Tretinoin For Acne

Written by Ravi Teja Tadimalla

When you develop acne on your face, your first instinct is to look for a treatment that can help do away with the spots in the shortest period. There are several cosmetic, nutraceutical, and pharmaceutical products on the market that claim to contain ingredients effective to treat acne. However, a significant proportion of these ingredients have no concrete scientific research backing their claims.

However, one of the few substances certified to help treat acne is tretinoin. What is tretinoin? How does it treat acne and how long does it take to show results? Let us understand the answers to these questions in the sections ahead.

How Does Tretinoin Work For Treating Acne?

Dermatologists very frequently prescribe Vitamin A-based treatments for acne. However, Vitamin A is only an umbrella term for many forms of a substance known as a retinoid. Derivatives of Vitamin A include tazarotene, retinaldehyde, retinol, and tretinoin. All of these derivatives are distinctly different compounds. They have different chemical and molecular structures and use different processes to bind with the cells in the body. Hence, the impact and side effects of each of these derivatives are significantly different (1).

Retinoids like tretinoin primarily work on improving the skin cell turnover rate. The skin cell turnover rate is the rate at which new skin cells replace dead skin cells. As the substance causes the dead skin cells to be removed from the top of your skin, new skin cells rise to the surface. When the dead skin cells clogging the pores of your skin get replaced, your skin pores open up. This process also helps clear out the acne-causing bacteria (that lay deep beneath your skin) and irritants (that cause acne) that could be trapped in your skin pores (1).

This way, tretinoin proves to be an effective acne treatment. However, it is not available in its virgin form to apply directly to your skin. You can instead use several products containing tretinoin for your acne treatment.

How To Use Tretinoin To Reduce Acne And Improve Your Skin

Tretinoin is a popular ingredient in several anti-acne products. Though these products may have similar characteristics, the methods of application and the time of treatment may differ. Tretinoin, in its virgin form, is a potent substance. In over-the-counter medications, tretinoin is available only in minute concentrations. Higher concentrations warrant a doctor’s prescription.

Here are the most common forms one may use tretinoin in for treating acne.

1. Cream

Tretinoin cream is perhaps the most popular form of tretinoin for treating acne. Keep the following points in mind before using the cream.

  • Make sure your face is clean. Wash your face with a light face wash or cleanser. You can also use water mixed with mild soap or a facial cleanser.
  • After washing, pat your skin with a dry towel.
  •  Make sure you do not rub the towel on your skin.  Be gentle. A rough motion may hurt your skin.
  • Ensure your skin is dry before applying the tretinoin cream. Wait for at least 20 minutes after you have washed and dried your face. Applying tretinoin to damp skin may cause skin irritation.

Take no more than a pea-sized amount of the tretinoin cream and gently apply it to your breakouts. You can choose to rub the cream lightly over the breakouts or leave it as it is.

2. Gel

Tretinoin is also available as a gel. A tretinoin gel will typically have a lower concentration of the substance. It is readily available over the counter. You can apply the gel in a similar way as the cream.

3. Solution

Tretinoin is available in higher concentrations (up to 0.1%) in the solution form. When applying a tretinoin solution, it is vital to ensure your hands are clean and your face is dry. Take no more than a few drops of the solution on a cotton swab or gauze. Apply the solution locally to the affected areas on your face.

Let us now look at the advantages tretinoin has for treating acne.

Benefits Of Tretinoin For Acne

1. Scientifically Certified

One of the essential advantages of using tretinoin for acne is that it is scientifically approved for the purpose. Several studies have reinforced this advantage over different types of populations. In a study, participants were given two solutions for their faces – a tretinoin gel and a simple, non-therapeutic gel. Over a period of 12 weeks, the acne concentration in the group that used tretinoin reduced significantly compared to the other group (2). In another study, a group that applied a combination of tretinoin cream and clindamycin 1% gel saw their acne reduced (3).

2. Impact On Wrinkles

All types of eye and face creams contain tretinoin, especially those that claim anti-aging benefits. Tretinoin has a perceivable effect on wrinkles (1). Tretinoin is a retinoid and has significant anti-inflammatory properties (4).

3. Impact On Scarring

Since tretinoin works by improving your skin’s cell turnover rate, it may help reduce scarring by encouraging the growth of new skin layers. If you ever undergo a skin peel treatment that targets scars on your face, you can use tretinoin beforehand to prepare your skin (5).

It is hence evident that tretinoin has several benefits for your skin. However, potent substances like tretinoin are best used with care. In the next section, we shall look at the warnings and precautions you need to keep in mind before using tretinoin.

Benefits Of Tretinoin For Acne

1. Scientifically Certified

One of the essential advantages of using tretinoin for acne is that it is scientifically approved for the purpose. Several studies have reinforced this advantage over different types of populations. In a study, participants were given two solutions for their faces – a tretinoin gel and a simple, non-therapeutic gel.

Over a period of 12 weeks, the acne concentration in the group that used tretinoin reduced significantly compared to the other group (2). In another study, a group that applied a combination of tretinoin cream and clindamycin 1% gel saw their acne reduce (3).

2. Impact On Wrinkles

All types of eye and face creams contain tretinoin, especially those that claim anti-aging benefits. Tretinoin has a perceivable effect on wrinkles (1). Tretinoin is a retinoid and has significant anti-inflammatory properties (4).

3. Impact On Scarring

Since tretinoin works by improving your skin’s cell turnover rate, it may help reduce scarring by encouraging the growth of new skin layers. If you ever undergo a skin peel treatment that targets scars on your face, you can use tretinoin beforehand to prepare your skin (5).

It is hence evident that tretinoin has several benefits for your skin. However, potent substances like tretinoin are best used with care. In the next section, we shall look at the warnings and precautions you need to keep in mind before using tretinoin.

Tretinoin Warnings And Precautions

As with most skin treatments, tretinoin also has several warnings and precautions associated with it. Here is what you must remember before using tretinoin for acne (6).

  • You must always consult a dermatologist before using tretinoin for acne treatment. Inform your doctor of any allergies you may have, especially those to Vitamin A or its derivatives (such as isotretinoin).
  • If you have a history of eczema, consult with your doctor on the type of tretinoin solution you can use.
  •  Certain patients who used tretinoin cream had observed an increase of melanocytes and keratinocytes, and increased dermal elastosis (increased deposition of elastin, a skin protein). One may experience skin irritation too. You can clarify the same with your doctor.
  • If you are taking photosensitizers (e.g., thiazides, tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones, phenothiazines, sulfonamides), you should not apply tretinoin as it may otherwise aggravate phototoxicity.
  • When using tretinoin for acne treatment, limit your outdoor time and stay away from sunlamps and tanning beds. Tretinoin is known to increase one’s susceptibility to sun damage. Always step out with sunscreen and protective clothing. Do not use tretinoin if you have a sunburn.
  • You must keep tretinoin out of your eyes, mouth, angles of the nose, and mucous membranes. In case you experience significant irritation on the skin, consult your doctor to reduce the dosage or discontinue usage.
  • Using excess tretinoin solution does not lead to faster results. Stick to the prescribed dosage.

In the following section, we look at certain side effects tretinoin may cause.

Tretinoin Side Effects

A significant proportion of acne treatments have side effects. The range of these side effects can vary from mild to severe, depending on the primary ingredients in these treatments. Let us take a quick look at the side effects of tretinoin for acne (6).

  •  Several products have significant interactions with tretinoin. Using these products alongside or within a few hours of applying topical tretinoin cream or gel may cause irritation, redness, and peeling. Here is a list of such products:

Concomitant topical creams
Medicated or abrasive soaps
Shampoos
Benzoyl peroxide
Cleansers
Cosmetics with a strong drying effect
Products with high concentrations of alcohol
Astringents
Permanent wave solutions
Electrolysis

  • Hair depilatories or waxes
  • The safety of the use of tretinoin in patients younger than the age of 18 has not been established.
  • Oral and dermal tretinoin can be teratogenic and fetotoxic, respectively.
  • Peeling, dry skin, burning, stinging, erythema, and pruritus are common but temporary side effects of using tretinoin as a topical skin treatment
  • Using excess amounts of tretinoin for acne can cause marked redness, peeling, or discomfort.

Final Words

Tretinoin for acne is a certified solution that can give desirable results in just a few months. It can be used as part of a cream, gel, or as a diluted solution. When applying tretinoin, ensure your face and hands are clean and dry. Pregnant women and those with photosensitive skin must not use tretinoin for acne. Redness and irritation are common but temporary side effects. If you experience any adverse effects, stop use and visit your doctor.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

Should you stop using tretinoin after your acne heals?

You can reduce the frequency of usage as your skin begins to improve. However, do not stop use without checking with your dermatologist.

Should I use tretinoin if I have psoriasis?

There are no studies linking tretinoin to increased or decreased risk of psoriasis. Hence, consult your dermatologist for better clarity in this regard.

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Ravi Teja Tadimalla is an editor and a published author. He graduated from SRM University, Chennai, and has been in the digital media field for over six years. He has a Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition & Research from Wageningen University. He considers himself a sculptor born to chip away at content and reveal its dormant splendor. He started his career as a research writer, primarily focusing on health and wellness, and has over 250 articles to his credit. Ravi believes in the great possibilities of abundant health with natural foods and organic supplements. Reading and theater are his other interests.
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