Understanding Retinol Percentages and Retinoid Strengths
Retinoids are one of the most common classes of ingredients in skin care, but each retinoid has its own particularities.
Retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, and trifarotene are all retinoids but their strengths and concentrations vary.
Whether you are starting retinoids for the first time, have been on retinol and want to change to a higher retinol concentration, or you want to switch from retinol to a prescription strength retinoid, understanding retinol strength charts is important. There are many different types, percentages, concentrations, and strengths of retinoids.
Retinoids listed in order of strength from weakest to strongest are:
- Retinyl palmitate
Keep reading to learn how the retinoid percent and formulation also contribute to retinoid strength.
When you use retinoids in your skin routine also determines how effective the retinoid is.
Strengths of retinol vs tretinoin vs adapalene vs tazarotene vs trifarotene
The strongest and most effective retinoid without a prescription is retinol is 1% in a formulation that contains penetration enhancers like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. This is also called 10x retinol. Retinol 1% is only a little weaker than prescription tretinoin 0.025%.
However, 1% is way too strong when first beginning retinol. You cannot get retinol 2%, retinol 2.5% or retinol 3% strengths. If you want something stronger than 1% retinol, the next strength up is tretinoin 0.025% cream which requires a prescription. Tretinoin 0.025% is stronger than retinol 1%.
Tazarotene is stronger than tretinoin, even when the percent is the same. For example, Tazarotene 0.1% is stronger than tretinoin 0.1%. Tazarotene 0.1% is the strongest retinoid available.
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 0.025% 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.
What retinol strength is right for me?
It is confusing to know what strength of retinol to start. The problem is retinols can be too strong for you and may not be safe in certain situations like pregnancy. When pregnant or breast feeding, consult your dermatologist.
All beginners should start with the lowest strength retinol and slowly work your way up to tretinoin and ultimately tazarotene.
It is important to use them slowly and follow your dermatologist's advice on how to increase to the next higher strength.
Research Studies Comparing Retinoid Strengths
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 were more frequent with the higher concentrations and were generally mild to moderate.
Retinol 0.4% is effective on wrinkles
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.
Retinol was applied under the arm in a non sun exposed area. Wrinkled underarm skin skin improved after 24 weeks of 3 times a week use.4
This study showed that retinol improves aged skin even if the skin does not have sun damage.
Retinoid Cream vs Gel vs Lotion- Which Is Strongest?
How a retinoid is formulated affects the strength by increasing or decreasing absorption. This is why there is a difference in strength between a tretinoin cream, gel or a lotion.
Strength of retinoids in order of lowest to highest based on formulation:
Gels are more potent than creams because they absorb better into the skin. Ointments are the strongest because of occlusion.
The formulation of retinoids plays an important role in how strong a retinoid is
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% is 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.
Common retinol percentage questions:
What percentage is prescription strength retinol?
There is not a prescription strength retinol. Retinol 1% is the strongest retinol and it is available without a prescription. 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 listed on the label.2
Retinol strength is determined by:
- Type of retinol (retinol vs retinyl ester vs retinal all of which can be called "retinol")
- Strength (percent) of retinol
- How retinol is manufactured (was it exposed to air or light that inactivated it)
- Packaging: airless pump, jar or bottle
- What other products ingredients are in the formulation (Bakuchiol, hyaluronic acid, oils, glycerin)
- when the retinol product is used in the skin care routine
Many products that say they have retinol, actually have an ester such as retinyl palmitate or retinal 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
These are the most common doses or strengths of retinol found in the retinol products:
Low strength retinol = 0.25% or 2X and 0.3% or 3X
Mid strength retinol= .5% or 5x
High strength retinol = 1% or 10x
Some products claim to be retinol 2.5% or retinol 3%, however most of these products are not formulated correctly and therefore are actually not very potent.
We recommend sticking with 0.25%- 1% retinol products and avoiding retinal or retinyl palmitate containing products.
What percentage of retinol is effective?
If retinol is absorbed, even low strength retinol can be effective. As long as you use a good brand that is made properly, a low strength retinol has skin benefits. The higher the strength a retinoid is- the more effective it is, but the more side effects it has.
Which Is The Strongest Retinol Prescription?
Retinol is not prescription. The strongest prescription retinoid is tazarotene.
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.
To learn more about the basics of retinoids and the retinoid family of compounds click here.
What is the strongest retinol without a prescription?
The strongest retinol without a prescription is retinol 2.5%, however that is not available right now.
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 Retinal?
Retinal is another name for retinaldehyde. Many people get confused and think it is the same as retinol but it is not.
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.
Let us help you find the best products for your skin type and build a skin care routine from many brands.
- 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.
- Baumann L. Ch 45 Retinoids in Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology McGraw Hill 2022 (3rd edition)
- Temova Rakuša , Škufca P, Kristl A, Roškar R. Quality control of retinoids in commercial cosmetic products. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2021;20(4):1166-1175.
- 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.