Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/16/2020
Dealing with acne can be a frustrating, stressful experience. Dealing with the aftermath can be even more difficult. If you’ve previously had breakouts of inflamed or cystic acne, you might have been left with visible acne scarring.
While some acne scars can be covered up using makeup, scars that are deep or heavily raised are often difficult to hide.
Luckily, almost all acne scars can be treated. Tretinoin, a topical medication usually used to get rid of acne breakouts and prevent the signs of aging, can also help make acne scarring less visible.
Below, we’ve explained how tretinoin works, as well as how it can make your acne scars flatter, lighter and less visible.
Every day, your body replaces some of its skin cells with new ones in a process known as the skin cell turnover cycle. This process helps to keep your skin smooth, evenly pigmented and free of pimples, wrinkles and other blemishes.
Tretinoin is a topical medication that works by increasing the speed at which your body replaces old skin cells with new ones.
When you’re in your teens and 20s, your skin cell turnover is relatively fast. However, as you age, this process starts to slow down.
As a topical retinoid, tretinoin promotes faster growth of new skin cells, helping to keep your skin renewed, refreshed and free of the wear that can occur when you spend time in the sun, wind or in other skin-unfriendly environments.
Originally approved by the FDA in the early 1960s, tretinoin for acne is one of the most studied skincare medications available today. Countless studies show that tretinoin works well as a treatment for acne, as well as for anti-aging.
Tretinoin can also affect your skin’s texture and pigmentation — effects that make it useful if you have atrophic, depressed or hyperpigmented acne scarring.
Acne scars come in a variety of types, from hypertrophic scars that have a raised appearance to atrophic scars that leave a depressed, pitted impression in your skin.
Our guide to tretinoin for acne scars goes into more detail on the types of scars that can form after acne breakouts and what you can expect when treating them with tretinoin.
While tretinoin isn’t effective as a treatment for all acne scars, studies show that it does help to make some types of acne scars less visible.
If you have hyperpigmented acne scars that are a darker color than the surrounding skin, using tretinoin might help to make them lighter and less noticeable. Tretinoin can also smoothen your skin’s texture, making rough or mildly raised acne scars less visible.
Most of the time, tretinoin is effective as a treatment for mild to moderate acne scarring. If you have severe acne scarring, cosmetic treatments such as laser resurfacing, punch excision and dermal fillers are likely to be more effective.
As always, it’s best to talk to your dermatologist if you’re worried about acne scarring. Based on the type and severity of your acne scars, they’ll be able to suggest a safe, effective treatment to improve your skin.
As a topical medication, tretinoin is very easy to use. Topical tretinoin is designed for use once per day and is generally most effective when applied late in the evening, shortly before you go to bed.
Before you apply tretinoin, wash your face thoroughly. The best way to prepare your face for tretinoin is to wash it with warm, soapy water. Choose a mild soap that doesn’t irritate your skin and avoid harsh scrubs and cleansers that leave your skin red and/or itchy.
After you’ve finished washing your face, rinse away any soapy water and gently dry your face using a clean towel.
Apply a pea-sized amount of tretinoin to your finger, then gently rub it into your face. Use tretinoin only on the areas of your face affected by acne scarring and avoid applying any of the topical solution to your eyes, lips or nostrils.
Rub the tretinoin into your skin, making sure it’s evenly applied to all areas with visible acne scarring. Aim for an even, consistent application without any overly wet areas or clumps of tretinoin cream.
If you have tretinoin cream on your hands, wash it away with antibacterial soap. Topical tretinoin can cause your hands to feel dry and irritated, making it important to make sure you wash away all of the cream after applying it to your face.
Allow at least 20 minutes for the topical tretinoin to soak into your skin before you apply any other facial skincare products. Avoid touching your face before the 20 minutes are up, as this can wipe away tretinoin before it’s been fully absorbed by your skin.
If your skin becomes irritated or itchy after using tretinoin, you can apply an irritant-free moisturizer after 20 minutes have passed. This is a good way to get rid of the redness that’s common with higher strengths of topical tretinoin.
Like other topical scar treatments, tretinoin doesn’t produce immediate results. On average, it can take anywhere from two months to one year before you’ll see a significant improvement in the color and texture of your skin.
While tretinoin is usually effective as a treatment for mild to moderate acne scarring, some types of acne scarring are too severe for topical treatments alone.
Our guide to tretinoin for acne scarring (linked above) goes into more detail on the different types of scarring that can develop after acne breakouts, as well as the most effective treatments and procedures for acne scarring.