Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/07/2019
Tretinoin is one of the most popular topical retinoids available, widely used to treat everything from acne to wrinkles, skin discoloration and other signs of aging. One of the most common questions we get about it is, "What about tretinoin for sun damage? Does it really work?"
Over time, the ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure can damage your skin. Skin researchers believe that UV exposure caused by spending time in direct sunlight is responsible for as much as 80% of skin aging, making minimizing sun exposure an important anti-aging tactic.
Because tretinoin is an effective anti-aging medication, many people are curious about whether or not it can improve sun damaged skin. Below, we’ve compiled a combination of scientific evidence and anecdotal reports discussing tretinoin for sun damage and whether or not it's effective, to give you a more complete understanding of how tretinoin can fit into your sun damage prevention and repair routine.
Sun exposure can lead to two different types of skin damage. First, there’s the short-term skin damage that you exposure right after spending too much time in the sun—a pink, unpleasant form of radiation burn that most of us know as sunburn.
Tretinoin is not a treatment for sunburn. Applying it directly after spending time in the sun won’t do anything to combat the short-term effects of sun exposure. The only ways to avoid sunburn are to limit your time in the sun and apply sunscreen frequently to minimize UV exposure.
The long-term effects of UV radiation are a little different. Over a long time period, spending too much time in the sun can make many of the signs of aging, such as wrinkles, skin discoloration and melasma significantly more visible.
Many of these effects of sun damage can potentially be repaired through the use of retinoids like tretinoin.
For example, in a study conducted in 1990, 89 people with clear signs of photoaging (skin aging caused by long-term UV exposure) were instructed to apply a tretinoin cream to their face over the course of six months.
After six months of treatment using .01%, .05% and .025% tretinoin creams, participants in the study showed an improvement in skin texture and follicle density, as well as a decrease in the width of facial wrinkles—all signs of aging caused by long-term UV exposure.
Another study from 1992 resulted in similar findings. Participants with photoaged skin used one of three concentrations of tretinoin cream (.05%, .01% or .001%) for 24 weeks. After 24 weeks of treatment, participants given the .05% tretinoin cream showed the largest improvement.
Of the people assigned .05% tretinoin cream, 68% exhibited an improvement by the end of the study. Hyperpigmentation, skin roughness and fine wrinkling—all effects of sun damage—were all significantly improved in the group given the 0.05% tretinoin cream.
Finally, another study from 1993 found that tretinoin produces significant improvements in skin damaged by photoaging over six to 12 months of use, with relatively stable results after the six month period.
In short, tretinoin works very well for repairing sun damage. It’s also extremely well tolerated. In all of the studies of tretinoin for reversing photoaging linked above, the vast majority of people experienced few or no significant side effects from using topical tretinoin cream.
Tretinoin is frequently used as a prescription cream for sun damaged skin, and using it to reverse and repair sun damage is simple. Most dermatologists recommend applying tretinoin cream or gel daily, usually in combination with other products to prevent sun damage and keep your skin healthy, hydrated and soft.
Below, we’ve listed a variety of tips and tactics to get the most from using tretinoin as a prescription cream for sun damaged skin:
Apply tretinoin daily, preferably shortly before you go to bed for the night. Our guide to using tretinoin cream explains how to apply tretinoin, from washing your face to letting the solution dry before applying other skincare products.
Start with a low to moderate concentration of tretinoin cream, then adjust the cream you use based on your results. When used as a sun damaged skin treatment cream, it's very important to regulate how much tretinoin you're using.
Most dermatologists will start the tretinoin treatment by prescribing you a cream with a concentration of .05% tretinoin or lower. Our guide to topical tretinoin strengths covers the most common concentrations and their effects on your skin.
Learn about tretinoin side effects before you start. Most tretinoin side effects are mild and temporary, although some can persist for several months or weeks. There's also the tretinoin "purge" users often report experiencing. Our tretinoin "purge" guide covers both the common and uncommon side effects of tretinoin.
Avoid sun exposure while using tretinoin. Not only could sun exposure set back your progress, but tretinoin can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, making it more likely that your skin could dry out, flake and peel.
To keep your skin protected, it’s best to apply an SPF 30+ sunscreen daily while using tretinoin.
Take a long-term approach to tretinoin usage. It can take months before tretinoin will improve your skin. During the first few months of treatment, it’s far from uncommon to experience a “purge” in which your skin looks dryer and rougher than usual.
Tretinoin is a long-term treatment, with most people noticing improvements after six to 12 months of use. Stick with the treatment and apply tretinoin consistently to get the best results from the medication.
With consistent, regular treatment, tretinoin can effectively be used as a sun damaged skin treatment cream. Follow your doctor’s instructions and apply tretinoin consistently and you’ll likely notice an improvement in your skin’s smoothness, coloration and overall appearance within six to 12 months.
Interested in learning more about tretinoin? Our Tretinoin 101 guide covers everything you need to know about tretinoin, from how it works to its side effects. You can also learn more about how to use tretinoin for repairing sun damage and aging in our guide to tretinoin for anti-aging.
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