Know Your Prescription Retinoids: The Differences between Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, Differin, and Tazorac

Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care


Hi! My question is, what is the difference between Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, Renova, Differin, and Tazorac?


Dear Lisa,

Prior to the development of Retin A in the 1970’s, dermatologists basically relied upon oral Vitamin A to help treat acne, and few topical treatments (if any) helped with signs of photoaging.  Then Retin A, an isomer of the vitamin A molecule, was developed.  Although it was originally used as an acne treatment, Retin-A has numerous applications now, including as an exfoliating agent and “keratolytic” agent (an agemt that removes a plug out of a hair follicle or sweat gland). After that, different delivery systems of tretinoin evolved, including microsponge (with Retin-A Micro) and emollient (with Renova). More recently, synthetic forms of tretinoin, including adapalene (Differin) and tazortene (Tazorac) were invented.  I go into more details about each below:

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(Tretinoin 0.01% Gel; 0.025% Gel; 0.025% Cream; 0.05% Liquid; 0.05% Cream; 0.1% Cream; 0.1% Micro Gel)

Retin-A is indicated for topical application in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Although the exact mechanism of action is unknown, Retin-A seems to act as a keratolytic agent by removing the plug from a clogged pore. It’s still the most widely prescribed retinoid.

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Retin-A Micro

Microsponge Retin-A Micro

(Tretinoin Gel 0.1%)

Retin-A Micro was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on February 7, 1997 for the treatment of acne vulgaris. What makes Retin-A Micro unique is the Microsponge® systems technology. The Microsponge® system prevents the accumulation of excessive medication within the surface layers of the skin. It’s pretty neat, actually:  each Microsponge® is less than one-thousandth of an inch in diameter, holding a small amount of tretinoin in reserve and introducing only small amounts of tretinoin to the skin over time. The Microsponge® is believed to be the reason why Retin-A Micro has higher efficacy and lower irritation rates than Retin-A. By contrast, other forms of retinoids may release active ingredients as soon as they are applied, producing a highly-concentrated layer that should absorb into the skin quickly, but which can accumulate in the skin over time. It’s my favorite for acne!



( 0.05% Cream; 0.025% Cream)

Of all the agents listed, only Renova is U.S. FDA-approved for the treatment of skin surface roughness following UV exposure.  Approved by the FDA in 1995, Renova is also clinically-proven to reduce fine facial wrinkles and fade brown spots. Clinical trial data suggests that the emollient system used in Renova is significantly better than Retin-A’s vehicle at minimizing irritancy, the main limiting factor when treating photodamaged skin with retinoids (Biomedical and Life Sciences).  This is because Renova contains an emollient delivery system, meaning that it softens and soothes the skin once it is absorbed. Renova is the best for aging skin, as it increases smoothness and decreases the level of tretinoin-based irritation.

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(Adapalene 0.1% Gel; 0.1% Solution)

Differin (adapalene) and Tazorac (tazarotene) are the two synthetic forms of tretinoin.  Adapalene, a derivative of napthoic acid, possesses similar biological properties of tretinoin, but has higher lipophilicity and increased photostability (i.e., stability in light). Unlike tretinoin, adapalene does not bind to proteins within the cell. Instead, adapalene only binds to specific receptors RAR-β and RAR-γ. Adapalene gel 0.1% has efficacy similar to 0.05% isotretinoin, yet with fewer side effects (British Journal of Dermatology). Its main unique offering is two-fold:

  1. Adapalene may be combined with oral doxycycline (a penicillin) to treat severe acne.  At 12 weeks, the combination has been shown to significantly reduce total, inflammatory, and non-inflammatory acne lesions (SKINmed).
  2. Adapalene is useful in the treatment of melasma, as proven in one study involving Thai patients (Cosmetic Dermatology).



(Tazarotene 0.1% Cream; 0.1% Gel; 0.05% Cream; 0.05% Gel)

Tazarotene is the first retinoid formulated for psoriasis.  It is also indicated for oily skin or severe blackhead form of acne, and still pending review for skin rejuvenation:  “There is limited evidence that tazarotene and isotretinoin benefit patients with moderate photodamage on the face: both are associated with skin irritation and erythema” (Evidence-Based Medicine).

Tazarotene is a prodrug that is metabolized to tazarotenic acid, its active form, within the skin.  Though tazarotene binds to all three retinoid receptors, tazarotene activates gene  RAR-β and RAR-γ.

Bottom Line

Here’s the thing:  All of these are only available by prescription, so if your dermatologist prescribes something other than what I have discussed above, remember to listen to him/her. It’s always best to listen to a licensed physician or aesthetician who is viewing your skin in person, particularly if s/he has seen you in the past!

To summarize:
Retin-A: Most commonly prescribed
Retin-A Micro: Arguably the best for acne
Renova: Best for smoothing skin, arguably the best for aging skin
Differin: Best for severe acne if combined with prescription doxycycline; best for melasma
Tazorac: Best for psoriasis

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop!

Updated 03/25/2015

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  • I just turned 53 and, although no one guesses me to be 53 years old, I starting using retin a cream 0.05% to remove my forehead expression lines which is little deeper, little fine wrinkles on my eyes and fine wrinkles here. When i go to sleep then i use to wash my face and use this cream. I am also thankfull to mydrugpill as well and there boosting blog…i got the prefect idea from there.

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    What is the strongest for Renova – 0.05 or 0.025? Or should I use Tretinoin 0.02, due to cost of Renova? For aging skin.

  • yvette

    I am an African American, peri menopausal and have oily acne prone skin. Initially my acne outbreaks were in the chin area only. But over the last couple of months I have had outbreaks all over my face to include black heads and cysts. My dermatologist prescribed Pan Oxyl wash along with Tazorac. For the first week, I was using it twice a day in combination with Retinol 1.0 at night. My face became extremely dry, wrinkly & red around my eye area and my entire face peeled horribly. I stopped using both the retinol and Tazorac for approximately 1 week. The peeling, dryness and wrinkles around my eye area subsided. However, my skin tone is uneven now around my mouth, chin & cheek area. Its darker around my mouth, chin & lower cheeks. Its as if it pealed completely in my cheek area where its lighter but didn’t completely peel around my chin, mouth and lower cheeks. I have resumed using Tazorac along with the Pan Oxyl wash. What can I do to even out my skin tone? Will the Tazorac eventually remove top layer of darker skin to catch up with the lighter areas? Would a chemical peel help or cause more damage?

    • Chris Joseph

      OMG. I do not know why you’re using two types of retinoid a.m. and p.m.

      Use either one. And use a gentle cleanser and gentle moisturizer. Spf in the a.m. seriously that’s all u need. Good luck.

  • jeny

    Can anyone tell me which product is best for pregnancy stretch mark removal. I have severe scars on my belly. Thanks in advance

  • John

    I’ve used atralin for 4 years. I immediately saw a change. I stopped tanning. I now have zero pimples and only one cyst every two months. My scaring is fading as well.

    Dr just rx tazorac. Will help reduce pore size and combat exema on ears.

    Please don’t give up with tretinoin. Any form! They always feel harsh at first. Atralin is super gentle. Even I couldn’t tolerate retin a micro.

    • Hi I just wondered if you were still using atralin! My Dr prescribed benzaclin and then when most of the acne was gone, she gave me atralin! I’m 40 so I wanted acne fighting and age fighting! I’m sooo scared to start atralin because I don’t wAnt to break out. Any input or updates.

  • Lindsay

    Doxycycline is NOT a penicillin. It is a tetracycline. It does not have a similar mechanism of action nor does is cover the same bacteria. Penicillins are not used for acne.

  • sondra varoli

    which is better retin A 0.1% or lifecell cream over the counter?

    • sondra varoli

      i am waityng your answer which is better to remove wrinkles over the counter lifecell or retin A 0.1%?

    • Chris Joseph

      Mate a drs medication will always be superior for results.

  • @Bon

    I can see how this can be confusing. Tretinoin is the chemical name of the active ingredient used in brand-name prescription retinoid products, including Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Renova (as stated in the post)! So what you’ve been using for 15 years, Renova, actually contains 0.02% tretinoin in a cream base. So your dermatologist switching you to what I’m assuming is generic 0.02% tretinoin, should be almost if not exactly identical to what you’ve been using. So rest assured!

    Bottom line: Renova = brand name; tretinoin = chemical name. Renova contains 0.02% tretinoin.

  • Bon

    Hi…..I have used Renova for @ 15 years for residual effects from uv damage as I have celtic type skin, with great results….However, it went from a no charge with my former insurance to $140.00 with my present insurance as it is now considered more cosmetic than clinical….My dermatologist prescribed Trentonoin instead….I am 63 and do not nor ever had acne….What will Trentinoin do beneficial foy my condition? Thank you

  • Hi Nicki-
    Where would Atralin fall in these comparisons?

  • josephine

    2 questions: Retin A, Retin A Micro, Renova is all Tretinoin. Retin A is released immediately thus more irritating. Retin A Micro is released slower therefore less irritating. Retin A Micro has higher efficacy because it’s released slower?? Also, I’m confused about accumulation over time. Good or not? Retin A is released faster and accumulates over time. Retin A Micro releases slower but still accumulates over time?

  • angela

    Great post!! From everything I’ve read or been told by my derms, though not stated, Tazorac is just as effective as Tretinoin, the difference being that one is synthetic & one isn’t plus their differences in receptors & gene activators which you discuss in your post. Guess I’ll wait for more research since Tretinoin appears to be the only one approved for anti-aging. I’m wondering if you can find something beyond the EBM published back in 2004? Also, there is Avage from Allergan = Tazorac: I’m a huge fan of both Tretinoin and Tazarotene and also of Tri-Luma. It’s great to know the differences. Thanks for your post 🙂

  • I’ve read that Renova can clog pores because of the emollient ingredients. I’d like to use it for its less-irritating, anti-aging benefits, but I don’t want to start seeing more zits. Is this true?

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