Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/30/2020
Just started using tretinoin? To protect your skin from sun damage, you might need to change the amount of time you spend in direct sunlight.
Tretinoin is one of the most common acne and anti-aging medications available. It’s sold as a topical cream, gel or solution. It’s easy to use and effective, with studies showing an improvement in everything from wrinkles and skin discoloration, to acne breakouts.
Because tretinoin affects your body’s skin cell turnover cycle, it can change your skin’s level of sensitivity to sunlight. We’ve covered this in more detail below, along with some tactics to help you manage the sun-related side effects of tretinoin.
Tretinoin works by speeding up your body’s skin cell turnover cycle, the process through which your body replaces old skin cells with new ones.
Just like your hair and nails, your body constantly produces new skin cells. These cells form in the deeper region of the epidermis — the outermost layer of skin. After forming, these new skin cells travel to the surface of your skin.
When your body produces new skin cells, the older skin cells harden and die.
This process is known as your body’s skin cell turnover cycle. As you get older, it’s quite normal for your skin cell turnover cycle to slow down, meaning it takes longer for your body to produce new skin cells to replace older ones.
Combine this with the fact that tretinoin can cause itchiness, irritation, redness and peeling, and spending even a short amount of time in the sun can leave you with a painful sunburn.
Although tretinoin can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, you don’t need to spend all of your time indoors if you’re currently using tretinoin for acne prevention or anti-aging.
Through a few simple tactics, you can minimize the effects of topical tretinoin on your skin’s UV sensitivity and enjoy a normal lifestyle with minimal sunburn:
Use tretinoin at night. Tretinoin and other topical retinoids are used ideally before bed. This is because retinoids can break down when exposed to sunlight, making them less effective as acne and anti-aging treatments.
To get the best results from tretinoin while reducing your sunburn risk, make sure to use your tretinoin at nighttime. Most people find it easiest to use tretinoin in the evening before bed, which provides enough time for your skin to absorb the medication.
Limit your sun exposure. While a small amount of sunlight is good for you, it’s generally best to avoid spending too much time in the sun during peak sunlight hours.
If you use tretinoin, limit your exposure to sunlight between 10am and 4pm, when the sunlight is brightest, especially on bright and sunny days. Reducing the amount of time you spend in the sun is the easiest, safest and most effective way to avoid sunburn.
Use SPF 15+ sunscreen. Need to spend time in the sun? Protect your skin by using an SPF 15+ sunscreen before you go outside. It’s particularly important to apply sunscreen to the areas you treat with tretinoin, such as your face.
While sunscreen won’t provide complete protection, it will limit the effects of sunlight on your skin. If you’re spending a long time outside, make sure you reapply the sunscreen every two hours for optimal protection.
Wear a hat when you’re out and about. Got errands to run? If you need to spend lots of time outside during peak sunlight hours, try to wear a hat that completely shades your face from direct sunlight.
For mild sunlight, a baseball cap is usually enough. On sunnier days, a wide-brimmed hat will provide more shade and better protection, helping you to avoid exposing your tretinoin-treated skin to UV radiation.
Avoid tanning beds. Since tanning beds directly expose your skin to UVB radiation, they’re a definite no-no while you’re using tretinoin.
It’s very common to get sunburned while using tretinoin, especially during the first few months of treatment. If you do get sunburned (or you’re reading this while already sunburned), it’s best not to panic.
If you become sunburned while using tretinoin, take it easy and avoid direct sunlight while you wait for your skin to heal. You can safely use aloe vera gel, moisturizers and other products to relieve sunburn on tretinoin-treated skin if your sunburn is painful, itchy or unpleasant.
If you’ve just started using tretinoin, it’s important to be aware of the effects it can have on your sensitivity to sunlight. Tretinoin will make you more photosensitive than you would normally be, meaning you have a higher risk of getting sunburned.
As always, the best ways to protect yourself are the ones we’ve covered above: use sunscreen, avoid spending too long in the sun and wear clothing that’ll cover your areas of treatment as often as possible when you’re out in direct sunlight.
After a few months, you’ll have a better understanding of how tretinoin affects your sensitivity to sunlight, as well as how much direct sun exposure you can tolerate before you start to burn.
Whether you’re interested in getting rid of acne or slowing down the effects of aging, tretinoin is one of several science-backed skincare products that deserves a place in your toolkit.
Our guide to using tretinoin for hormonal acne goes into more detail on some popular uses for topical tretinoin, with real scientific data on how tretinoin works to improve your skin and actionable tips to help you get results if you’re considering using it.