What to Expect When Treating Acne with Tretinoin

Topical tretinoin can be both a short-term solution and a long-term treatment option for clearing up active acne breakouts. While it’s often effective, it’s not for everyone. Topical tretinoin is a generic form of the acne medication retin a cream. In the United States, purchasing topical tretinoin requires a prescription. The only retinoid medication that can be purchased over the counter (OTC) is adapalene (Differin).

Tretinoin is usually used for hard-to-clear blemishes on your skin. Keep reading to find out what you should know before trying to treat your acne with tretinoin.

Benefits of using tretinoin for acne

Tretinoin is a retinoid, meaning it’s a form of vitamin A. Retinoids stimulate cell turnover on your skin. Dead skin cells are cleared off your skin more quickly as new skin cells rise to the surface. Quicker cell turnover opens your pores, releasing trapped bacteria or irritants that are causing your acne.

Retinoids such as tretinoin also help your skin to regulate its natural oil (sebum) production, which can prevent future breakouts. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, which clear up active acne pustules.

Tretinoin for wrinkles

Tretinoin has been studied extensively for its impact on the visible symptoms of ageing. Tretinoin 0.1 cream has demonstrated both short-term and long-term effects on the appearance of wrinkles. That’s why tretinoin is a popular ingredient in many OTC face and eye creams.

Tretinoin for acne scars

Tretinoin can also be used to decrease the appearance of acne scarring. Since tretinoin speeds up cell turnover on your skin, it can encourage new cell growth at the site of your scarring. Tretinoin in several forms has been tested successfully as an effective way to treat acne scars. Tretinoin is also sometimes used to prep skin for chemical peel treatments that target scarring.

Tretinoin side effects

Using tretinoin for acne can cause side effects. Not everyone will experience all of the side effects, and some may be more severe than others. Possible side effects include:

  • burning or itching skin
  • peeling or redness on your skin
  • unusual dryness of your skin
  • your skin feels warm to the touch
  • your skin turns a lighter colour at the spot where tretinoin was used

It can take up to 12 weeks to see results from using tretinoin for acne. If your skin seems irritated by using it, check with a doctor or healthcare professional to see if your symptoms are within the range of what’s normal for OTC tretinoin.

Tretinoin isn’t recommended for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. When you’re using tretinoin, be extra careful about your exposure to the sun. Due to skin cell turnover and decreased sebum, the skin can be sun sensitive for the first few weeks or longer, making it more prone to sun damage and sunburn.

Make sure you wear sunscreen whenever you’re going outside, and consider additional preventive measures, such as wearing a hat with a brim. If you feel like you’re having an allergic reaction or experiencing serious side effects from tretinoin, stop using it and get medical attention immediately.

Drug interactions

Other topical acne medications can interact with tretinoin and irritate your skin or aggravate side effects, such as a burning sensation on your skin.

Unless they’re part of a plan you’ve discussed with a doctor, avoid using other topical skin treatments (such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, as well as products containing sulphur) while using tretinoin. Also, avoid products that dry your skin, such as astringents and cleansers that contain alcohol.

How to use tretinoin for acne

If you want to use tretinoin to treat acne, start by choosing a Tretinoin cream or tretinoin A Ret Gel that has a low amount (tretinoin cream 0.025) of the active ingredient tretinoin. If needed, you can work up to higher amounts as your skin becomes accustomed to the treatment.

To apply tretinoin safely and effectively:

  1. Clean your skin with warm water and pat dry before using any topical acne medication. Wash your hands before applying any cream or lotion to your face. Wait a few minutes to make sure your skin is completely dry before you use the medication.
  2. Apply just enough of the medication to lightly cover the affected area. You don’t need to build a thick layer of the medication on your face. A dime-size amount of the medication should be enough to spread across your whole face.
  3. Using the tips of your fingers, spread the medication away from sensitive areas such as your eyes, nostrils, and lips. Rub the cream or gel into your face lightly and let it absorb completely.

For the best results, apply tretinoin once at bedtime. This way, it can absorb completely into your skin while you sleep and interact less with sunlight. It’s best not to apply makeup in the hours immediately following this treatment.

If, after 8 to 12 weeks, you don’t see any improvement in your skin, speak with a dermatologist (a skin doctor) about prescription-strength tretinoin or other treatment options.

When first using tretinoin to treat acne, you may experience redness, scaling, and irritation. After consistent use, you should start to see fewer acne lesions and an improved appearance.


Tretinoin is an effective long-term treatment for acne. While it won’t work for everyone, studies show that it encourages cell turnover that can even your skin tone, treat breakouts, and decrease the appearance of acne scarring.

Tretinoin can aggravate acne in the initial weeks of treatment, but after a few weeks, you should see results.

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