How to Use Tretinoin Cream

Affordable, effective and easy to use, tretinoin is one of the most widely used topical retinoids for treating and preventing acne, speeding up skin cell replacement and reducing the signs of aging.

Scientific studies show that tretinoin reduces levels of acne on the face, particularly over the course of two to three months. Other studies show that daily use of tretinoin cream can make wrinkles and other signs of facial skin aging less obvious.

Our guides to using tretinoin for acne and anti-aging cover these topics in more detail, with a range of interesting studies covering tretinoin’s numerous benefits.

Whether you’re using tretinoin cream for acne prevention or anti-aging purposes, it’s important to use it effectively. Tretinoin is a powerful, highly effective retinoid, meaning that you’ll usually only need a small amount to get noticeable, lasting results.

Below, we’ve cover the A to Z of using tretinoin cream for acne prevention and anti-aging, from choosing the right strength to successfully applying tretinoin to your face.

Start By Choosing The Right Strength of Tretinoin Cream

Tretinoin creams and gels come in a variety of concentrations, ranging from .01% tretinoin to significantly stronger .10% solutions.

Although tretinoin is a safe medication, it can cause some minor side effects when applied to your skin. The most common side effects of tretinoin are dry skin, peeling and irritation, all of which are most common during the first two to six weeks of treatment.

To reduce your risk of experiencing side effects, it’s best to begin topical tretinoin treatment using a low to mid-strength tretinoin cream.

In the US, most doctors prescribe .05% tretinoin cream or gel to first-time users. If you have sensitive skin or only have mild acne, you should also consider using a weaker concentration, such as 0.025% or .01% topical tretinoin.

Finding the right tretinoin cream or gel concentration is a very individual process, meaning it could take several months for you to “dial in” your tretinoin use and work out which cream is ideal for your skin sensitivity, acne or other skin issues.

Apply Tretinoin Cream or Gel at Night

The best time to apply tretinoin cream or gel to your face is at night, shortly before you go to bed. This allows the tretinoin to be fully absorbed by your facial skin without any risk of wind, sunlight or dust particles from affecting your skin.

If your doctor recommends using tretinoin at a different time, such as in the morning, the best approach is to follow their advice and instructions.

Applying tretinoin to your face is a quick, simple process that you’ll quickly get used to. In total, there are only six steps to memorize:

  1. Wash your face using warm water and, if required, a small to moderate amount of mild soap. Make sure that your face is completely clean, as this will boost absorption of the tretinoin and improve your results.

  2. After washing, gently dry your face using a towel. Gently blot your face to dry the skin without causing irritation.

  3. Squeeze a pea-sized amount of tretinoin cream or gel from the tube and gently rub the solution into your face. Focus on the cheeks, forehead, chin and other areas with acne or visible signs of skin aging.

    Be careful not to apply the cream to your eyes, lips or other sensitive areas. You can also apply the tretinoin using a cotton swab or gauze.

  4. Rub the tretinoin gently into your facial skin. Apply the cream or gel evenly to all parts of your face for even absorption. One pea-sized amount of tretinoin should be enough for your entire face.

    It can take one to two minutes for the tretinoin cream or gel to begin to absorb into your skin, at which point it should no longer be visible.

  5. Set a timer for 20 minutes and avoid touching your skin or applying any other skincare products until the tretinoin has been fully absorbed.

  6. If you have dry, flaky or peeling skin, you can apply an alcohol-free moisturizer after 20 minutes to one hour has passed. Moisturizer can be useful in preventing the flaking and peeling side effects that some people experience from tretinoin.

Dealing With Tretinoin Side Effects

Side effects from tretinoin are fairly uncommon but can happen, particularly during the first two to six weeks of use. Many tretinoin users experience a “purge” in the first weeks of treatment as their skin adjusts to the medication.

During this period, there are several steps that you can take to reduce your risk of experiencing tretinoin side effects:

  • Avoid spending time in the sun. Tretinoin makes your skin significantly more sensitive to light, particularly in the first weeks of treatment. While 10 to 15 minutes of exposure to the sun per day is fine, it’s best to avoid longer periods of exposure to direct sunlight.

    If you can’t avoid sun exposure, make sure to use an alcohol-free SPF 30+ sunscreen to minimize your risk of sunburn.
  • If you experience dry skin, moisturize. It’s perfectly safe to use a moisturizer at the same time as tretinoin, although you should avoid using moisturizers that contain any alcohols or ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, which can worsen dry skin.

    One study from 2006 shows that moisturizers containing vitamins such as niacinamide, panthenol, and tocopheryl acetate can complement tretinoin, providing improved results from treatment.
  • Speak to your doctor about an alternative tretinoin dosage. Many tretinoin users experience side effects such as dry skin and irritation that decrease or disappear at a lower concentration.
  • Avoid using an excessive amount of tretinoin cream. Most people will only need to use a pea-sized amount of tretinoin to cover their entire face. Using too much tretinoin cream increases your risk of experiencing side effects without offering extra benefits.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions. Tretinoin cream is designed for use once per day, typically in the evening. Follow your doctor’s instructions and do not use tretinoin more frequently than prescribed, as this will not provide faster or better results.
  • Avoid laser, chemical or waxing treatments while using tretinoin. Many of these treatments can affect your skin and increase your risk of experiencing side effects. It’s best to consult your doctor before considering any additional skin treatments.
  • If you experience side effects, don’t panic. Minor skin irritation, peeling and redness are common during the first few weeks of tretinoin usage, meaning there’s no need to panic if you notice that your skin gets worse before it gets better.

    If you experience persistent or severe side effects from topical tretinoin, speak to your doctor. Most tretinoin side effects are temporary and easy to treat, letting you enjoy the benefits of tretinoin without any negative effects on your appearance of quality of life.

Learn More About Tretinoin

From eliminating acne to helping you reverse the signs of aging, tretinoin has a wide range of potential benefits for your skin. For more information on using tretinoin, read our Tretinoin 101 guide or our complete guides to using tretinoin for acne prevention and anti-aging.

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.