The Difference Between Retin-A and Retin-A Micro

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Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are both topical prescription medications that your dermatologist may prescribe to treat acne. Because they have nearly identical names and are manufactured by the same company, you may wonder if they're the same medication.

Woman applying lotion to face
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Despite the incredibly similar names, Retin-A and Retin-A Micro aren't exactly alike. There are some big differences between the two products, namely in the way they are formulated and deliver the active ingredient to the skin.

Tretinoin: The Active Ingredient

Both Retin-A and Retin-A Micro contain the same active ingredient: tretinoin. The active ingredient in a medication is the ingredient that makes the medication work.

Tretinoin is a topical retinoid, meaning it is a medication that is derived from vitamin A. Topical retinoids are used to treat a variety of skin conditions.

Tretinoin can be used to treat acne, keratosis pilaris, and hyperpigmentation. It's also used as an anti-aging treatment, because it helps soften lines and wrinkles, smoothes skin texture, and gives skin an overall younger look.

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro aren't the only medications that utilize tretinoin as the active ingredient. Other brands that contain tretinoin include:

  • Atralin
  • Avita
  • Refissa
  • Renova
  • Ziana

Tretinoin is also available in generic versions.

Other Topical Retinoids

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro aren't the only topical retinoids available. While topical retinoids are all somewhat similar, they do have notable differences.

  • Retinol: Retinol is an over-the-counter retinoid found in many anti-aging skin care products.
  • Retinaldehyde: Another OTC retinoid, it is stronger than retinol but not as powerful as prescription retinoids. It's found in anti-aging skin care products.
  • Tazarotene: This is a prescription retinoid that is often used to treat psoriasis.
  • Differin (adapalene): Technically a retinoid-like compound, Differin works similarly to topical retinoids and is often included in this group. It is available over the counter to treat acne.

How Retin-A and Retin-A Micro Work

Because they contain the same active ingredient, Retin-A and Retin-A Micro work in essentially the same way. Both medications work to speed up cell turnover rates. Simply put, they make dead skin cells shed more quickly and effectively than they would on their own.

Tretinoin medications also help the plugs of dead skin cells and oil trapped within the pore become less sticky. When that plug of "gunk," technically called a comedo, isn't hanging around in the pores anymore, acne breakouts are reduced. These medications help reduce non-inflamed breakouts, like blackheads, as well as inflamed pimples.

Topical retinoids like Retin-A and Retin-A Micro can be used by tweens, teens, and adults.

How They Differ

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are basically different versions of the same medication. They work in the same way, they're used to treat the same skin problems, and they contain the same active ingredient.

The main difference between Retin-A Micro and Retin-A is how they are formulated.


While the active ingredient in these two medications is the same, the vehicle is not. The vehicle is the base that delivers the active ingredient to the skin. In other words, the active ingredient is the ingredient that makes the medication work, and the vehicle consists of all the other ingredients that make up the medication.

Retin-A comes in a variety of different forms, including cream, gel, and liquid. When you apply Retin-A, the full potency of the medication is delivered immediately to the skin. Because you're getting a "full shot" of medication right away, the risk of irritation is increased.

Retin-A Micro is formulated differently. After it is applied, some of the medication is held in reserve and released onto the skin slowly, over time. This allows the medication to be effective on your skin for longer periods of time.

Because Retin-A Micro is delivered more slowly, there is less risk of irritation. This doesn't mean it can't cause irritation, though. This medication can cause dryness and irritation as well, but is generally less likely to do so than Retin-A.


There is a slight difference in how these two medications are applied. Prescribing information for Retin-A recommends waiting 20 to 30 minutes after cleansing before applying the medication. This ensures that the skin is completely dry, since applying it to damp skin increases the chance of side effects like excessive dryness and peeling.

Because retin-A Micro can be applied immediately after cleansing, it's not as crucial to have completely dry skin before application.


Retin-A is used more often than Retin-A Micro to improve signs of aging. Much of this has to do with the fact that Retin-A comes in cream form. Creams are more emollient than gels.

  • Comes in cream, gel, and liquid

  • Full potency of the medication is delivered immediately

  • Must wait 20 to 30 minutes after cleansing before applying

  • More irritating

  • Cream bases are better for dry skin types

Retin-A Micro
  • Comes in gel form

  • Medication released more slowly, over time

  • Can be applied immediately after washing your face

  • Less irritating

  • Gel is better for oily skin types

Which Medication Is Right for Your Skin?

Because you can only get Retin-A and Retin-A Micro by prescription, you'll have to consult your dermatologist if you'd like to try it. During your appointment, your dermatologist will take a look at your skin and your medical history and help you develop an effective acne treatment plan.

If you're interested in trying either Retin-A or Retin-A Micro, ask your dermatologist about them. Your dermatologist will help you choose between the two, or will let you know if another acne treatment is more appropriate. (Renova, for example, is another good choice for anti-aging treatment.)

All in all, both Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are good options for treating acne. Retin-A Micro tends to be less irritating and less drying than Retin-A. It may be slightly more effective, in part because you will be more likely to use it if it isn't as irritating.

The biggest downside is that Retin-A Micro is much more expensive than Retin-A. This may or may not be a factor for you, depending on your insurance. Estimate your out-of-pocket costs for each.

A Word From Verywell

There are benefits and drawbacks to both Retin-A and Retin-A Micro. Your dermatologist is there to help: consult with him or her to find the right formulation for you.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Dando TM, Wellington K. Topical tazarotene: a review of its use in the treatment of plaque psoriasis. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2005;6(4):255-72. doi:10.2165/00128071-200506040-00006

  3. Russell JJ. Topical therapy for acne. Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(2):357-66.

  4. Berger R, Rizer R, Barba A, et al. Tretinoin gel microspheres 0.04% versus 0.1% in adolescents and adults with mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a 12-week, multicenter, randomized, double-blind, parallel-group, phase IV trial. Clin Ther. 2007;29(6):1086-97. doi:10.1016/j.clinthera.2007.06.021

  5. Retin-A. Updated June 1, 2018.

  6. Retin-A Micro. Updated October 1, 2019.

  7. Renova. Updated September 2, 2019.

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