Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/08/2020
Tretinoin can help to prevent acne breakouts, reduce the effects of aging and even make skin discoloration conditions like melasma less visible.
In short, it’s the Swiss Army knife of skincare — a generally safe and effective topical cream that can work wonders for a variety of conditions. Because of this, tretinoin occasionally shows up in online lists of skin whitening and lightening products.
So, is it true? Does tretinoin also lighten your skin? The answer to this is equal parts “yes” and “no.” While tretinoin can have some effects on your skin tone, it is not considered a “first-line” skin lightening treatment like hydroquinone is.
Below, we’ve looked at the lightening effects of tretinoin in more detail, along with scientific data on tretinoin’s effects on skin tone. We’ve also looked at how tretinoin can lighten your skin, as well as what it won’t do for your skin coloration.
Contrary to popular belief, tretinoin isn’t a “bleaching” or lightening agent. Skin lightening agents work by decreasing the number of cells that produce melanin, giving you a lighter skin tone in the areas you choose to treat topically. Hydroquinone, for example, is a skin lightening agent that works by lowering your skin’s pigment production.
Although hydroquinone and tretinoin are often used together (the two medications are a popular combination treatment for melasma), tretinoin doesn’t cause the same pigment reduction effects as melasma and isn’t considered a skin “bleach” or lightening agent.
Although tretinoin isn’t an “official” skin lightening agent, it can have indirect effects on your skin that can result in a lighter, brighter skin tone.
Tretinoin works by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle. When you apply tretinoin to your skin, your body replaces old skin cells with new cells at a faster rate. This is partly why tretinoin is effective as a treatment for acne, which can be caused by excess dead skin cells.
Your skin tone is a result of melanin production. Your body can produce this melanin naturally as a result of your genetics, or in response to UV exposure from spending time in direct sunlight.
Because tretinoin speeds up your skin cell turnover cycle, it can reduce the amount of melanin in your skin cells by replacing old, UV-exposed skin cells with new, unexposed cells at a faster pace.
In short, tretinoin can “lighten” your skin to an extent, but not necessarily to the color your skin would naturally be without any sun exposure. It’s for this reason that tretinoin isn’t often used as a first-line skin lightening agent.
This is one reason why tretinoin is such a popular treatment for hyperpigmentation.
Over time, tretinoin can help strip away unnaturally dark spots and skin discoloration, all without the negative effects of skin “bleaching” agents.
Instead of thinking of tretinoin as a skin lightening agent, it’s better to think of it as a treatment that can help reverse the effects of spending too much time in the sun by getting rid of wrinkles, smile lines and other UV-induced photodamage.
Over the long term, tretinoin can make your skin look slightly lighter by replacing old, dead skin cells with new ones. However, it won’t do the following:
Lighten your skin beyond your natural skin tone. While tretinoin does help reduce skin pigmentation in hyperpigmented skin, it will not remove pigments produced naturally as a result of your genetics.
This means that tretinoin won’t ever lighten your skin beyond your natural, genetic skin tone.
Give you an uneven skin tone. Tretinoin can help to treat skin discoloration conditions such as melasma. However, normal use of tretinoin won’t cause any localized whitening or other blotchy, unnatural color patterns in your skin.
Cause long-term skin lightening. Tretinoin’s effects on your skin only work as long as you continue using the medication. If you’re uncomfortable with any effects tretinoin has on your skin tone, you can stop using the medication and allow your skin to return to normal.
On the whole, tretinoin’s effects on your skin tone are mild at best. While it can cause your skin to look slightly lighter, it doesn’t have any “bleaching” effects and won’t cause your skin tone to become lighter than its natural, genetically-determined color.
Whether you have blotchy patches caused by melasma or hyperpigmentation caused by sun exposure and UV damage, there are several science-backed options available for improving your skin and maintaining a healthy, even and natural skin tone.
Our guide to hyperpigmentation vs. melasma explains why and how your skin becomes hyperpigmented, as well as the best ways to treat it. You can also learn more about the best skin discoloration treatments in our guide to tretinoin.
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