Is Tretinoin an Effective Treatment for Acne?

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.

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Summary:

  • 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:

  1. 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...
  2. 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...
  3. 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...
  4. 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...
  5. 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...

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

joseph February 16, 2012 at 12:21 pm

can you please tell me .to treat my oily skin.any medications to decrease the sebum.

Reply

Martin February 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Hi Joseph, I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend a particular medication. You would need to speak with your personal physician or a dermatologist about that. However, we do have an article that talks about oily skin and acne. I recommend you check it out.

Reply

Mejury May 14, 2013 at 10:01 am

i took epidermy cream to clear pimples now if i withdraw rash appears on my face

what should i use?

Reply

Rachael May 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Where can I buy topical tretinoin gel/cream in store or online with shipping to UK and Ireland?

Reply

Vicky June 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

I bought some from eBay, it’s listed as retinol A, there are loads. I got 25g tube of 0.1% Tretinoin from Thailand for about £11

Reply

Janna June 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm

I’m using this 0.025%. I bought it from the department store. And I also used the soap for oily skin that recommends me. And in the morning i applied moisturizer with sunblock SPF15. And then, put my make up on. But after 2-3 hours my face starting to be oily skin again. What should i do?

Reply

Kristin July 14, 2013 at 4:11 am

If you have moderate acne, an important thing to remember is to only apply lotion/moiturizer where it’s needed, not all over your face. Putting lotion on oily or acne prone skin that is not dry will clog your pores, making them even more oily. Something you could try is putting baking soda where most of the oil is. Gently rub it on, let it sit for about 15 minutes, and then wash it off using a gentle cleanser. That should soak up a lot of the oil for at least a few days. Although it’s hard to do, the best thing l can suggest is to stop wearing make up. No matter how hypoallergenic or sensitive to skin it is, it definitely can damage your pores when you have oily or acne prone skin. I know that you may fel self conscious, but it will all be worth it when you have clear, beautiful skin.

Reply

Dyan February 27, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Can Tretinoin be use with Exposed Skin Care products. If so how should it be used

Reply

Dyan February 27, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Good day:

Can Tretinion be use with Exposed Skin Care Products. If so, how should it be used.

thank you

Reply

Brianna April 9, 2014 at 11:02 pm

I don’t have cysts or nodules, I have small white heads, and I guess a few black heads. Since I have these and not the others, will my face hurt as bad? Lol, I’m 15 my dermatologist subscribed the 0.025% cream to me.

Reply

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