Skip to main content

Tretinoin, a derivative of Vitamin A and a member of the retinoid family, has revolutionized the skincare industry. Considered the “gold standard” in dermatology, tretinoin offers a potent solution for a myriad of skin concerns, from acne and hyperpigmentation to combating signs of aging. With its ability to accelerate skin cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and refine skin texture, tretinoin has earned a reputation as a skincare game-changer backed by scientific study. Delve into the science behind tretinoin, its benefits, some precautions to consider, and best practices for incorporating it into a comprehensive skincare routine, by reading more below.

The Science Behind Tretinoin

Tretinoin, also known as all-trans retinoic acid or its brand-name Retin-A, is a potent topical retinoid derived from Vitamin A. It effectively addresses skin concerns like acne, photoaging, and hyperpigmentation by binding to specific retinoic acid receptors (RARs) in the skin.

The history of tretinoin in skincare dates back to the 1960s. Renowned dermatologist Dr. Albert Kligman played a pivotal role in conducting groundbreaking studies that showcased tretinoin’s ability to manage acne lesions and improve skin texture. Subsequent research further unveiled its exceptional anti-aging properties, solidifying tretinoin’s status as a widely recognized and extensively prescribed “gold standard” in skincare. In 1971, tretinoin became the first retinoid approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a topical treatment for acne.

Tretinoin’s efficacy lies in its regulation of gene expression, which promotes skin cell turnover and collagen production, leading to reduced acne and improved skin texture.

Tretinoin vs. Other Retinoids

Tretinoin is a form of retinoid. Retinoids encompass a diverse group of compounds derived from Vitamin A that offer a range of skincare benefits. In addition to tretinoin, some common types of retinoids include retinol, retinaldehyde, oral isotretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene. Each retinoid varies in terms of potency, formulation, and specific effects on the skin.

Many retinoids used in skincare are considered prodrugs, meaning they require conversion to retinoic acid within the skin to exert their effects.

Comparison of Tretinoin with Other Retinoids

Tretinoin, or all-trans retinoic acid, is known for its high potency and direct binding to retinoic acid receptors (RARs) in the skin. It does not require further conversion to retinoic acid, as it is already in the active form. This direct interaction with RARs leads to significant regulation of gene expression, promoting enhanced skin cell turnover and increased collagen production, resulting in a range of skincare benefits, including acne management and anti-aging effects.

Other popular retinoids include:

Retinol: Considered a less potent retinoid, retinol needs to undergo two enzymatic conversions within the skin to become retinoic acid. This multi-step conversion process can slow down the overall efficacy of retinol compared to tretinoin. It’s available over-the-counter.

Retinaldehyde: One step closer to retinoic acid than retinol, retinaldehyde requires only one enzymatic conversion. While it is more efficient than retinol, it is still not as potent as tretinoin due to the remaining conversion step.

Adapalene, another retinoid commonly used for acne treatment, is already in its active form. It binds to different RARs than tretinoin, and while it is effective for acne, it may not be as potent for general anti-aging like tretinoin.

Tazarotene is also in its active form and requires no conversion to retinoic acid. It binds to RARs similarly to tretinoin and exhibits potent anti-acne and anti-aging effects, making it one of the most effective retinoids available.

Isotretinoin is an oral retinoid used primarily for severe acne treatment. It works by reducing sebum production, inhibiting the growth of acne-causing bacteria, and decreasing inflammation. Isotretinoin is highly effective in treating severe and persistent acne that has not responded well to other treatments. However, due to its potent nature, it can have significant side effects and requires close monitoring by a healthcare professional.

Choosing the Right Retinoid for Your Skin

Selecting the most effective retinoid depends on your skincare goals and skin sensitivity. If you want potent anti-aging benefits and acne management, tretinoin and tazarotene offer the highest efficacy due to their direct binding to RARs. However, people with sensitive skin may find over-the-counter retinol or retinaldehyde more suitable, as they are milder and less likely to cause irritation. Understanding the conversion process of retinoids to retinoic acid can help you choose the most effective retinoid for your skincare routine.

Benefits of Tretinoin for Different Skin Concerns

Tretinoin, often referred to as “the gold standard” in skincare, offers a multitude of benefits for various skin concerns. Not only does it effectively reduce visible signs of aging, but it also addresses hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and acne while promoting smoother skin tone and texture.

Tretinoin for Hyperpigmentation and Melasma

Tretinoin has shown promising results in treating hyperpigmentation and melasma, two common skin conditions characterized by dark patches or uneven skin tone. By promoting skin cell turnover and inhibiting melanin production, tretinoin helps fade dark spots and even out skin tone. Regular use, combined with sun protection, can lead to visible improvements in hyperpigmentation and melasma over time.

Tretinoin to Address Uneven Skin Tone and Texture

Uneven skin tone and texture can be effectively managed with tretinoin’s ability to exfoliate the skin and stimulate collagen production. As old, damaged skin cells are shed, newer, healthier cells come to the surface, resulting in a smoother and more refined complexion. Tretinoin’s collagen-boosting properties also contribute to improved skin texture, reducing the appearance of fine lines and providing an overall youthful appearance.

Tretinoin for Acne Treatment

Tretinoin is highly effective in treating acne by regulating skin cell turnover and preventing clogged pores, leading to reduced acne breakouts and inflammation. It can help treat both non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne.

Combining tretinoin with other acne treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide or antibiotics, can further enhance its efficacy by targeting different causes of acne and providing a comprehensive approach to acne management.

Additionally, tretinoin helps improve the appearance of acne scars and hyperpigmentation by promoting skin cell turnover and collagen production, resulting in a more even skin tone and texture over time.

Tretinoin for Anti-Aging Benefits

Tretinoin is best known for its anti-aging benefits, which stem from its ability to stimulate collagen production and is crucial for maintaining skin elasticity and firmness. With regular use, tretinoin enhances collagen synthesis, resulting in visibly firmer and more youthful-looking skin. By promoting skin cell turnover and collagen production, along with its exfoliating properties, tretinoin reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, leading to smoother skin texture over time.

Incorporating Tretinoin into Your Skincare Routine

To benefit from tretinoin’s powerful anti-aging effects, it’s recommended to start incorporating it into your skincare routine by your late 20s. For younger adults, using OTC retinol as a precursor can reduce sensitivity and allow you to gradually experience its benefits.

To minimize irritation and sensitivity, start with a low concentration of tretinoin, allowing your skin to acclimate gradually. This way, you can gauge your skin’s tolerance and avoid discomfort. Once your skin adjusts, increase the frequency of application from every other night to nightly use, or as advised by your dermatologist.

Different Forms and Strengths of Tretinoin

Tretinoin is available in various formulations, including creams, gels, and lotions. Creams are suitable for those with dry or sensitive skin, while gels are often preferred by individuals with oily skin. Lotions offer a compromise between the two and are suitable for combination skin types.

Tretinoin comes in different concentrations, ranging from low (0.025% or 0.05%) to higher strengths (0.1%). Starting with a lower concentration is advisable, especially for retinoid beginners, to minimize the risk of irritation. As your skin adapts, you can consider increasing the strength with your dermatologist’s guidance. The choice of formulation and strength depends on individual skin types and concerns, and a dermatologist can help determine the best option for you.

Tretinoin Skincare Routine: How to Apply Tretinoin Properly

Tretinoin is considered the gold standard in skincare and, when using it, you may not need many other active products and ingredients. It’s best to scale back your routine, especially at the beginning, and focus on gentle and soothing ingredients to let tretinoin work effectively.

Building a skincare routine with tretinoin requires patience and slow integration of new products. Avoid overloading your skin with too many actives simultaneously to prevent irritation and sensitization. Allow your skin ample time to grow acclimated to each active ingredient before introducing another.

A sample nightly skincare routine while on tretinoin may look like:

Cleansing: Choose a gentle, cream cleanser as your daily facial cleanser. Avoid harsh sulfates that can strip the skin and contribute to dryness, irritation, and peeling. Look for cleansers containing ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and other soothing ingredients. Consider double cleansing by using an oil cleanser first to remove sunscreen and other oil-based impurities.

Toner: In the initial stages of using tretinoin, avoid exfoliating or active toners that may dry out or irritate the skin. Choose a hydrating and soothing toner with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, centella asiatica, aloe vera, or green tea extract to provide additional moisture and calmness to the skin.

Serum: Serums can offer concentrated and prolonged benefits to the skin. Avoid serums containing chemical exfoliants or potentially irritating active ingredients. Instead, look for a vitamin C serum in the morning to boost the skin’s antioxidant protection, and a ceramide serum at night to balance the dryness caused by tretinoin.

Moisturizer: Choose a simple moisturizer without additional retinols, vitamin C, or other active ingredients, especially on evenings when you use tretinoin. Look for moisturizers containing ceramides, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, or panthenol to provide soothing moisture to the skin.

Tretinoin: After moisturizing, wait at least 20 minutes before applying tretinoin. This ensures your face is dry, as tretinoin is hydrophilic and applying it to damp skin can lead to increased irritation and sensitivity. Applying tretinoin after moisturizing creates an additional barrier, reducing the likelihood of irritation. Start by using tretinoin 2-3 times a week and apply a pea-sized amount to your skin. The dot method, involving one dot of tretinoin on each cheek, the chin, and forehead, is a suitable application technique. Remember, less is more, especially at the beginning of your tretinoin journey.

The Sandwich Method (Optional): Some people prefer the “sandwich method” by applying another layer of moisturizer after tretinoin. This can provide additional relief from tretinoin-induced irritation. If you choose this, wait an additional 20 minutes after tretinoin application for it to absorb fully before applying moisturizer.

As your skin adapts to tretinoin, you have the flexibility to gradually increase its frequency and concentration. On your off days, you may consider introducing other active ingredients, like a gentle chemical exfoliant once a week. However, the key is to pay close attention to your skin’s response throughout the process. If you notice peeling or irritation, adjust your usage of tretinoin and look if other products may be contributing to the sensitization.

Tretinoin and Other Active Ingredients

Once your skin has adapted to tretinoin, you may consider introducing other active ingredients to address specific concerns. However, proceed with caution and introduce new actives one at a time to monitor how your skin responds.

When combining tretinoin with other actives, such as vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), be mindful of potential interactions and follow a balanced approach. Vitamin C can complement tretinoin’s effects when used in the morning, while AHAs and BHAs can be used on tretinoin-free evenings to exfoliate and enhance skin texture. However, if you start to find your face is stinging or irritated, scale back your use of actives until your skin has healed.

Ingredients That Work Well with Tretinoin

Tretinoin is a potent retinoid with numerous skincare benefits, but it can also cause skin sensitivity and dryness, especially when first starting to use it. To enhance the efficacy of tretinoin and support skin health, it’s important to not only build your routine around tretinoin, with gentle and soothing ingredients, but to also avoid other harsh and drying ingredients like exfoliants or benzoyl peroxide.

Skincare ingredients to incorporate into your routine when using tretinoin include:

Hyaluronic Acid: A hydrating powerhouse that attracts and retains moisture, making it an excellent companion for tretinoin to combat dryness and maintain skin hydration.

Niacinamide: Also known as vitamin B3, it complements tretinoin’s anti-aging benefits by improving the skin’s barrier function and reducing inflammation, minimizing irritation and redness associated with tretinoin use.

Antioxidants: Vitamin C, E, and green tea extract provide protective benefits against free radicals and environmental damage. They enhance the skin’s defense mechanisms when used in the morning to shield against daytime aggressors.

Ceramides: Natural lipids in the skin that reinforce the moisture barrier, helping to counteract tretinoin-induced dryness and sensitivity, promoting skin recovery and comfort.

Aloe Vera: Possesses soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, offering relief to dry and sensitive skin, making it beneficial to use alongside tretinoin to calm potential irritation.

Centella Asiatica: Known for its healing and soothing properties, it assists in reducing inflammation and supporting the skin’s natural barrier function.

CBD (Cannabis): CBD-infused products have potential anti-inflammatory and calming effects, offering relief from tretinoin-induced redness and sensitivity for some individuals.

How to Prevent Tretinoin Purging and Peeling

Both purging and peeling are common side effects to tretinoin, especially when you first start using it.

Purging in skincare refers to the initial worsening of acne breakouts when starting tretinoin, as the retinoid accelerates the skin cell turnover, bringing existing impurities to the surface. Peeling occurs as a result of increased exfoliation, leading to flaking and dryness.

To minimize purging, start tretinoin gradually. Apply a pea-sized amount 2-3 times a week initially, and gradually increasing the frequency. Be patient, as purging is often temporary and it means that the tretinoin is working effectively.

Keeping the skin well-hydrated and moisturized is essential to minimize peeling and dryness. Use a gentle and hydrating moisturizer, preferably containing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and glycerin, to replenish and retain moisture in the skin.

Tretinoin Side Effects and Precautions

Tretinoin is a strong drug, and there’s a reason it’s usually only available by prescription. It not only may cause sensitivity, dryness, peeling, and irritation, but some studies suggest it may harm developing fetuses in pregnant people. It’s always best to acquire tretinoin through a certified skincare professional, who can guide and advise you on how best to use tretinoin.

Common Side Effects of Tretinoin

Common side effects of tretinoin may include redness, peeling, dryness, and initial worsening of acne (purging). These side effects are usually temporary and may improve as your skin adjusts to the medication. To minimize the risk of side effects, it’s crucial to follow your dermatologist’s instructions carefully. Avoid using tretinoin on broken or irritated skin, as it may cause increased irritation. Use sunscreen daily and limit sun exposure, as tretinoin can increase skin sensitivity to the sun. Pregnant or nursing individuals should avoid using tretinoin, as it may cause harm to the developing fetus or pass into breast milk.

If you experience severe or persistent irritation, redness, or any other concerning side effects, consult your dermatologist immediately. Additionally, if you have a history of skin sensitivity or other skin conditions, inform your dermatologist before starting tretinoin. They can provide personalized advice and monitor your progress to ensure safe and effective use of the medication.

Potential Interactions with Tretinoin and Other Skincare Ingredients

When using tretinoin, it’s essential to avoid certain skincare ingredients that may interact negatively with the retinoid and increase the risk of irritation. Harsh exfoliants, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), should be avoided on the same days as tretinoin application, as combining them can lead to excessive exfoliation and skin sensitivity. Similarly, benzoyl peroxide and other strong acne-fighting ingredients can further irritate the skin when used alongside tretinoin.

To safely combine tretinoin with other active ingredients, consider a staggered approach. Use tretinoin on alternate nights or separate it from other actives in your routine by applying them on different days. For example, use tretinoin one night and alpha hydroxy acid or benzoyl peroxide on the next, ensuring your skin has time to recover between treatments.

Additionally, consider using other active ingredients in the morning and tretinoin at night to reduce the likelihood of interactions. Vitamin C, for instance, can be used in the morning to provide antioxidant protection, while tretinoin is applied at night to promote skin rejuvenation.

Tretinoin’s & Sun Sensitivity

There is some evidence that tretinoin can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it more susceptible to damage from harmful UV rays, especially when first starting to use it.

Regardless, always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 in your daily routine to get the most benefits from your tretinoin. Applying sunscreen in the morning before sun exposure and reapplying every two hours provides a protective barrier against UV rays, ensuring your skincare efforts are not compromised by sun damage.

Tretinoin and Pregnancy/Breastfeeding

Tretinoin is not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to potential risks to the developing fetus or nursing baby. High doses of oral retinoids, similar to tretinoin, have been linked to birth defects. While topical tretinoin is less likely to be absorbed into the bloodstream, caution is still advised. If pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid tretinoin unless prescribed and closely monitored by a healthcare professional.

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, choose skincare products that are safe for both you and your baby. Consider gentle and pregnancy-safe alternatives to tretinoin, such as:

Benzoyl peroxide: Effectively treats acne by reducing bacteria and controlling oil production in the skin.

Azelaic acid: Helps treat acne and hyperpigmentation while reducing inflammation and promoting a more even skin tone.

Glycolic acid or Lactic Acid (below 7%): Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) that exfoliates the skin, improving texture, reducing fine lines, and enhancing skin radiance.

Niacinamide: Provides multiple benefits, including strengthening the skin barrier, reducing redness, and improving the appearance of enlarged pores.

Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant that brightens the skin, evens out skin tone, and stimulates collagen production for a more youthful complexion.

Hyaluronic acid: A powerful humectant that hydrates and plumps the skin, providing a smoother and more supple appearance.

Kojic acid: Helps to lighten hyperpigmentation and dark spots by inhibiting melanin production in the skin.

Peptides: Promote collagen production, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and improve skin firmness and elasticity.

Salicylic acid (less than 2%): An effective beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that exfoliates the skin, unclogs pores, and helps treat acne and blackheads.

Bakuchiol: A natural alternative to retinoids, it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping to soothe and protect the skin.

Long-Term Use of Tretinoin

Tretinoin can be part of a long-term skincare routine to sustain improvements and maintain healthy skin. Its ability to promote collagen production and cellular turnover helps prevent premature aging. Coupled with sun protection and a well-rounded routine, tretinoin preserves skin health and prevents future concerns.

Consistent long-term use of tretinoin offers significant benefits for the skin, reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation for improved texture, tone, and appearance. Tretinoin stimulates collagen production, resulting in firmer, more youthful skin, and its exfoliating properties help prevent clogged pores and acne breakouts.

As the skin improves and tolerates tretinoin better, you can adjust your treatment plan. Under a dermatologist’s guidance, gradually increase application frequency or switch to a higher concentration to maintain effectiveness. Conversely, if dryness or irritation occurs, reduce frequency or use a lower concentration to balance the benefits and minimize side effects.