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Alpha Hydroxy Acid Vs. Retin-A

author image Sarah Terry
Sarah Terry brings over 10 years of experience writing novels, business-to-business newsletters and a plethora of how-to articles. Terry has written articles and publications for a wide range of markets and subject matters, including Medicine & Health, Eli Financial, Dartnell Publications and Eli Journals.

Both Retin-A and alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA, are typically used as skin care products. You might use either Retin-A or AHA topically to treat or prevent sun damage to your skin, among other skin problems. Consult your doctor about using AHA or Retin-A to talk about the potential side effects and risks.


AHA is made from fruits and milk, while Retin-A comes from the medication called topical tretinoin, says the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In addition to Retin-A, tretinoin is also sold under the brand names Tretin-X, Reova, Altinac, Avita and Atralin, according to the University of Michigan Health System. Unlike Retin-A, AHA is commonly added to cosmetic products, typically as an anti-wrinkle, anti-aging and sun-protective ingredient.


Retin-A is a type of Vitamin A that promotes skin-cell regeneration and the exfoliation of your top skin layer, mostly comprised of dead skin cells, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Retin-A can take several weeks or even months to provide its full effects and may worsen your skin condition before it improves it, notes the University of Michigan Health System. One of the main ingredients used in chemical peels, AHA has a very similar function in stimulating the top layer of your skin to peel off. This action removes the old, dead skin cells and reveals the renewed skin layer beneath.


AHA in chemical peels or cosmetic skin products are often used to renew and exfoliate skin, as well as reduce wrinkles and other skin characteristics of aging, says the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. You might also use AHA to correct skin-pigmentation problems, reduce the appearance of stretch marks and even help treat psoriasis. You can use Retin-A for similar purposes, but it's most commonly used to treat acne, notes the University of Michigan Health System. If you have any of these types of skin conditions, talk with your doctor before using AHA or Retin-A.

Side Effects

Using Retin-A could make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, as well as tanning beds and lamps, cautions the University of Michigan Health System. Retin-A can also burn your lips, eyes, nose and mouth if you get the topical medication in these areas. You could experience burning, itching, swelling, redness, stinging and irritation of the skin areas where you apply Retin-A. AHA can also cause these types of skin irritations, as well as rashes, blisters and discoloration, says the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.


Retin-A might be dangerous during pregnancy, so consult your healthcare provider before using Retin-A if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, advises the University of Michigan Health System. Using Retin-A along with certain medications can make your skin even more sensitive to light; these medications include sulfa drugs, chlorpromazine and related medications, diuretics, tetracycline and related drugs, and certain antibiotics. Don't use any skin product that contains more than 10 percent AHA concentration and stop using AHA if you experience any kind of skin irritation, warns the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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