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Everything you need to know about tretinoin

This prescription active works wonders on acne, scarring, pigmentation, lines and wrinkles, giving retinol a major run for its money

Interest in tretinoin has grown exponentially over the last few years, but due to it being prescription only it’s still shrouded in a little mystery. So, here’s everything you need to know…

What exactly is tretinoin?

Available in cream, lotion and gel formulas, tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid is part of the retinoid family. But while it’s a derivative of vitamin A like gold standard youth-booster retinol, tretinoin is a much stronger synthetic derivative that offers impressive results but is not well tolerated by sensitive skin types.

How it works

Tretinoin works by irritating the skin causing skin cells to divide, grow and die more rapidly, which is why it has been used to treat mild to moderate acne for decades. The quick cell turnover prevents pores from clogging, blocking the development of acne, and the new cells help with texture and pigment irregularities caused by acne. However, in recent years it’s also been prescribed for those who want to target lines and wrinkles, as the faster your cell turnover the more collagen you preserve, and the more collagen you make. Research also suggests this retinoid is also a powerful anti-inflammatory active that improves the health of (sun) damaged skin.

Who can use it?

Anyone who wants to treat acne, pigmentation, scarring, lines and wrinkles. And when it comes to skin tones, there is a misconception that tretinoin isn’t for those with a dark skin tone, as it can cause hyperpigmentation, or bleach the skin. This is not the case. Studies* have shown that tretinoin can work just as well in those with Black and brown skin and that it is not a skin bleaching agent as it has no affect on melanin synthesis – meaning you’ll produce melanin as usual and any ‘lightening’ you may see is simply your natural skin tone. Those who may have to give this retinoid a miss are those with sensitive skin as it’s likely to exacerbate redness, and dryness and can cause blistering and swelling too.

How to use it

Generally available in three strengths, 0.025% is the mildest and tends to be prescribed for the upkeep of healthy skin or mild acne. 0.05% tends to be used to target moderate acne, scarring and pigmentation as well as lines and wrinkles, with patients working up to 0.1%. With each strength comes more side effects, think redness, peeling, itching and dryness, but these tend to abate after a few weeks of treatment. Your prescriber will select the best strength for your needs and all that’s needed is a pea-size amount two to three times a week, increasing the frequency of use as the weeks go by until you are using it every night. And because your skin can become more sensitive to the sun, an SPF come the morning is a must.


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