January 27, 2022
5 min. read

What Is Tretinoin Cream? Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects



If you’re serious about skincare, chances are you’ve heard of the retinoid tretinoin cream. Tretinoin is the generic name for synthetic vitamin A, and is used to treat acne and other skin conditions when applied topically. While it can’t be used to treat deep wrinkles, it can be used to improve the surface wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots.

But there are a few things to consider before using this product. From drug interactions to allergies and side effects, you’ll get better results if you’re well-informed about how to apply and use tretinoin. 

What is tretinoin? 

Tretinoin is a prescription-strength topical cream or gel that is mainly used to treat acne, sun-damaged skin, and fine wrinkles. It’s commonly sold as a cream, but it’s also available as a liquid solution, gel, and jelly. How tretinoin works is not completely understood, but it’s thought to speed up the life cycle of cells by irritating the skin and triggering turnover. This irritation is thought to make skin cells divide and die faster, so newer, healthier skin cells can take their place. Tretinoin is sold under a number of brand names, including Atralin, Avita, Refissa, Renova, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Tretin-X. 

Tretinoin Cream

What is the difference between tretinoin and retinol? 

Compounds that are derived from vitamin A are called retinoids, and both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids. While they are both topical skin care products that promote rapid exfoliation, there are a few key differences between them.  

Retinol is: 

  • a natural form of vitamin A
  • milder and less irritating to sensitive skin
  • available without a prescription
  • found in many over-the-counter cosmetics and skin care products

Tretinoin is: 

  • a synthetic version of vitamin A
  • stronger than retinol
  • only available with a prescription
  • not as well tolerated by sensitive skin

If you’ve used a non-prescription retinol and would like to try something stronger, you might consider asking your doctor about tretinoin. 

Tretinoin Cream Uses

What is tretinoin used for? 

Research shows that tretinoin is effective in: 

Should I take any special precautions before using tretinoin? 

Talk to your doctor about your specific skin condition before using tretinoin. Let them know if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding; it is unclear if tretinoin is safe to use during those times. You’ll also want to mention if your job requires you to spend a lot of time in the sun, and tell them about any allergies you may have and any medications you are currently taking, including anything you put on your skin. 

How should tretinoin be used? 

Your prescription tretinoin should come with instructions; make sure to read and follow these carefully. Do not use more of the product or use it more often, as doing so can irritate the skin. In most cases, tretinoin is used daily at bedtime. This is because direct sun exposure can reduce the effectiveness of tretinoin, meaning you’ll get less significant results if you apply it shortly before you go out in direct sunlight. Tretinoin can also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be sure to use a broad spectrum sunscreen in the mornings as well. 

Before applying the cream, wash your face carefully and remove all makeup. After washing, wait twenty to thirty minutes before gently applying the cream to specific areas of your face. Avoid your eyes, mouth, nose, and other mucous membranes when applying the cream. Wash your hands after applying. 

What is Tretinoin Cream

How long does it take to see results? 

If you’re using tretinoin to treat acne, it’s important to know that it won’t cure the condition, but it will control breakouts. In some cases, tretinoin can actually make acne worsen during the first 7–10 days of treatment, resulting in red, scaling skin, and increased pimples. Eventually, however, you may start to see your acne disappear, usually between two to three weeks, though sometimes it can take six weeks or longer to see results.  

Are there side effects to using tretinoin? 

Tretinoin is likely to irritate your skin during the first few weeks of use, as your skin gets used to the product. Normally, you’ll experience a moderate amount of redness, dryness, peeling and itchiness. Stop using this product and talk to your doctor if the irritation doesn’t improve within a few weeks, or if you experience any of the following: 

  • persistent or worsening irritation
  • blistering, crusting
  • swelling
  • excessive redness
  • temporary change in skin pigmentation

If you’re looking for a prescription-strength acne treatment, or want to lessen the look of some fine lines and wrinkles, it could be a good idea to talk to your doctor about tretinoin. After the first few weeks of irritation, you just may see smoother, healthier skin—if you use tretinoin properly and take the correct precautions. Talk to your provider today to see if tretinoin is right for you. 


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