Last Updated on September 19th, 2019
Retin-A is the world’s most commonly prescribed medication for the severe kind of acne that causes nodules and cysts. It is also particularly good for people who have a lot of blackheads and whiteheads, otherwise known as comedonal acne.
Retin-A is the brand name for topical tretinoin, which falls in a class of medications called retinoids. Some retinoids are available over-the-counter, like adapalene, but most retinoids require a prescription because they are very powerful treatments and often come with some side effects that should be monitored by a dermatologist1. Retin-A is a topical retinoid, but oral retinoids in the form of isotretinoin (commonly known as Accutane) are also popular for treating especially severe, cystic acne. So what makes Retin-A so special? And can it really treat all kinds of acne, from cysts to blackheads? Read on to discover what Retin-A can (and can’t) do for your skin.
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Retin-A is a prescription-strength retinoid, which is a class of medications commonly used to treat acne. The reason they’re so popular is because they essentially function as a pace car for the skin cells2. This is vital for acne treatment because if the skin cells reproduce, grow, or die at the wrong pace, then pores can easily clog, leading to all kinds of acne. According to the latest research, Retin-A effectively suppresses oil production3 and successfully reduces both inflammatory acne (pimples and cysts) and non-inflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads)4. Retin-A is a relatively strong retinoid, which is why it’s often prescribed for more severe types of acne, like cystic acne. It will take regular use over a period of time before you start seeing any positive changes in your skin, though.
This regulation of the skin cell cycle has another added benefit for those who experience dark spots after acne heals. Retin-A encourages the shedding of damaged, pigmented skin cells to make way for new, healthy cells5, effectively treating and getting rid of dark spots left behind by acne, also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Finally, it can also be used as an anti-aging treatment to reduce wrinkles and fine lines6 on your skin, making it an ideal treatment for those with adult acne who also want to prevent signs of aging.
The people who respond best to Retin-A for acne have oily skin that is not easily irritated by chemicals, and that tends to turn brown after irritation or sunburn. What kind of skin should be treated with Retin-A?
Retin-A is used on almost all skin types except the most sensitive. This is because of the common side effects of Retin-A, which include burning, peeling, itching, and irritation. In people with sensitive skin, these side effects would probably cause enough harm to make the Retin-A more or less useless as an acne treatment. But there are other retinoid options available for those with sensitive skin, like gentler, over-the-counter retinoids.
As we mentioned before, Retin-A is the brand name for topical tretinoin, which is just one type of retinoid. If you read the above description and realized that your skin may be too sensitive for Retin-A, you may want to try adapalene. Adapalene is a synthetic retinoid that works more slowly than tretinoin, but is also far gentler. Adapalene can be found in a few different products, including Differin acne gel and Proactiv MD acne gel.
Of course, the opposite problem is a possibility as well. What if you’ve tried Retin-A and it wasn’t strong enough for your acne? No need to worry, you have options too. Retin-A comes in a variety of prescription strengths, including 0.01%, 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. It’s always best to start with a low concentration to curb the likelihood of side effects, but if after several weeks of consistent use you find that your acne still isn’t improving, you can always reach out to your dermatologist and ask for a prescription with a higher concentration.
Some people may require an even more intense retinoid to treat their severe cystic acne, which is where isotretinoin comes in. Isotretinoin is commonly known as Accutane, and it is taken as a pill for several months. Isotretinoin is extremely effective when it comes to treating severe acne; studies show that after taking the drug for four months, 70-80% of patients never have severe acne again7. However, it comes with a fair share of side effects. First, it’s incredibly teratogenic, meaning it is highly correlated with increased risk of birth defects. In many countries, in order to take isotretinoin, you must sign an affidavit swearing to use two forms of birth control at all times. Second, there is a chance it could cause psychological side effects like depression and suicidal ideation, though the research in this area is conflicted8.
If you have decided you want to treat blemishes and acne spots with Retin-A, there are things you can do that will help the product work a lot better on your skin. Here are seven important suggestions.
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