Retinoids: Gel vs. Cream

The difference between gel and cream retinoid formulations |

Most retinoid products come in gel or cream formulations or both. Which base is best for you depends on your skin.

Formulations of Prescription Retinoids

Gel Cream Both

Generally, if you are using retinoids for acne, gels are the preferred choice. They are less emollient and therefore aren't as pore clogging, which can be a life-saver for those with very clog-prone and congested skin. Gels also enhance penetration, making the retinoid stronger and more effective. However, as a trade off, gels tend to cause more irritation and dryness-related side effects.

Creams may be better choices for those with dry and/or sensitive skin. Their emollient base makes them less penetrating than gels, but they are usually less irritating as a result. Cream-based retinoids are also perfect as anti-aging products. However, the cream vehicle, usually oily, can be problematic for those with acne prone or finicky skin.

In terms of retinoid strength, gels tend to be stronger than creams because they enhance penetration whereas the oils in cream bases act as slight buffers. Alcohol-based gels are stronger than water-based gels, which in turn are stronger than cream-based retinoids.

So which one is better, gel or cream retinoid treatments?

The answer is: you won't really know which base is best for your skin until you try them out. If you find the gel version to be too drying or too irritating, then switch to the cream. If the cream gives you clogged pores, then see if the gel makes things a bit better. If the cream gives you clogged pores but the gel makes your skin too dry, you can always use a moisturizer to buffer its effects.

Whichever formulation you choose to use, it's absolutely essential that you know how to use retinoids the right way. Learning proper application will help reduce irritation and redness and ensure that you get the maximum results from your retinoid

NOTE: Sometimes, retinoids in the gel form actually look like creams because they are white in texture and not translucent like most of us imagine gel products to be. So if you get Differin gel and it looks like it's a cream, don't fret! Retinoid gels tend to have an opaque, lotion-like quality and be lighter feeling than cream formulations.

Gel and cream retinoids can both be effective, but which vehicle of retinoid suits your skin best will depend on what your skin likes. Now that you understand the difference between gels and creams, learn about the difference between natural and synthetic retinoids and differentiate amongst the various brands and types of retinoids and how they vary in strength and effectiveness.

Last updated: October 9, 2012

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Natural vs. Synthetic Retinoids

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