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Tretinoin vs. Retin-A: What's The Difference?

If you’ve searched online for information about treating acne or reducing wrinkles, you’ve likely seen recommendations for two medications: tretinoin and Retin-A®.

Tretinoin is a topical skin care medication. It belongs to a class of medications called retinoids and is used as a prescription treatment for acne, fine wrinkles, discoloration and other signs of aging that can affect your skin.

Although they have different names, tretinoin and Retin-A both contain exactly the same active ingredient — tretinoin. 

They’re both equally effective, and both are great options if you’re aiming to treat acne breakouts or slow down the effects of aging on your skin. 

Below, we’ve discussed what tretinoin and Retin-A are, as well as how tretinoin works as a skin care medication.

We’ve also explained how you can use generic tretinoin or brand name Retin-A to reduce acne, fine lines, wrinkles and other skin issues. 

What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin and Retin-A?

Tretinoin and Retin-A are essentially the same thing. Tretinoin is an active ingredient that’s sold as a generic medication for treating acne and skin aging. 

Retin-A is simply a brand name that’s used to market a range of topical skin care medications that contain tretinoin.

Retin-A comes in cream or gel form and is manufactured by Bausch Health Companies Inc. It’s marketed specifically as a treatment for acne vulgaris, or simply acne. 

As a topical cream, Retin-A is available in a variety of different strengths, from 0.025% tretinoin to 0.1% tretinoin. Retin-A topical gel is only available with 0.025% and 0.01% tretinoin.

Another version of Retin-A, called Retin-A Micro®, uses a microsphere formula and is available in 0.04%, 0.08% and 0.1% strengths.

Generic tretinoin is sold under a variety of brand names. It’s available as a lotion, cream and as a topical gel. Like brand name Retin-A, generic tretinoin comes in several strengths, from mild 

In addition to Retin-A, other brand names used for tretinoin include Altinac®, Altreno®, Atralin®, Avita®, Refissa®, Renova® and Tretin X®. 

Tretinoin is also available in combination skin care products, such as Solage (which contains a combination of mequinol and tretinoin), Veltin® (clindamycin and tretinoin), Ziana® (clindamycin and tretinoin) and Tri-Luma (fluocinolone, hydroquinone and tretinoin).

All forms of tretinoin, whether they’re marketed under a brand name or as a generic medication, require a prescription. 

Since generic tretinoin and Retin-A contain the same active ingredient, neither is better than the other. 

How Retinoids Work

Tretinoin, or all-trans-retinoic acid, belongs to a class of skin medications referred to as topical retinoids. Other topical retinoids include adapalene, tazarotene and retinol (vitamin A).

Retinoids work by stimulating the production of new skin cells, peeling away old, dead skin and unclogging the hair follicles, or pores, which can become blocked during acne breakouts.

Some retinoids, such as tretinoin, have also been found to prevent the degradation of collagen, an important structural protein that gives your skin its strength and smooth texture. 

Because of their ability to prevent clogged pores, topical retinoids have long been used to treat acne breakouts. 

Thanks to their effects on skin structure, they’re also commonly used to treat the effects of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and age spots.

Our Tretinoin 101 guide goes into more detail about the science behind how tretinoin works as an acne treatment and as an anti-aging medication. 

Does Tretinoin Cure Acne?

Tretinoin doesn’t cure acne. However, when it’s used on a consistent basis, it can get rid of mild to moderate acne and prevent breakouts from coming back. 

Over the years, countless studies have looked at the effects of tretinoin as a treatment for acne breakouts. 

In a large-scale study published in the journal Cutis in 2009, researchers compared the effects of two topical tretinoin products — one a 0.05% tretinoin gel and the other a 0.01% tretinoin gel microsphere 0.1% — with a non-therapeutic placebo.

Over the course of 12 weeks, more than 1,500 people with mild to moderate acne were treated with the tretinoin products or the placebo. 

At the end of the study, the researchers found that both forms of tretinoin reduced acne lesions and improved the participants’ skin.

Other research has produced similar findings, with a 2017 review article describing tretinoin and other topical retinoids as a “mainstay of therapy for acne.”

As an acne treatment, tretinoin doesn’t produce overnight results. However, when it’s applied to acne-prone skin on a consistent basis, it can produce a significant, noticeable reduction in acne over the course of three to six months. 

Tretinoin vs. Other Retinoids

Tretinoin is one of several topical retinoids used to treat acne and skin aging. Other well-known retinoids used in skin care include:

  • Adapalene. Adapalene is another topical retinoid that’s used to treat mild and moderate acne. Adapalene is less likely to cause some side effects than tretinoin, meaning it may be a good option for people with sensitive skin.Adapalene is available in several strengths, including a 0.1% version that’s sold over the counter and a stronger 0.3% prescription version. It’s often sold under the brand name Differin®.

  • Tazarotene. Tazarotene is a prescription retinoid that’s used to treat acne, psoriasis and age-related skin issues, such as wrinkles and discoloration. It’s available under several brand names, including Avage®, Fabior®, Tazorac® and Duobrii®.

  • Retinol. Retinol is a milder retinoid that’s used in many anti-aging creams, serums and other topical products available over the counter. It’s less potent than tretinoin, but also less likely to cause skin irritation and other side effects.

What to Know Before Using Tretinoin

Although tretinoin is effective, it won’t get rid of acne immediately. To get the best results, you’ll need to use tretinoin on a consistent basis for several months.

As we’ve covered in our guide to how long you should use tretinoin for acne, noticeable results from tretinoin usually occur after about three months of daily use.

During your first few weeks of using tretinoin, you may start to notice that your acne breakouts look worse than before. This is referred to as the tretinoin “purge,” and it’s a normal, temporary side effect of tretinoin.

During the tretinoin purge, you may develop dry skin, skin irritation, peeling and more extensive acne breakouts than normal.

Other potential side effects of tretinoin include a warm, stinging sensation, flaky or scaly skin at the treatment area, lightening or darkening of the skin and swelling, blistering or crusting.

Make sure to let your healthcare provider know if you experience any severe or persistent side effects while using tretinoin. 

They may suggest switching to a lower-strength form of tretinoin or making changes to the way you use your skin care medication.  

When you’re applying tretinoin to your face, make sure to avoid sensitive skin near your mouth, eyes or nostrils. 

Apply tretinoin away from these areas and take care to ensure tretinoin doesn’t get into your eyes, ears, mouth or other external body orifices.

It’s also important to note that tretinoin can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.

To avoid sunburn, try to minimize the amount of time you spend in bright sunlight. You can keep your skin protected from UV radiation by applying a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen before you spend time outdoors in sunny weather.

Our guide to sun exposure with tretinoin and retinol provides more information on how you can keep your skin protected from sun damage while using topical retinoids.

Tretinoin vs Retin-A

From a practical standpoint, tretinoin and Retin-A are essentially the same thing. Tretinoin refers to the active ingredient tretinoin, which is used to treat acne and skin aging. 

Retin-A is a specific brand name that’s used to market creams and gels that contain tretinoin.

If you’re prescribed topical tretinoin and receive Retin-A at your local pharmacy, there’s no need to worry. Both medications contain the same active ingredient and work in exactly the same way as acne and anti-aging treatments. 

You can access tretinoin with our Customized Acne Cream or Anti-Aging Cream, both of which contain tretinoin with other science-based active ingredients to fight acne and skin aging. 

You can also learn more about how tretinoin fits into a well-rounded skin care routine in our full guide to building an effective skin care routine for men

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.