Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Treating Acne with Retin-A: Does It Work?

By Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Dealing with acne, no matter how severe, is a stressful and frustrating journey. It doesn’t help that many companies and brands push products and “solutions” that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be! We spend money and time on remedies, only to be left with a dry, irritated face and persistent, acne-plagued skin.

On the positive side, there are scientifically-proven solutions, and your acne should get ready to pack its bags. Such solutions offer a holistic approach, dealing with the entire acne process for long-term results.

In this article, we zoom in on one particular ingredient and how it works to shuffle acne out of your life. Without further ado, let’s discuss Retin-A to treat acne.

What Is Retin-A For Acne?

Retin-A is one of the most popular topical acne treatments on the market, (since the late 60s!) and can only be prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist. It is dabbed onto the affected areas in the form of a gel, liquid, or cream.

Depending on your acne severity and cause, your doctor may prescribe you with Retin-A as an alternative to more disruptive oral medication such as Accutane or the contraceptive pill.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the name. The “A” refers to Vitamin A, which all retinoids are derived from. The “retin” is derived from retinol, another name for Vitamin A. Retin-A is also known as tretinoin (the medical name, Retin-A is a brand name) and is a strong Vitamin A skin treatment.

What Exactly Is Acne?

Before we explore how Retin-A cream treatment can reduce acne, let’s recap what acne is and how it is caused.

Here’s what happens to your skin before and during an acne outbreak:

  • The hair follicle becomes filled with dead skin cells and sebum
  • The dead skin cells cluster at the top of the follicle
  • The sebum builds up in the follicle and cannot escape
  • The built-up sebum and dead skin cells cause an acne pustule or pimple
  • The bacteria present in the clogged follicle thrive and proliferate beyond normal levels due to the build-up of dead skin and sebum
  • Sometimes, the built-up sebum and bacteria cause deeper, wider infection of the skin. This is what causes cystic acne scars and those painful, pressure-packed whiteheads

Why Do We Get Acne?

Some people are fortunate enough to go through life without experiencing acne (oh, to be so lucky!). However, acne affects around 50 million people in the United States, so you’re certainly not alone.

You may have been told as a teenager that acne is caused by a bad diet full of sugar and fat. While diet is definitely a factor in the cause and treatment of acne, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Thankfully, studies and modern medical advice have debunked that unhelpful “just eat healthier and your acne will clear up” myth. In other words: your acne isn’t your fault.

One of the most common causes of acne is hormonal changes, which is why it is so prevalent among teens. During puberty, testosterone (an androgen) levels skyrocket, causing that oily teen glow and pimples over the cheeks, forehead, and jaw.

However, acne isn’t reserved solely for teens. Adult acne is common, especially among women. This is because the hormones that ebb and flow during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy 🤰, and menopause strongly affect our sebum production. Birth control pills are often prescribed as acne medication because they regulate acne-causing hormones, leading to reduced sebum production and consistently clear skin.

How Does Retin-A Cream Work?

Topical Retin-A treatments are applied sparingly to the skin, generally at night to lessen side-effects related to sun exposure.

But, how does tretinoin work once it’s on the skin? What does it do and what can we expect?

This is where things get interesting. Why? Because tretinoin (Retin-A) actually irritates your skin.

Essentially, it is a very strong chemical 🧪 exfoliant. This is why it is associated with dryness, peeling, and tingling (as we discuss further below). Take a breath, it’s not as violent as it sounds! In fact, it’s a rather complex process. Here’s how it works:

  • Retin-A irritates your skin, prompting the skin cells to die, renew, and grow at a faster rate. (Skin cell turnover is also what makes Retin-A a great anti-aging ingredient)
  • By getting rid of old cells, the skin layers on the face are reduced so the pores and follicles can breathe
  • Fewer skin layers and reduced dead cells prevent follicles from becoming clogged
  • Because the pores and follicles are clear, sebum can flow evenly without building up and causing pimples
  • Retin-A, despite being an exfoliant and irritant, also has anti-inflammatory properties, eventually reducing redness associated with acne

How Do I Use Retin-A To Treat Acne?

First of all, you must seek medical advice before launching into a tretinoin routine. Talk to your doctor about an acne treatment plan that works with your skin, lifestyle, and medical history. Once you’ve got the green light to use a retin-based treatment, consider these tips:

  • Cleanse your face with an acne-approved cleanser, pat with a towel, and leave to dry completely
  • Apply a thin layer of your prescribed tretinoin/retinae cream and leave to sink into the skin
  • Apply your oil-free moisturizer, preferably one with hyaluronic acid to draw moisture to the skin and soothe excessive dryness
  • The next day, cleanse and moisturize as usual…and don’t forget the sunscreen


  • Use a less-is-more approach. A little goes a long way! Resist the temptation to lay it on thick, as it will only cause more irritation and waste product
  • Retin-A makes your skin very sensitive to the sun, so take precautions at all times. Hats, sunscreen, shade, and flat-out sun avoidance
  • Be patient, Retin-A can take up to 12 weeks to show visible results
  • Some people find that a little moisturizer added before and after your Retin-A application helps with the drying effects
  • If you find that using tretinoin every day is a little too intense at the start, you could try a “night on, night off” approach to allow your skin to get used to it

What Retin-A Strength Should I Use?

There are different Retin-A cream, gel, and liquid strengths to treat various acne severities. The strengths range from 0.1% to 0.025%. The dosage you take will depend on your doctor’s assessment of your acne, overall skin condition, and the duration of the treatment.

Where Does Retin-A Fit Into My Acne Treatment Routine?

You can’t simply dab Retin-A cream onto your face and leave it that. Acne requires a comprehensive approach that you can achieve with the right products and at-home routine.

A gentle yet effective cleanser with salicylic acid will help to clear dead skin cells from the face and remove excess oil.

A moisturizer is just as important (if not more so) as it remains on your skin for much longer. Plus, it will help to soothe the dryness and flakiness associated with Retin-A. Remember that even sebum-heavy, acne-prone skin needs moisture.

Is There An Acne Skincare Range That Won’t Strip My Skin?

The great news? 🎉🎉🎉 You don’t need to shell out for an expensive dermatologist appointment to start your acne-treatment journey. There are some great over-the-counter solutions, but they may not be what you expected.

A smart approach is to find a complete acne skincare system that protects your skin’s moisture barrier while treating the cause of your acne. Many of you will have Proactiv springing to mind due to celebrity-focused TV advertising. However, Proactiv reviews leave much to be desired, not to mention the high prices and lengthy commitment expectation.

The name Exposed Skincare may not ring any bells, but it’s fair to say it is one of the most underrated acne skincare systems on the market. Here’s why:

  • You don’t need to book, endure, and pay for a doctor’s appointment to reap the benefits of Exposed Skincare, but the results are medical-grade
  • It has a far smaller price-tag than similar (yet less effective) acne skincare systems
  • No matter how mild or severe your acne, Exposed Skincare gently treats the skin without stripping oils, leaving your skin comfortable as well as clearer
  • Exposed Skincare won’t leave your skin at the mercy of the sun as many other skincare regimes and medications do
  • Exposed Skincare contains azelaic acid, a key ingredient that helps to increase cell turnover and prevent dead skin cells from building up. In this sense, it acts very similarly to retin-a, but does not cause the same irritation and discomfort

Exposed Skincare uses a mixture of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, a combination known to work better than prescription acne treatments (as found by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology). This combination unclogs pores and kills the bacteria lurking inside. Tea tree oil offers further antibacterial properties and repairs distressed skin, while glycolic acid ushers new, fresh skin to the surface for a youthful glow.

In other words, Exposed Skincare tackles the entire acne-forming process and stops it in its tracks. It covers all bases, all the while nourishing and protecting the skin for your comfort.

Will Retin-A Help With Anti-Ageing As Well?

Good question. Yes, long-term use of Retin-A cream has been proven to reduce signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, dull skin, and dark spots.

It comes back to the irritating nature of Retin-A, as it forces the skin cells to renew and refresh. Blood flow to the face is increased, and smoother skin is constantly being brought to the surface. This leads to softer, younger skin with even tone and texture.

Plus, Retin-A boosts collagen production in the skin, resulting in plumper, more elastic skin. This is particularly helpful for people in their 20s, 30s, and beyond who are suffering from adult acne. Why not kill two birds (or two zits) with one stone and enjoy younger skin, too?

What Are The Side Effects Of Retin Cream?

While Retin-A is considered safe and has been used with excellent results for decades, there are side-effects to consider.

Knowing what to expect when using tretinoin will help you to stick to the plan without surprises. Common side-effects are:

  • A tingling or burning feeling when you first begin your cream Retin-A acne treatment
  • Dry, flaky, irritated skin. You may also notice peeling. This should likely pass once your skin gets used to the cell-renewing effect of gel or cream Retin-A
  • Skin that is prone to sunburn due to increased sensitivity to the sun. Make sure you wear sunscreen on your face daily and avoid the sun whenever possible

The great side is that because tretinoin cream is not an over-the-counter product, you have to consult with your doctor before getting your hands on it. This allows you to cover all the bases such as drug interactions, existing skin conditions, and a plan to deal with side-effects such as dry skin when using Retin-A.

Gather up all the health information you can, and go forth with the knowledge and solutions to make your Retin-A experience an effective one.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long does Retin-A take to work on acne? 

You may start to see the beginning stages of results after 6 weeks. However, Retin-A takes about 12 weeks to show noticeable, significant changes. It’s important to be aware of this, as it will make the side-effects all the more bearable!

2. What does Retin-A do for acne?

In short, Retin-a exfoliates the skin, allows proper airflow in the follicle, regulates sebum production, and stops the follicles from clogging. It encourages skin cells to regularly renew while boosting collagen production. Tretinoin may also help to reduce the inflammation associated with your acne.

The result? Reduced (or disappeared) acne, smoother skin, reduced redness, and a younger-looking face.

3. Why is Retin-A making my acne worse?

As frustrating as it is, Retin-A treatment can make your acne worse before it makes it better.

Remember that the Retin-A acne diagnosis or treatment is coaxing the acne from your skin. It is sloughing away dead skin cells to reveal and get rid of sebaceous material blocking the follicles. This is called “purging”, the calm before the storm of the acne world.

Once your existing acne is purged and your skin gets used to the treatment, those excellent results will start to show. The key is to keep up your treatment, stick to a gentle skincare routine, and persevere.

4. Will Retin-A clear up acne?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Retin-A is used to treat acne over time by clearing out the hair follicles, allowing proper sebum flow, and preventing clogging.

But…there’s a “however”, as with all medical topics.

Everyone is different, so tretinoin gel may not be the best solution for you.

Your healthcare practitioners may prescribe you with a mixture of Retin-A and benzoyl peroxide depending on the cause and severity of your acne.

If your acne is severe and you decide to see a dermatologist, you may be presented with other treatment options such as Accutane, birth control, or antibiotics such as doxycycline.

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Amy Reply

I have been alternating Tretinoin .05% and Benzoyl Peroxide 2.5%, both every other night. What an amazing difference after just 2 months! I am 45 yrs old but have always been told I look 10 yrs younger. My eyes have fine lines, but no deep wrinkles. My T-zone was an oily mess with large pores & blackhead across my nose. My oil & blackheads have improved by about 50-60%. I am thrilled, as I've tried just about everything else & no other combination has worked like the Retin A + BPO. Definitely try it & be patient!!

July 1, 2016 at 5:24 pm Reply
Minerxstore Reply

Thank you for information you provided and Yes, Tretinoin works effectively to treat acne. It is also medically know as Retin-A and Renova. It is topical retinoid and vitamin A form. Vitamin A helps to prevent acne coming on skin surface. It is FDA approved cream and has clinically proven that can work safely and effectively to remove acne. Tretinoin cream also used to treat scars, pimples, aging, wrinkles, blackand white heads etc. Minerxstore

July 14, 2016 at 6:33 am Reply
charlie paul Reply

In about four months it has gotten a rid of about 85 percent of my scars and has cleared up the acne itself for the most part!

August 17, 2016 at 6:41 am Reply
Gaby Reply

I use retin A and it making my skin super red and it hurts alot what can do. It burns

October 20, 2016 at 7:10 am Reply
Julie Reply

I was told to put on an oil free moistureizer at the same time. So I kind of mix it together and it cut down the stinging. The results are far better than I ever imagined. I'm so happy.

December 11, 2016 at 6:55 am Reply
Zoey Reply

I have gotten the same thing as Gaby and I do not know what to do! I have always been very sensitive and it has got worse after the baby I had, about 3 and a half years ago. I hear it is clearing the pimples after the 2nd use this time. It feels like my skin is on fire every time I put sunscreen on or get touched by the sun/walk in chilli conditions.

November 4, 2016 at 3:27 pm Reply
chinonso Reply

mine it itches me i dont know weather to stop using it

June 17, 2017 at 12:33 am Reply
chinonso Reply

I am using the rectinA but i noticed itching on right side of my face.should i discontinue using it...i need an ans thanks

June 17, 2017 at 12:34 am Reply
Kat Reply

I am 40 years old, and have suffered from acne for most of my life. I am presently on a .05 dose of Tretinoin, and use it every other night. I started it two years ago went up to .01, found it was too harsh for my skin, and went back to .05. That works well for my skin and clearing up blemishes, however I am also sensitive to the sunscreen ingredient Octinoxate. I am also sensitive to niacinamide, so that greatly reduces my ability to use the often recommended CeraVe products. When I first started treatment I was using a Dermalogica moisturizer that was too light and Dermalogica's special cleansing gel (SLS). My face was severely dehydrated and caused dry spots on my cheeks . I then started using PCA skin care line, which has a cleansing cream that doesn't have SLS, and I've also been using a very emollient moisturizer both day and night. Of course, this moisturizer is now causing breakouts although it has corrected the dehydrating side effect of the Retin-A. I am just seeking a moisturizer with SPF, or two separate items, that will agree with my skin. No niacinamide, no Octinoxate.

June 24, 2018 at 8:59 pm Reply