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How to Use Tretinoin for Wrinkles and Skin Aging

Dr. Patrick Carroll, MD
Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 3/2/2020

Have you started to notice wrinkles developing on your face? From crow’s feet to frown lines and forehead wrinkles, facial wrinkles can develop in a variety of locations.

Most people begin to develop wrinkles in their mid to late 20s, with wrinkles becoming more obvious in their 30s and 40s. Although everyone is different, it’s normal to notice some level of wrinkle development as you get older.

Wrinkles develop for a variety of reasons. As you age, your skin starts to get thinner and dryer, making it easier for creases to form. Skin cell turnover — the process by which new skin makes its way to the surface of the epidermis — also slows down.

Add sun exposure, stress, a gradual reduction in collagen production and other factors into the picture and over time, wrinkles start to form with age in both men and women.

Luckily, there are a variety of options for reducing the depth and visibility of facial wrinkles. One of the most effective anti-aging and wrinkle prevention treatments on the market is tretinoin — a safe and powerful topical skin medication.

In this guide, we’ll explain how tretinoin works as an anti-aging medication. We’ll also share how you can use tretinoin to reverse the effects of aging, slow down the development of wrinkles and improve the appearance, health and quality of your skin.

How Tretinoin Treats Wrinkles and Signs of Aging

Contrary to popular belief, wrinkles don’t develop overnight. Instead, most people only start to notice wrinkles after they begin to become deeper, more pronounced and obvious — a process that can often take years.

During your 20s and 30s, your skin starts to become thinner, dryer and less elastic. The amount of collagen produced by your skin declines and the skin cell turnover process becomes slower, meaning that your body replaces old skin with new skin at a less frequent pace.

Tretinoin, a topical retinoid, works by speeding up the skin cell turnover process, allowing your body to replace older skin cells on the surface of the skin with newer, fresh skin cells that form on the lower levels of the epidermis.

You can almost think of tretinoin as acting like a fast-forward button for your skin cell turnover cycle. Instead of sticking around, the superficial layer of your skin that’s exposed to sunlight, wind and pollution is cycled off more efficiently, giving you fresher, less weathered skin.

The end result is a significant improvement in the appearance of your skin, a reduction in visible wrinkles and even an decrease in acne.

Unlike other skin creams and tanning lotions, most of which you can buy over the counter, tretinoin is a prescription medicine that you’ll need to talk to your doctor about. It’s also far more effective than the creams and washes you can buy in most skincare stores, with a mountain of scientific data to back it up.

In one study, researchers found that 12 weeks of treatment with tretinoin resulted in “significant improvements in fine wrinkling around the eyes, crease lines around the mouth and cheeks, wrinkling on the dorsum of the hands and yellow discoloration.”

In another study, researchers noted that tretinoin caused a “statistically significant improvement in photoaging” in 14 out of 15 participants when compared to a non-therapeutic vehicle cream.

In short, tretinoin works by speeding up the rate at which your body replaces skin cells, giving your skin a fresher, more youthful appearance. It’s also very effective, with numerous studies dating back decades to back up its value as an anti-aging treatment.

How to Use Tretinoin Cream for Anti-Aging

Beyond its effectiveness, one of the biggest advantages of tretinoin is that it’s extremely easy to use.

Tretinoin is sold as a topical cream, gel or solution. To use it, all you need to do is apply a small amount of the cream to your face, typically in the evening. Below, we’ve covered all of the steps required to apply tretinoin cream to your face:

  1. Before applying tretinoin, wash your face using warm water. You can also use a small amount of mild, non-irritating soap. Avoid using harsh facial cleansers, acne prevention face washes or other potentially irritating products before applying tretinoin.

  2. Make sure all of the soap has been washed away, then blot your face dry using a towel.

  3. Squeeze a small amount of tretinoin (roughly the size of a pea) out of the tube and onto your finger. Rub the tretinoin onto your forehead, cheeks, chin and other areas in which you notice wrinkles.

    Avoid applying tretinoin directly to your lips, nostrils and areas close to your lips, as these parts of the face can potentially become irritated. If you have liquid tretinoin solution, use a cotton pad for more precise application.

  4. Once you’ve applied the tretinoin to your face, gently rub it into your skin. Make sure you apply the tretinoin cream or gel evenly to all areas of your face. Your skin will absorb the tretinoin cream or gel after a few minutes.

    There’s no need to use an overly large amount of tretinoin — doing so can increase your risk of experiencing skin irritation or peeling. Stick to a pea-sized amount of cream or gel for optimal results and minimal irritation.

  5. Once you’ve rubbed the cream or gel into your skin, set a timer for 20 minutes to allow your skin to fully absorb the tretinoin. Avoid touching your face or applying other topical skincare products until the timer is up.

  6. After 20 minutes, you can apply moisturizer if necessary. Moisturizer can help prevent the dryness and flaky skin that some people experience during the first few months of topical tretinoin use.

When you’re using tretinoin, it’s also important to make several small changes to your lifestyle and skin care routine:

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure. Tretinoin can increase your skin’s sensitivity to direct sunlight. To protect yourself from sunburn, use SPF 30+ sunscreen and avoid spending too much time in sunny, unprotected areas.

  • Stay hydrated. Although tretinoin isn’t an oral medication, it’s still important to keep yourself hydrated while you’re using tretinoin. Drinking plenty of water helps your skin stay moist and clear, helping tretinoin do its work as an anti-aging medication.

  • Be consistent. It can take several months before the effects of tretinoin become visible, meaning you’ll need to be patient during the first few months. Stick with tretinoin and be consistent — over the long term, you’ll start to notice results.

  • Familiarize yourself with tretinoin’s side effects. Tretinoin is a safe, effective medication, but it still has several potential side effects. Our guide to the common and uncommon side effects of tretinoin goes into what you can expect from the medication, as well as solutions for common issues.

Choosing the Right Strength Tretinoin Cream

Tretinoin comes in a range of different concentrations, from creams and gels with .01 percent, .025 percent and .05 percent tretinoin content, to stronger products with .1 percent tretinoin.

Like with most medications, the strength of the tretinoin cream you use can have an impact on the quality of your results. Most studies of tretinoin for anti-aging purposes show that the best results usually come from moderate strength tretinoin creams, such as .05 percent tretinoin cream.

In a 1991 study, 79 percent of the people given .05 percent tretinoin cream experienced a reduction in fine wrinkling, mottled hyperpigmentation, skin roughness and laxity, as well as an “overall improvement in photodamaged skin” over the course of 24 weeks.

In the same study, people given a cream with a weaker .01 percent tretinoin content didn’t experience the same benefits, suggesting that the amount of tretinoin can have a major effect on results. However, it’s also worth noting that lower strength tretinoin creams usually produce fewer side effects.

For the most part, dermatologists tend to prescribe a .05 percent tretinoin cream for patients, which provides a good balance between optimal results and a tolerable level of dryness, peeling and other side effects.

In general, the best approach is to work with your doctor to find a cream that provides optimal results for you. 

Dealing With Tretinoin Side Effects

On the whole, tretinoin is a safe medication. It’s topical, meaning it doesn’t need to pass through the liver like other skincare medications such as isotretinoin (Accutane®). It’s also easy to stop using, with a short half-life and none of the withdrawal effects of topical steroids.

However, like all medications, tretinoin does have some side effects when used for anti-aging and wrinkle prevention. Of these, the most common are skin dryness, irritation, peeling and an increased level of sensitivity to sunlight.

Tretinoin also has several less common side effects, such as a low risk of causing rapid onset dermatitis conditions such as blisters and vesicles. However, these effects are very rare — for most people, tretinoin is unlikely to cause more than minor dryness and skin irritation.

You can learn more about tretinoin’s side effects in our guide to the common and uncommon side effects of the medication. As with all medications, it’s important to be aware of — and ready for — any potential side effects from tretinoin before you start using it for anti-aging purposes.

When Should You Expect Results?

While the anti-aging and wrinkle reduction benefits of tretinoin are real, they’re not an overnight effect. On average, it takes anywhere from eight to 24 weeks to see a noticeable improvement from tretinoin cream.

Most studies of topical tretinoin for anti-aging show a reduction in wrinkles after approximately three months, with the shortest study (which used a .025 percent tretinoin cream) resulting in a “statistically significant improvement” in wrinkles and pigmentation after 84 days.

The study linked earlier in this article showed significant improvements in “fine wrinkling around the eyes, crease lines around the mouth and cheeks, wrinkling on the dorsum of the hands and yellow discoloration” after 12 weeks of consistent tretinoin use.

It’s important to be aware that tretinoin can often make your skin look worse before it gets better, especially if you experience what’s called the “tretinoin purge” after starting treatment. The most effective approach is to be patient and give tretinoin the time it needs to start working.

Our guide to how long it takes to see results from tretinoin for anti-aging goes into more detail about the time required for tretinoin to work, with links to other studies documenting the results from long-term tretinoin treatment.

As always, patience is key. Take a consistent, disciplined approach to using tretinoin and you should notice a significant improvement in the appearance of your skin, with lighter wrinkles, better smoothness and fewer signs of aging in a few months.

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.