The Difference Between Retin-A and Retin-A Micro

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 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.

Woman applying lotion to face
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This article describes the similarities and differences between Retin-A and Retin-A Micro, including when each is used. It also looks at other treatments with similar mechanisms of action that your doctor may prescribe.

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro Similarities

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

Tretinoin is a type of drug known as a topical retinoid. These are medications derived from vitamin A used to treat a variety of skin conditions.

Tretinoin can be used to treat acne, keratosis pilaris (a non-contagious skin rash), and hyperpigmentation (the abnormal darkening of the skin), among others. It is also used as an anti-aging product because it can help soften lines and wrinkles and improve skin texture.

How They Work

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

Tretinoin also helps pores blocked with dead skin cells and oils become less sticky. By doing so, pores are less likely to form whiteheads or blackheads (also known as comedones). This, in turn, reduces the risk of acne.

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

Recap

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are topical retinoids available by prescription only. Both contain a medication called tretinoin that increases the rate of skin cell turnover. Both are used to treat acne and other skin conditions.

How The Medications Differ

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

Where they differ is in the formulation (the composition of ingredients), the application, their recommended uses, and their price.

Formulation

While the active ingredient in Retin-A and Retin-A Micro is the same, the vehicle is not. The vehicle is the base that delivers the active ingredient to the skin.

Retin-A comes in a variety of different forms, including a 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 the medication, the risk of side effects—namely dryness and irritation—is increased.

Retin-A Micro is formulated differently and is available only as a gel. After it is applied, some of the medication is held in reserve and released into the skin slowly. This allows the medication to be effective for longer periods of time.

Retin-A Micro is composed of microspheres of tretinoin that break open over time rather than all at once. As a result, there is less risk of irritation. This doesn't mean that it can't cause dryness or irritation, but it is generally less likely to do so than Retin-A.

Application

There is also a slight difference in how Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are applied.

The manufacturer recommends waiting 20 to 30 minutes after cleansing before applying Retin-A. This ensures that the skin is completely dry (since the evaporation of moisture from wet skin can enhance the drying effects of tretinoin).

A waiting time is not necessary with Retina-A Micro, and the medication can be applied immediately after cleansing.

Uses

Retin-A is used more often than Retin-A Micro to improve signs of aging. Much of this is due to the fact that Retin-A comes in a cream formulation. Creams contain far more emollients (substances that add moisture to the skin) than gels. This gives skin a plumper appearance and helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

On the other hand, gels are less likely to give the skin a greasy appearance than emollient-rich creams. For this reason, Retin-A Micro may be preferred over Retin-A cream for people with oily skin.

Price

Another key difference between Retin-A and Retin-A Micro is the price. Retin-A Micro costs roughly $200 to $300 per tube, while Retin-A is more in the $50 to $60 range.

Fortunately, there are generic versions of both that are generally far less costly. Generic tretinoin is also covered by most Medicare and insurance plans.

Retin-A
  • Comes in cream, gel, and liquid

  • Full potency is delivered immediately

  • Must wait 20 to 30 minutes after cleansing before applying

  • More irritating

  • Creams are better for dry skin

  • Less costly

Retin-A Micro
  • Comes only in a gel form

  • Medication released more slowly, over time

  • Can be applied immediately after washing your face

  • Less irritating

  • Gels are better for oily skin

  • More costly

Which Is Right for You?

Because you can only get Retin-A and Retin-A Micro by prescription, you'll need to consult a dermatologist. During your appointment, the dermatologist will take a look at your skin and 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 let you know if another acne treatment is more appropriate.

This includes other types of topical retinoids. Among them is a "weaker" over-the-counter (OTC) version of Retin-A known as retinol.

Other Topical Retinoids

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro aren't the only medications that utilize tretinoin as the active ingredient. A few even contain topical antibiotics that can help control bacteria on the skin.

Other brands that contain tretinoin include:

  • Atralin
  • Avita
  • Refissa
  • Renova
  • Ziana

There are also topical retinoids that are not made with tretinoin. These include:

  • Retinaldehyde: This is an OTC retinoid that is stronger than retinol but not as strong as prescription topical retinoids.
  • Tazarotene: Sold under the brand names Fabior, Tazorac, Avage, and others, this is a prescription topical retinoid often used to treat psoriasis.
  • Differin (adapalene)Differin is an OTC product used to treat acne that works similarly to topical retinoids.

Recap

Your dermatologist can help determine whether Retin-A or Retin-A Micro is the better choice for you. They may also direct you to other topical medications containing tretinoin or other topical retinoids made with medications other than tretinoin.

Summary

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are prescription topical retinoids used to treat acne. They both contain a medication called tretinoin that increases the speed at which dry skin cells are shed. This decreases the risk of blackheads, whiteheads, and acne.

Retina-A is available as a cream, gel, or lotion. Because it acts immediately on the skin, Retin-A is more likely to cause skin dryness or irritation. To reduce the risk of these, you would need to wait 20 to 30 minutes before applying Retin-A to the skin.

Retin-A Micro is a costlier, time-released version that is available only as a gel. It is less likely to cause irritation and dryness and can be applied immediately after cleansing. However, it may not be as effective as Retin-A cream for anti-aging treatments and may be better suited than creams for oilier skin types.

A Word From Verywell

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for acne. In the end, it may take trial and error to find the right solution for you as an individual.

If your acne is severe or difficult to control, don't apply more and more medication to your skin without first speaking with a dermatologist. Because some skin types are extremely delicate, overtreating acne may cause more harm than good.


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6 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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