facial photodamage: a multicenter, investigator-masked, randomized, vehicle-controlled, parallel comparison of 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% tazarotene creams with 0.05% tretinoin emollient cream applied once daily for 24 weeks. Archives of dermatology, 137(12), 1597-1604.
  2. Baumann L. Ch 45 Retinoids in Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology McGraw Hill 2022 (3rd edition)
  3. Temova Rakuša Ž, Škufca P, Kristl A, Roškar R. Quality control of retinoids in commercial cosmetic products. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2021;20(4):1166-1175.
  4. Kafi, R., Kwak, H. S. R., Schumacher, W. E., Cho, S., Hanft, V. N., Hamilton, T. A., ... & Kang, S. (2007). Improvement of naturally aged skin with vitamin A (retinol). Archives of dermatology, 143(5), 606-612.

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