The Difference Between Retin-A and Retin-A Micro

Woman applying lotion to face

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In This Article

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.

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 the way they are formulated and deliver the active ingredient to the skin.

Tretinoin: The Active Ingredient

The active ingredient in a medication is the ingredient that makes the medication work.

Both Retin-A and Retin-A Micro contain the same active ingredient: tretinoin.

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, smooths skin texture, and gives the 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 Available 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: An over-the-counter retinoid found in many anti-aging skincare products
  • Retinaldehyde: Another OTC retinoid, stronger than retinol but not as powerful as prescription retinoids. It's found in anti-aging skincare products.
  • Tazarotene: 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.

They both 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 Retin-A and Retin-A Micro Are Different

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.

Formulation

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: 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, just generally less so than Retin-A.

Application

There is a slight difference in how these two medications are applied as well. 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, as applying to damp skin increases the chance of side effects like excessive dryness and peeling.

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

Uses

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. Renova is another good choice for anti-aging treatment.

Retin-A

  • 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 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. During your appointment, your dermatologist will take a look at your skin and your medical history. Then, your dermatologist can 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.

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 products, so choosing between the two can seem overwhelming. But remember, you don't have to make the decision on your own, your dermatologist is there to help.

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