Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/12/2020
Tretinoin is an effective skincare medication used to help treat everything from acne to wrinkles, sun spots and other signs of aging.
As a topical medication, tretinoin offers many of the benefits of retinoids without the same potential for side effects as more powerful oral medications such as isotretinoin. On the whole, it’s a safe, highly effective skin medication.
One common question about tretinoin is whether or not it needs to be used forever, or at least over the long term, to provide lasting effects.
Below, we’ve answered this question, with links to scientific studies to back up the main benefits of long-term tretinoin use for acne and anti-aging. We’ve also looked at what you can expect from tretinoin as a short-term, one-off skincare treatment.
When it’s used for acne, tretinoin can either be a short-term, temporary or long-term treatment, depending on one’s needs.
Tretinoin can take several weeks or months before making a noticeable difference in acne. During this period it’s also common for tretinoin to dry out the skin — an effect known as the “tretinoin purge.”
Although tretinoin may take only a few weeks to yield some results, other studies of tretinoin as an acne treatment show continual improvement over the course of six months to even one year, meaning that tretinoin is a viable long term treatment option.
Dermatology practitioners usually prescribe tretinoin for acne using one of two strategies. For people with temporary acne (for example, teenagers dealing with acne due to adolescence), tretinoin might only be prescribed for the duration necessary to clear up existing acne. Even in these instances, the use of tretinoin even after the acne clears can help with maintaining clear skin.
Some patients have acne that persists, like those with hormonal acne. In these instances, dermatologists will have a longer term perspective in mind when prescribing tretinoin alone or as part of a comprehensive approach to treatment.
However, there are other options for difficult to treat acne. If you’re using tretinoin and you are not seeing results, please reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss other options.
The benefits of tretinoin to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, sun spots and other signs of aging can sometimes be noticeable as early as months after starting treatment.
In a study from 2015, researchers found that tretinoin caused a noticeable reduction in wrinkles, mottled pigmentation, pores and global photodamage after 84 days of use.
A 1990 study showed similar results, with significant improvements in wrinkles and creases in 20 subjects with chronic solar damage after 12 weeks.
In short, tretinoin works effectively for anti-aging as a short-term treatment. However, like with acne, the anti-aging results from tretinoin are also effective when used for the long term.
Our How Long Does Tretinoin Take to Reduce Wrinkles? Guide covers these studies in more detail, with additional information on the effects of long-term tretinoin use for anti-aging.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any studies (that we could find, anyway) covering short-term, one-off tretinoin use for anti-aging purposes, though it seems to make sense that continued use would be most effective in maintaining the benefits of keeping signs of aging at bay.
In a 1992 analysis, researchers noted that the effects from tretinoin can last for several months after treatment, with the benefit in reducing wrinkles and hyperpigmentation caused by tretinoin starting to regress slowly after the treatment ends.
On the whole, many dermatology practitioners recommend using tretinoin for the long term as a treatment for skin photoaging, adjusting the strength of tretinoin over the course of treatment to give patients optimal results.
Tretinoin is commonly used as a long-term treatment, whether for acne or anti-aging. Many studies show that tretinoin is most effective when used over a long period of time, especially for wrinkling and photoaging.
Tretinoin is considered a generally safe medication with few side effects aside from skin irritation that is most often seen after initiation of treatment.
Unlike some other skincare medications, tretinoin doesn’t have any withdrawal effects, meaning that you can stop taking it at any time without having to worry about your health.
While it’s possible to use tretinoin as a short-term, one-off treatment, there are no guarantees that the results will last. Generally, the best approach is to follow your healthcare provider’s advice regarding tretinoin use and apply the medicine as prescribed to treat acne or aging.
Interested in learning more about tretinoin? Our guides to using tretinoin for treating acne and preventing aging cover the most common uses of tretinoin, with how-to instructions to help you get the best results from the medication.
You can also learn more about tretinoin in our Tretinoin 101 guide, which covers everything from the medication’s origins to its side effects, brand names, dosages and more.