What is the difference between Retin-A and Retinoid?

Are you wondering what’s the difference between Retin-A and Retinoid, or if you’ve been prescribed Wrong acne medication? Drug names can be tricky. So when your healthcare provider or dermatologist says you’ll be using Retin-A but the pharmacist hands you a tube of retinoids, you’re confused.

This article discusses Retin-A and retinoic acid, and why one can be used in place of the other. It also covers other acne medications with similar names and how they compare to retinoids.

Retin-A and Retinoic Acid

Don’t worry, you’ve got the medicine you should have. Retin-A is the brand name for the drug retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the name of the active ingredient in brand-name medicines.

The Retin-A brand has become the most commonly used term when referring to topical retinoids. Many people alternate between Retin-A and tretinoin (even healthcare providers). It’s like how people use the brand name “Q-Tip” instead of the generic term “cotton swab”.

Universal Retinoic Acid

If your healthcare provider prescribed Retin-A, your pharmacist may prescribe generic tretinoin for you. This is because you will usually pay less with generic drugs than with brand-name drugs.

But don’t assume that generics are of poor quality or ineffective. All retinoic acid products work in the same way, by increasing the rate of cell turnover and keeping pores free from clogged or comedogenic.

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Retinoid medications also help soften fine lines, lighten dark spots and discoloration, and make your complexion look brighter and feel smoother.

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

Generic vs. Name Brand Acne Treatments

Medications containing retinoic acid

Many companies make topical tretinoin medications, so tretinoin is sold under many different names. In addition to Retin-A, some medicines that contain retinoids include:

  • Retin-A Micro
  • Avita
  • Renoir
  • Ziana (combination of retinoic acid and topical clindamycin)
  • Universal Retinoic Acid

more similar sounds

With so many ingredients in the skincare world that sound similar, it’s no wonder it’s confusing. How do topical retinoids, Retin-A Micro, retinol, and isotretinoin fit into the mix?


Retinoids are the drug group or class to which retinoids belong. Topical retinoids work by accelerating cell turnover, rapidly exfoliating the skin, and promoting new skin cells. They also help clear clogged pores and soften fine lines and wrinkles.

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

In addition to retinoids, other topical retinoids include Tazorac (tazarotene) and Differin (adapalene). To be precise, Differin is more closely described as a retinoid compound, but it works in the same way.

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Retin-A Micro

Retin-A and Retin-A Micro are both brand names for tretinoin. The biggest difference between the two drugs is how they deliver retinoids to your skin. Retin-A Micro delivers the drug more slowly over time, so it is less irritating than Retin-A.


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

It doesn’t act as fast as a prescription retinoid, nor does it work deeper into the skin like a prescription retinoid. You can find retinol in many OTC anti-aging skin care products.


Retinoids belong to a group of drugs called retinoids, which are used in acne treatment and anti-aging products. Retin-A Micro is the brand name for tretinoin. Retinol is the over-the-counter version of Retin-A.


Both tretinoin and isotretinoin are prescription medications used to treat acne. Both come from vitamin A. This is how they are similar.

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


Retin-A is the brand name for the drug retinoic acid. When doctors prescribe Retin-A, pharmacists may fill it with generic retinoids because it’s cheaper.

Both branded retinoids and regular retinoids have the same benefits, including keeping pores clear, softening fine lines and lightening dark spots.

Other drugs have similar names to retinoic acid. This includes retinol, which is an over-the-counter version of Retin-A. Isotretinoin is a prescription drug that, like tretinoin, is derived from vitamin A. However, isotretinoin is an oral medication for severe acne, and it is not interchangeable with tretinoin.

VigorTip words

So many available drugs and brand names have similar names. Some are completely interchangeable, while others are not, so it’s important to keep them exactly the same.

Your best sources of information are professionals – your dermatologist and pharmacist. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you were prescribed one drug but given another, question it. Pharmacists are human too, so mistakes can be made, although very rare.

Also, ask your healthcare provider or dermatologist what to expect when you start treatment with Retin-A (retinoic acid). You’ll be prepared for any possible side effects and ready to get the best out of your retinoid treatment.