Topical tretinoin for acne is the over-the-counter (or, more often, over the Internet) form of the best-known acne drug Retin-A. It is not as strong as prescription Retin-A, but sometimes it is exactly the right treatment for stubborn acne problems.
We’ve done the research for you…
- Topical tretinoin is the non-prescription form of Retin-A.
- It is always best to start with lowest strength of topical tretinoin you can find, although most people have minimal problems with 0.05%.
- Topical tretinoin is not recommended for children under the age of 12, or for women who are or who may become pregnant, or who are nursing.
- Tretinoin topical is best for treating stubborn blackheads and pimples that are beginning to be covered over with skin.
- Cleanse your skin 20 minutes before you put on tretinoin.
- Use a pea-sized amount of gel (about 1-2 grams) that you apply to blemishes with clean fingers.
- It is best to use tretinoin in the evening. If you use it during the day, avoid excessive sun.
- Don’t buy products that combine tretinoin with a skin-lightening agent such as hydroquinone or mequinol. If you are concerned about brown spots left after acne treatment, use arbutin instead, especially if you have Asian, brown, or black skin.
What’s Special About Tretinoin?
Tretinoin is an acid form of vitamin A. When it is delivered to the skin in a gel, it stimulates normal maturation of cells in the epidermis of the skin. I the right does, it activates genes that cause them to live out a 21-day life cycle during which they are pushed to the surface of the skin. Assuming the problem in the skin was sluggish growth that kept pores tight and tough skin locked over blackheads, nodules, and cysts, stimulating the growth of the skin can be just the thing for hard-to-treat blackheads and small cysts.
Topical tretinoin is also a great treatment for blackheads on oily skin. Many people who have oily skin don’t have acne problems until they spend too much time in the sun. The heat and dryness of the sun makes the skin flake. Some of these flakes get stuck in pores, where they mix with oil. The pore cannot produce enough oil to bring both dead skin and excess oil to the surface, so it quickly fills and creates a hardened plug of sebum that oxidizes, and turns black, with exposure to air.
Tretinoin stimulates skin growth around the clogged pore. The pore opens naturally with squeezing, tweezing, picking, poking, steaming, or detergent treatment. The “floppier” your skin, the better the results you will get from topical tretinoin. Tight skin does not respond as well to tretinoin, but tight skin also is less prone to whiteheads and blackheads.
Gels made with tretinoin also also good for treating small, newly formed nodules and cysts that are covered with a transparent layer of skin. Encouraging the skin to grow around the nodule opens up the cyst without draining. If you have tough pink scar tissue over a knot, nodule, or cyst, however, the strength of tretinoin you can get over-the-counter probably won’t work.
What Topical Tretinoin Does Not Treat
There are some acne skin care problems that don’t respond well to non-prescription topical tretinoin. Any nodule, cyst, or ingrown hair that is old enough to be covered with pink skin probably will not respond to topical tretinoin. In fact, treatment could make the cyst or nodule worse. There could be just enough growth in the skin over an old cyst to make it redder and more noticeable, but not enough growth to make the skin open up and drain the infection.
Larger pimples take longer to respond to topical tretinoin. Stimulation of skin growth over the pimple temporarily makes it redder. More skin has to be stimulated for the pimple to drain. Smaller pimples on tight skin, on the other hand, often are healed more quickly with the right amount of tretinoin.
How to Use Topical Tretinoin
Non-prescription tretinoin comes in 0.01%, 0.02%, 0.025%, 0.375%, 0.04%, 0.05%, and 0.10% strength. You will most commonly find the 0.05% strength offered on the Internet. Even the 0.01% strength of this drug is considered too strong for children under the age of 12. Like all other medicated skin gels and creams, it is always best to start with the lowest available strength product and increase strength every time you get another tube, to make sure it does not cause unacceptable irritation to your skin.
There is a tretinoin lotion called Renova, but this is primarily a treatment for sun-damaged skin. There are also tretinoin creams, but they can clog pores. Gels are best. Most people experience some irritation when they use the 0.05% product, but they can adjust the amount they use so that any side effects are minimal.
It is essential to cleanse the skin before applying topical tretinoin. It is never a good idea, whether you are using topical tretinoin or not, to clean the skin with a bar of soap wrapped in a washcloth or with a detergent that makes big, foamy bubbles. Washcloths are abrasive, causing tiny cracks in the skin, and soap bubbles can pull apart the skin where the edges of the bubbles touch the skin.
You don’t want to use a strong soap or a literal scrub to loosen up your skin. You want to use tretinoin to stimulate the growth of the skin so it accomplishes its own loosening. Wait 20 minutes after you have used a mild cleanser and rinsed it off, and, with clean fingers, apply a pea-sized amount of gel to the skin you want to treat. Don’t get the gel in your mouth or your eyes. Let the tretinoin dry on your skin, and wait another 20 minutes before applying makeup or sunscreen.
Sun and Tretinoin
The strengths of tretinoin you can get without a prescription won’t make your skin especially sensitive to sunlight. Even so, it is best to use tretinoin in the evening. If you use tretinoin in the morning, take care not to burn. Apply at least SPF-15 sunscreen even if you have black skin, and up to SPF-70 sunscreen if you have fair skin and you are going out in strong sun.
Some formulations of over-the-counter tretinoin include skin lighteners to treat the browning that can be left behind as acne heals. Most of these products are a really bad idea if you have Asian, brown, or black skin. Asian skin, in particular, may react badly to treatment with products that contain a combination of tretinoin and the skin-lightening agent hydroquinone. Sometimes this combination is fine, but sometimes it causes a skin reaction that leaves permanent black and blue marks on the skin, especially at the tip of the nose, sides of the cheeks, and on the ears.
When tretinoin is combined with another lightening agent known as mequinol, treated skin may look very pale. This is undesirable if you have fair skin, but it is completely unacceptable if you have brown or black skin. If you have colored skin, don’t use either mequinol or hydroquinone on your skin. It is a lot safer to use a separate skin treatment with arbutin to prevent pigmentation after tretinoin has helped you clear up blemishes.
Tretinoin Is Not Enough
Tretinoin can be just that extra something that helps you achieve clear skin, but it is never enough just to use tretinoin. You still need complete skin care to keep blemishes from coming back. That’s easiest with a skin care system like Exposed Skin Care.
Related acne articles:
- Treating Acne with Retin A: Does it Work? Retin-A is the world’s most commonly prescribed medication for severe kind of acne that causes nodules and cysts. It is also sometimes used in non-prescription...
- Blue Light Treatment for Acne: Safe & Effective? For centuries, people who had acne were told that they needed the sun to “dry out” their skin. While both dryness and sun are enemies...
- Do Antibiotics Offer a Safe, Effective Way to Treat Acne? Acne antibiotics used to be the first thing the doctor would prescribe for pimples, but acne bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotic treatment so that...
- Effective Treatments for Mild Acne Nearly everyone gets mild acne at some time during life, most often starting between the ages of 8 and 18. Mild acne is best treated...
- Which Acne Gel Is Most Effective? Find Out Here! Acne gels can be great for spot treatment of unsightly pimples. Acne gels can begin to fade the brown spots left behind when acne heals...