What Is the Difference Between Retin-A and Tretinoin?

Do you wonder what the difference is between Retin-A and tretinoin, or whether you were prescribed the wrong acne medication? Medication names can be tricky. So it's confusing when your healthcare provider or dermatologist says you'll be using Retin-A but the pharmacist hands you a tube of tretinoin.

This article discusses Retin-A and tretinoin and why you can substitute one for the other. It also covers other acne medications with similar names and how they compare to tretinoin.

Retin-A vs. Tretinoin

Not to worry, you've got the medication you're supposed to have. Retin-A is a brand name for the drug tretinoin. Tretinoin is the name of the active ingredient in the brand-name medication.

The brand Retin-A has become the most popular term used when referring to topical tretinoin. Many people use Retin-A and tretinoin interchangeably (even healthcare providers). It's rather like how people use the brand name "Q-Tip" rather than the generic term "cotton swab."

Generic Tretinoin

If your healthcare provider prescribes Retin-A, your pharmacist may fill your prescription with generic tretinoin. This is because with a generic you'll often pay less than you would for a brand-name drug.

But don't think that generic medications are of lower quality or that they won't work as well. All tretinoin products work in the same way, by speeding cell turnover rates and keeping pores free from blockages, or comedones.

Tretinoin medications also help soften fine lines, fade dark marks and discolorations, and leave your complexion looking brighter and feeling smoother.

Because generic and brand-name acne medications contain the same active ingredients, they will give you the same type of results.

Medications That Contain Tretinoin

Many companies manufacture topical tretinoin medications, so tretinoin is sold under many different names. Some medications, besides Retin-A, that contain tretinoin include:

Tips for Treating Dry Skin from Retin-A
Verywell / Emilie Dunphy

More Sound-Alikes

There are so many sound-alike ingredients in the skincare world, no wonder it's confusing. How do topical retinoids, Retin-A Micro, retinol, and isotretinoin fit into the mix?

Retinoids

Retinoids are the group, or class, of medications that tretinoin belongs to. Topical retinoids work by speeding up cell turnover, rapidly exfoliating the skin, and promoting new skin cells. They also help clear out blocked pores and soften fine lines and wrinkles.

Topical retinoids are prescribed to treat acne. They are also commonly used as anti-aging treatments.

Besides tretinoin, other topical retinoids include Tazorac (tazarotene) and Differin (adapalene). Differin is more aptly described as a retinoid-like compound, to be precise, but works the same way.

Retin-A Micro

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are both brand names for tretinoin. The big difference between these two medications is how they deliver the tretinoin to your skin. Retin-A Micro delivers the medication more slowly, over time, so it's less irritating than Retin-A.

Retinol

Consider retinol an over-the-counter (OTC) version of Retin-A. Like Retin-A, retinol is a topical retinoid. It's derived from vitamin A. It helps soften fine lines and brighten the skin.

It doesn't work as quickly, nor does it work on the deeper layers of the skin like prescription retinoids do. You can find retinol in many OTC anti-aging skincare products.

Recap

Tretinoin belongs to a group of medications called retinoids, which are used as acne treatments and in anti-aging products. Retin-A Micro is a brand name for tretinoin. Retinol is an over-the-counter version of Retin-A.

Isotretinoin

Tretinoin and isotretinoin both are prescription medications used to treat acne. Both are derived from vitamin A. That's where their similarities stop.

Tretinoin is used topically to treat acne. Isotretinoin, better known by the now-defunct brand name Accutane, is an oral medication used to treat severe inflammatory acne. Tretinoin and isotretinoin are not interchangeable.

Summary

Retin-A is a brand name for the medication tretinoin. When a doctor prescribes Retin-A, the pharmacist may fill it with generic tretinoin since it's less expensive.

Both brand-name and generic tretinoin have the same effects, including keeping pores clear, softening fine lines, and fading discolorations.

Other medications have similar-sounding names to tretinoin. This includes retinol, which is an over-the-counter version of Retin-A. Isotretinoin is a prescription medication, and like tretinoin, it's derived from vitamin A. However, isotretinoin is an oral medication to treat severe acne, and it's not interchangeable with tretinoin.

A Word From Verywell

So many medications and brand names available have similar-sounding names. Some are completely interchangeable while others aren't, so it's important to keep them all straight.

Your best sources of information are the pros—your dermatologist and your pharmacist. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

If you've been prescribed one medication but are given another, it's OK to question it. Pharmacists are humans too, so mistakes, while exceedingly rare, can be made.

Also, ask your healthcare provider or dermatologist what to expect as you begin your Retin-A (tretinoin) treatment. You'll be prepared for any possible side effects and ready to get the best results from your tretinoin treatment.

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2 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.
  1. Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, Inc. RETIN-A® (tretinoin).

  2. Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5):945-73.e33. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.12.037

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