Medically reviewed by Michele Emery, DNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/21/2019
A derivative of vitamin A, tretinoin is a versatile medication that’s used to treat a huge variety of skin conditions, from acne to aging.
Tretinoin is a retinoid that works by increasing the growth rate of skin cells. By promoting faster growth of skin, tretinoin can help to clear problematic or recurring acne, reduce the appearance of wrinkles and even out patches of skin discoloration.
As a prescription medication, tretinoin is significantly more powerful than most over-the-counter retinoids, such as retinol. You’ll need to speak to your doctor before you can begin using it, and you’ll generally begin with a relatively low-concentration version of the cream or gel.
Like most skincare treatments, the results from tretinoin aren’t always immediate. However, over the long term, tretinoin really does work, with studies showing significant improvements in acne, wrinkling and skin discoloration over the course of three to six months.
Below, we’ve covered the most popular uses for tretinoin cream, with links to scientific studies to support tretinoin’s key advantages, potential side effects and more.
Tretinoin is one of the most powerful medications available for treating and preventing acne. It’s also significantly safer than other acne prevention drugs, with a far shorter list of potential side effects than widely used oral medications like accutane.
Study data shows that tretinoin is very widely used as an acne treatment. In the United States, it accounts for about 12.5% of all acne treatments for preadolescents, with a similar number of users to over-the-counter products like adapalene and benzoyl peroxide.
Unlike many over-the-counter acne products, tretinoin really works as an acne treatment -- a fact that’s highlighted by several scientific studies.
In a 2009 study, participants were instructed to use either tretinoin gel or a non-therapeutic placebo gel over the course of 12 weeks. People given tretinoin experienced a decrease in facial acne that significantly outperformed the placebo group.
In a more recent study from 2015, participants were given a combination treatment that was made up of tretinoin cream and clindamycin 1% gel. These participants recorded an average reduction in facial acne from 13.70 ± 4.80 to 1.30 ± 2.95 over 12 weeks of treatment.
In short, tretinoin works very well for reducing both the amount and severity of acne without many of the potential side effects of harsher, more powerful oral acne medications such as accutane.
As well as clearing up acne in the short term, tretinoin also works well as a long-term acne prevention treatment. Many dermatologists recommend long term, daily use of tretinoin for patients with persistent, recurring acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments.
Used over the long term, tretinoin can significantly reduce the visibility of forehead wrinkles, frown lines, crow’s feet and other facial wrinkles, making it a powerful tool for combating the aesthetic signs of aging.
Tretinoin also treats skin roughness and other forms of damage from UV radiation, making it one of the best medications to use in your anti-aging skincare routine.
In a 2001 study, researchers found that tretinoin cream 0.02% (a fairly low concentration of tretinoin, compared to many widely used creams) produced improvements in fine wrinkling, coarse wrinkling, and skin yellowing over the course of 24 weeks of treatment.
The study also found that tretinoin cream is well tolerated, with a favorable safety profile and relatively low rate of side effects.
Anti-aging studies also show that it doesn’t take a huge amount of tretinoin to produce major improvements in skin quality.
In a 1995 study, researchers concluded that .025% and .01% tretinoin creams lead to similar results, with “no clinically or statistically significant differences” in skin thickening or increased vascularity.
In short, even a relatively small amount of tretinoin is scientifically documented to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of aging, helping you maintain fresh, younger-looking skin as you get older.
Tretinoin is also used to treat unwanted pigmentation and uneven skin tone caused by aging and sun damage.
Known as “hyperpigmentation,” skin discoloration can occur over time as your body produces excessive amounts of melanin in certain areas of the skin. As you get older, melanin deposits tend to become more obvious, resulting in the appearance of dark areas such as liver spots.
In a 1989 study, researchers found that regular use of tretinoin can prevent the appearance of certain forms of skin photodamage.
Participants in the study used a .05% tretinoin cream once daily -- a standard concentration of tretinoin that’s widely used for anti-aging purposes. Over the course of six months, the tretinoin users experienced a significant improvement in skin hyperpigmentation.
The tretinoin users also experienced an improvement in fine and coarse wrinkling, looseness and sallowness (the development of a yellowish or lightish brown color on the skin). After six months, participants could also clearly perceive the improvement in their appearance.
A 1990 Italian study of tretinoin for treating skin discoloration and wrinkling resulted in similar findings. After six months of treatment with tretinoin cream, participants showed a significant improvement in mottled hyperpigmentation, xerosis and coarse and fine skin wrinkling.
Finally, a 1991 study of .05% and .01% tretinoin cream produced similar results, with 79% of participants showing reductions in mottled hyperpigmentation, skin roughness and laxity after using tretinoin cream for 24 weeks.
Are you interested in using tretinoin? Our guides to tretinoin for preventing acne and reducing the signs of aging cover two of the most popular uses of tretinoin, with specific tips and advice for getting the most from tretinoin cream or gel.
You can also learn more about tretinoin in our Tretinoin 101 guide, which covers a wide variety of topics related to tretinoin, from common brand names and dosages to potential side effects, the cream’s mechanism of action and more.
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