Tretinoin for Acne

Tretinoin commonly called ‘Retin-A’ is a combination of vitamin A and retinoic acids. It is available as gels, creams and liquids of varying strengths and is used for treating various skin conditions like acne, wrinkles, damage to the skin due to the sun and such. Tretinoin for acne is said to clear pores by unclogging hair follicles. It provides other benefits to those who suffer from acne. This is a prescription medication. 

How should it be used?

Wash affected areas with non-medicated soap or a mild cleanser and pat dry with a soft towel. Apply the medication over the treatment areas about 20-30 minutes after washing. To minimize skin peeling and redness, use tretinoin products every alternate day until the skin gets used to it and then used as required.

When using the gel or cream, apply a thin layer and rub it in gently. Do not rub vigorously. A tiny pea-sized quantity can cover the entire face. When using liquid tretinoin, use a cotton swab, gauze pad or tips of fingers, take a little solution and dab on affected areas. Do not use too much solution for it can run into unaffected areas which need not be treated. Wash hands after using tretinoin and use it daily at night. 

Benefits of Tretinoin

Tretinoin for acne helps by unplugging hair follicles blocked by excess sebum, dirt and debris. It clears pores. It reduces inflammation caused by acne and increases the rate at which skin cells on the surface are replaced. Studies performed on ‘Retin-A Micro’ a specific acne treatment demonstrates a reduction of 32%-45% in acne lesions.

When tretinoin is applied, skin irritation occurs and this results in skin cells growing and dying quickly, therefore causing increased cell turnover. In acne patients, new cells can replace cells with pimples. Rapid cell turnover prevents new acne from forming. 

Oral or topical retinoids can also reduce acne scar formation. Oral retinoids can treat three aspects of acne formation – oil production, inflammation and P.acnes bacteria that causes inflammatory acne. Topical retinoids are often part of an overall acne regimen. 

Limitations and possible side effects of Tretinoin

When using tretinoin products for acne, you will first see a worsening of conditions before they improve. Combining it with other tretinoin for acnemedications can produce skin irritation. Several side effects – some serious – must be noted and sufficient precautions taken. 

Side effects

Common side effects of tretinoin for acne are:

  • Chapping and peeling of the skin
  • Redness
  • Warm skin
  • Stinging or burning sensation
  • Dry skin
  • Itching
  • Scaling
  • Sun sensitivity

These symptoms are usually mild and need no medical intervention. Your doctor will tell you ways to minimize them without further medications.

When these above symptoms become severe, if you develop lightening of the skin in treated areas or excessive darkening of the skin (very rare), you must inform your doctor. All these side effects usually disappear once tretinoin is stopped. Changes to the skin color may take a few months to disappear. Some animal studies have found that skin tumors develop when the treated areas are exposed to excess UV rays. This is why special precautions must be followed when getting exposed to sunlight or harsh lights when using tretinoin for acne.


Topical tretinoin for acne could affect pregnant women and doctors will decide if it is safe for them to use. Similarly, it is not known if topical tretinoin can enter breast milk of nursing mothers and harm their babies. Usually oral tretinoin is not prescribed during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Abrasive cleansers and soaps, skin waxing products, astringents and other strong skin products must not be used along with tretinoin for they can aggravate skin irritation. Protect yourself from increased sun sensitivity by avoiding other medications that cause it.

This medication must not be used on open wounds or on sun burnt and wind burnt skin. It must not be used inside the nose, near the eyes or mouth. If any medication enters any of these areas wash immediately. Read all patient directions carefully before using tretinoin. Overexposure to sun, cold weather and wind must be avoided when using tretinoin. Use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or more when going out. Combine this with protective clothing like hats. Do not share this medication with anyone.

Drug interaction and Storage

There are no specific dietary instructions to follow when using tretinoin for acne unless your doctor suggests it. Inform your doctor about any allergic reactions you may have to all retinoids. You must also inform him about all antibiotics, nutritional supplements, vitamins, herbal products, calcium channel blockers, oral steroids, vitamin A supplements, ketoconazole etc., which you may be taking. These medications may react adversely when using tretinoin and your doctor may stop them or adjust the dosage.

Storage Instructions

Tretinoin must be stored in its original packing away from heat, light and moisture and out of reach of children and pets. Medication that has expired or it is not needed any longer must be disposed off in the right way. 


Tretinoin is an effective topical retinoid that treats mild – moderately severe acne. This natural vitamin A derivative can be used as a critical part of overall acne treatment regimen. Side effects like sun sensitivity and skin irritation can be reduced by using proper precautions. Use this medication only if it is prescribed by your dermatologist.