Prescription vs. OTC Retinoid: What’s the Difference?

Behind the label of skincare's A class: retinoids.



2 MIN READ | NOVEMBER 11, 2020


Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.

When it comes to retinoids, not every product is created equally. While retinoid is the umbrella term that refers to most skincare ingredients derived from vitamin A, they vary widely in terms of strength. To determine how strong a retinoid is, both the percentage and the form of retinoid need to be taken into account.

Below, we’re going to talk about the difference between prescription strength retinoids and OTC retinol. We’ll also dive into how the potency of these products is dependent on both the percentage and the form of retinoid being used.

Prescription (Rx) vs. over-the-counter (OTC)

Prescription strength (Rx) retinoids come in smaller percentages but are much stronger.

  • Range: 0.025% to 0.1%
  • Come in an active form of vitamin A called retinoic acid
  • Commonly prescribed to treat moderate to severe clinical grade acne, but is also used for wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and textural concerns.

Over-the-counter (OTC) retinoids come in larger percentages but aren’t as strong.

  • Range: 0.01% to 2.0%
  • Converted into retinoic acid when applied to the skin
  • Includes retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde
  • Able to address fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and and stimulating a degree of collagen production

Retinoic acid is many times stronger than retinol, and therefore found in far lower percentages. For example, a product that includes 0.05% retinoic acid is faar stronger than a product containing 0.5% retinol. This is why Rx formulas are infamous for potentially causing irritation and dryness — applying straight retinoic acid to the skin can be harsh and requires counseling  by a medical professional. Using OTC retinoids and having the skin convert retinol to retinoic acid makes the delivery, impact and the effect much less intense.

All percentages of retinol are beneficial to the skin to some degree. The key is finding one that you can use without causing irritation or over-drying. Even concentrations as low as 0.01% have been shown to benefit overall skin health.

Many believe that they need to use the strongest retinoid they can get their hands on, but the reality is that a lower percentage used daily, especially in combination with other supporting ingredients, can have amazing benefits. Your skin is unique, so find what works for you!

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