Tretinoin for Acne

    Kristin Hall, FNP
    Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 8/06/2020

    Your bathroom shelf has seen cleansers, gels, moisturizers, pads, masks, oils, toners, creams and God knows what else. But has any of it really helped your acne? 

    Searching for an acne treatment that works can be difficult, costly and even sometimes worsen the problem you’re trying to remedy. 

    There comes a point where you have to suspend the over-the-counter skin care war and bring in a professional. 

    Prescription medications like tretinoin offer a treatment for acne with the guidance of a healthcare professional or certified dermatologist, and sometimes that’s what’s needed to turn a corner on your acne problem.

    Acne 101

    Most people will be affected by acne at some point in their lives, but this doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

    Oil, or sebum, is created in your sebaceous glands, and travels out of your hair follicles, or pores, to the surface of your skin where it keeps you moisturized. But when this oil can’t escape your pores, acne happens. 

    Generally, a layer of dead skin cells blocks your pore and traps the sebum, where it builds up and causes a pimple. Add to this trapped oil some bacteria, and you have the recipe for an inflamed acne lesion. 

    Repeat the process, and you have acne.

    Acne can be triggered by a variety of things. It’s certainly tied to hormone fluctuations, which explains why it first rears its ugly head during puberty. 

    In adult women, this means acne breakouts may be more common around menstruation, pregnancy or menopause.

    It can also show up when you start a new birth control pill, or any number of medications. 

    Smoking, endocrine disorders, stress and genetics can also play a role in the development of acne in women.

    Moderate to severe acne can cause scarring, but can also impact your quality of life. Psychologically, it can even lead to depression and anxiety — but we’re sure you didn’t need to hear that from us.

    What Is Tretinoin?

    Tretinoin is one of several different treatments available for acne. 

    The first line of defense among women with acne is generally their drug store, where you’ll find things containing benzoyl peroxide, which is designed to dry out the skin. 

    But when this proves ineffective, tretinoin is one of several retinoids available with a prescription. 

    Retinoids are a class of topical medications that work to reduce acne lesions, reduce dead skin cell shedding and block inflammation. They were first introduced in 1971 and are chemically derived from vitamin A. 

    Other retinoids include retinol, adapalene, isotretinoin and tazarotene.

    Is Tretinoin An Effective Acne Treatment? 

    In general, retinoids such as tretinoin are mainstays of acne treatment, and this is because they’re widely effective and popular for that reason. 

    There’s a large body of research indicating tretinoin is an effective topical acne treatment, producing reductions in the number of both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne lesions, unclogging pores and even reducing discoloration and scarring

    As a sort of added bonus, retinoids are also effective at preventing sun damage or “photo-aging” of the skin.

    Getting Tretinoin and What You Should Know About Side Effects

    Tretinoin is available with a healthcare professional or certified dermatologist’s prescription. And while it’s an effective acne treatment, it does come with its own list of potential side effects. 

    One in particular is called the tretinoin purge.

    Many people experience skin irritation within the first few weeks or months of use. This irritation may include dryness, itching and peeling, but is classified as “mild to moderate” and limited to the outermost layer of skin. 

    Once your skin gets used to the medication, this irritation usually subsides. Tretinoin can also cause UV sensitivity, so it’s important to avoid direct sunlight for extended amounts of time, or wear sunscreen when using it.

    The Bottom Line on Tretinoin 

    The research is clear — tretinoin it works. Like most prescription medications, it may come with certain side effects that make your skin look worse before it looks better. 

    But the important thing to keep in mind is: in the overwhelming majority of people, your skin will get better.

    Tretinoin, like other retinoids, can help combat adult female acne and restore your quality of life while improving your skin. 


    This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.