Tretinoin is a vitamin-A derivative that can be used in a skincare routine to treat acne.
Tretinoin cream works on all types of acne by reducing inflammation and boosting cell turnover to keep pores clear of severe acne-causing bacteria, oil, and grime.
Tretinoin can be an excellent way to eliminate clogged or irritated pores in rough skin, keeping your skin clear of the pimples, redness, and inflammation that accompany acne and may lead to acne scars.
You’ll need a prescription in order to use tretinoin to treat acne. If you want to incorporate this skincare dynamo into your acne-fighting regimen, The Pill Club can help set you up with a prescription.
Tretinoin for Acne
In life, there are some things you grow out of, like your pre-teen wardrobe, butterfly hair clips, or middle school crush on Harry Styles. Some things grow with you, like your best friends, your passions, that crush on Harry Styles (it happens), and sometimes, acne. If you’re looking to put acne in the past with topical antibiotics, you might have heard about tretinoin.
Tretinoin is a type of vitamin A-derived retinoid, a compound that controls and regulates the growth of your skin cells. It can be used as an effective treatment for acne, particularly acne vulgaris (the most common form of acne).
You’ll need a prescription to start using tretinoin for your skin condition, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with this facial acne formula ahead of time. In this guide, we’ll take a look at what tretinoin can treat, who should use it, and what to expect if you integrate it into your skincare regimen.
Is tretinoin good for acne?
Tretinoin may be used to treat skin conditions like photoaging and wrinkles, but it’s most commonly used as an acne treatment for acne breakouts.
Here are some benefits of using tretinoin for acne:
Lessened appearance of acne and redness
More even texture and skin tone
Reduced fine lines and signs of aging such as dark spots or uneven skin tone
Improvements in the appearance of sun damage and dry skin
All said tretinoin can be an excellent solution to address both cosmetic and physical discomforts associated with acne and improve the overall condition of your skin.
How does tretinoin work to treat acne?
From a cellular perspective, tretinoin works on several fronts to rebalance your skin. But first, let’s understand how acne works.
Acne 101 and tretinoin
Acne happens on a microscopic level. Without breaking out your magnifying glass, here is how acne occurs:
All over your skin, you have what are called hair follicles. This is where hair strands are rooted—even the small hairs you can’t detect with the naked eye that cover your skin.
Excess oil, bacteria, and/or debris from dead skin cells can accumulate in the follicle, clogging it. This prevents healthy hair growth.
Your skin does not like being clogged. As a reaction to the clog, the follicle becomes irritated and inflamed.
The final result? Whiteheads, blackheads, pustules, and every other reddish bump under the sun that we know as acne.
So how does tretinoin fit into all of this?
With regular use, tretinoin can help to:
Reduce inflammation, which occurs when the follicle is irritated and can result in those angry red blemishes.
Increases cell turnover, which helps to clear out your follicles and prevent follicular congestion.
Reduces excessive hair growth, because sometimes, excessive hair growth leads to blocked follicles and thus, pimples.
As a bonus, the cell turnover in treated skin caused by tretinoin can boost your skin’s collagen, which helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles to keep your skin smooth and youthful.
Who should use tretinoin for acne treatment?
For acne treatment, tretinoin is suitable for teenage acne and adult acne. But be sure to get the go-ahead from your healthcare provider before adding this treatment to your skincare routine. If tretinoin isn’t for you, there is also clindamycin for acne as a possible treatment.
Additionally, there are a few key scenarios where you may not want to use tretinoin for acne:
If you’re sunburned – It’s always best to use caution with topical skin medications when you have a sunburn. Tretinoin and other acne treatments can cause burning or pain when applied to scorched skin. Furthermore, skin treated with tretinoin is often more sensitive to sunlight. Take your tretinoin regimen as an opportunity to boost your SPF routine and apply it whenever you’re spending time outdoors.
If you have preexisting skin conditions – If you have dandruff or eczema, you may find tretinoin aggravates these conditions. Additionally, if you tend to have dry or super-sensitive skin, you should consult your healthcare provider to discuss other options for acne treatment.
If you’re pregnant – There is no conclusive evidence to suggest using tretinoin will adversely impact your growing baby. However, orally-ingested tretinoin has been known to result in severe side effects and may be absorbed by babies in-utero. Dermatologists haven’t reached a consensus on how vulnerable unborn babies are to tretinoin through topical maternal use. That said, it’s best for pregnant individuals to consult with their health care team before using tretinoin for acne.
Lastly, jumping into a tretinoin protocol may mean you have to switch up the rest of your skincare regimen.
When using tretinoin, it is important to know that combining tretinoin with other acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can cause inflammation. Be sure to check your routine with your health care provider ahead of time.
How to use tretinoin for acne
Every topical medication that uses tretinoin for acne is different. Some common types of topical tretinoin are:
Furthermore, the dosage of tretinoin in individual acne medicines are often different. Topical solutions typically use 0.04%, 0.08%, and 0.1% dosages. As a side note, the concentration of tretinoin may affect instructions for use. When in doubt, always stick to the instructions provided on your leaflet or the label, unless your health care provider advises otherwise.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when using tretinoin acne medications:
Tretinoin works best at night when your body is in a state of rest and has minimal sun exposure. Apply it before bedtime and try not to touch your face too much.
Tretinoin isn’t usually used as a spot treatment. Your healthcare provider will likely recommend you apply a thin layer over the entire affected area (typically your whole face).
Do not apply tretinoin close to your mouth, eyes, or around the periphery of your nose. Likewise, never use tretinoin around any bodily cavities. If you ever get tretinoin medication near one of these areas, flush with water immediately.
Now that you know the basics for using tretinoin for acne, let’s discuss the best practices for use.
Best practices on using tretinoin
Thinking of trying tretinoin in your acne-fighting skincare ritual? Before you come home with your first product, let’s review how to use tretinoin for acne.
Here are some guidelines to help you use this acne medication safely and effectively:
Start with a clean face – Always clean your skin before applying tretinoin. Wash and moisturize as you normally would, but don’t use exfoliants, scrubs, or washcloths before your tretinoin treatment. If you typically include these steps in your regimen, hold off until your skin becomes accustomed to the new product then reincorporate them sparingly. Tretinoin causes cell turnover all on its own, so exfoliates may do more harm than good.
Wait 30 minutes – Wait 20-30 minutes for your moisturizer to sink in before applying tretinoin. Using this medication when your skin is moist or wet can aggravate it (plus, you won’t be able to apply it as evenly anyway).
Start small – When it comes to tretinoin, a little goes a long way. Gels, lotions, and creams with tretinoin only require a pea-sized amount to get the job done. If you’re using tretinoin in liquid form, use a small amount on your fingertips or a cotton pad. You can always apply more if you don’t reach all affected areas of your face.
When you’re finished, give your hands a good wash to avoid any inadvertent contact with your eyes, mouth, or other vulnerable areas of your body.
Is tretinoin safe to use for acne?
Topical tretinoin treatments are a safe way to treat various forms of acne in adults, teenagers, and even (under the supervision of a provider) children. You may notice some initial irritation in the first three weeks of use, but symptoms usually dissipate thereafter.
That said, be extra careful to keep your acne treatment away from your nose and mouth during application to avoid toxicity.
How effective is tretinoin?
Very. Some users may see even better results than your standard over-the-counter acne solutions.
Tretinoin is an exceptionally effective solution for the treatment of acne, but it takes consistency to see real results. It typically takes around 12 weeks to notice changes in your acne. With commitment and proper use, many tretinoin users see transformative changes to their skin.
What are the potential side effects of using tretinoin for acne?
As with any medication, there are some side effects of tretinoin to be aware of. The most common ones are:
Dermatitis (Irritation) – Dermatitis is a general dermatological term for a rash. Patients can develop erythema (redness) irritation, peeling, and dry or itchy skin after using tretinoin. If you experience dermatitis in response to topical tretinoin, you should stop treatment. Your symptoms may continue for up to three months after you stop treatment, but the effects tend to be mildly uncomfortable to barely noticeable.
Pruritus (Itchiness) – The hallmark sign of pruritus is itching. In some cases, pruritus does not appear to have any visible counterparts typically associated with skin irritation, like redness or flaking. That said, pruritus can become uncomfortable, so you should stop or reduce your tretinoin protocol if you develop an intense need to scratch.
Photosensitivity – Photosensitivity refers to a tendency of the skin to be aggravated by sunlight (and UV rays, specifically). In some cases, tretinoin may hyper-sensitize your skin to sunlight. This is one reason why most treatment protocols require you to use tretinoin before you go to bed.
Potential allergy – It’s always possible to discover you have an allergy to topical acne medications. While allergies to tretinoin itself are extremely rare, some people’s skin may be irritated by creams used to treat the skin. If you exhibit signs of an allergy—such as swollen, itchy, flaky, and tender skin—speak with your prescriber. You may be able to use a different formula and still reap the acne-fighting benefits of tretinoin.
Tretinoin for acne recap
All in all, there’s a reason why tretinoin has garnered a lot of hype in the past few years.
This vitamin A-derivative holds its own as a powerful evidence-backed solution to acne in adults and teenagers alike. To get ahold of tretinoin acne treatments, you’ll need a prescription—but (fortunately) there are affordable resources available to set you up with one.
At The Pill Club, we believe reproductive health care is just plain health care. Through our subscription service, we provide:
Prescription fulfillment services
Monthly deliveries of the medications
Our team of clinicians, pharmacists, and care providers is on call to hook you up with the medications you need, from tretinoin treatments to birth control.
Whether you get coverage through insurance or enroll in an affordable plan with us, it’s our mission to give you access to the tools you need to take care of you. Learn more and sign up today at The Pill Club.
Reviewed By: Jessica Barra, FNP - Family Nurse Practitioner
At The Pill Club, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Articles are written by experienced contributors; they are grounded in research and evidence-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and extensively reviewed by our team of experts to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.