What is Tretinoin?

Medically reviewed by Sophia Yen, MD, MPH – Written by Pandia Health Editorial Team

Spending time under the sun can be relaxing, but not always for your skin! As we approach the summer months, you may want to reconsider your skincare routine in addition to your vacation plans.

With so many products on the market, it can be difficult to determine which will actually be effective in treating acne. Thankfully, once you familiarize yourself with ingredients, you may get a better idea of what is and is not good to put on your skin.

Tretinoin is a product that is often used to treat acne. Never heard of it? No worries! The following article will break down everything you need to know about this effective acne treatment.

What is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin (all-trans-retinoic acid) is a topical skin treatment with anti-aging properties. As a synthetic version of Vitamin A, it typically serves as an alternative treatment to retinoids and retinol, which are natural forms of Vitamin A. While most retinoids and retinol are available over-the-counter (a.k.a accessible at your local drugstore), tretinoin requires a prescription.

Tretinoin is a bit stronger than retinoids and retinol, which makes it a bit more successful at tackling pesky pimples that won’t seem to go away. While this alone is great, it is important to note that tretinoin may not be tolerated by sensitive skin and thus, should only be used under the guide of a healthcare provider. Additionally, it could make your skin more susceptible to dryness and sunburn. Furthermore, using sunscreen and moisturizer in conjunction with this product is especially necessary for maintaining healthy skin.

Tretinoin can be found as an active ingredient in the following brand names:

  • Altreno
  • Altralin
  • Ativa
  • Refissa
  • Rejuva
  • Renova
  • Retin-A
  • Stieva
  • Tretin-X

It’s also used as an active ingredient in combination products like:

  • Solange
  • Tri-Luma
  • Veltin
  • Ziana

What is Tretinoin used for?

Historically, Tretinoin has been used to treat mild to moderate acne as it helps reduce inflammation, prevent clogged pores, and exfoliate the skin. While counterintuitive as it may seem, it works by irritating the skin. Doing so speeds up the life-cycle of skin cells, allowing the old cells to be replaced by healthy cells.

Tretinoin is also an effective method to treat acne, but it can also alleviate photodamaged skin and improve wrinkling, roughness, and pigmentation. Additionally, by having a direct effect on the dermis and epidermis (the two most upper layers of the skin), it can potentially eliminate malignant, or cancerous, growths.

These benefits are typically seen when using tretinoin consistently. Generally, it takes three to four months to see changes in the following areas.


Tretinoin is considered to be the ‘gold standard’ when fighting acne and ultraviolet (UV) damage, which cause wrinkles. While wrinkles are typically associated with aging, they may begin to appear in your 20s and become more evident in your 30s and 40s. This timeline can speed up with exposure to stress and sun, among other factors (i.e. pollutants, smoking, etc.). Tretinoin helps combat wrinkles by increasing skin cell turnover, which in turn, causes new cells to replace older cells. By doing so, it removes the skin that has been exposed to the UV rays, giving you a fresher, more youthful appearance.

Acne scars

Acne scars are the marks left by the remnants of acne. Tretinoin can help to decrease the appearance of these marks. By ramping up the cell growth process, it helps produce new cells at the site of scarring. It may also be used to prep skin for chemical peel treatments that target scarring specifically.

Dark/Age spots

Dark/Age spots, also known as “liver spots,” are flat, brown spots often caused by sun exposure. They are typically larger than freckles and appear on the face, arms, hands, back, and feet. These can be prevented with the use of broad-spectrum sunscreen, which helps block some of the UV rays. However, in some cases, they may be inevitable. Tretinoin may be prescribed to help lighten liver spots, making them less visible.


Melasma is a common skin condition that causes dark, discolored patches to appear on the skin. It’s more common in women, especially during pregnancy. A study by the British Journal of Dermatology found that individuals who used 0.1% topical tretinoin once daily saw improvement in their skin. This is likely the result of reduction in epidermal pigment.


Blackheads are small, dark cuts that occur on the skin. They are usually a feature of mild acne, but they may appear on individuals with generally clear skin. These cuts form when the pores in the skin become plugged with dead skin cells and natural oils. While tretinoin may not be used to specifically eliminate blackheads, it is effective at treating the acne that typically accompanies them.

What does tretinoin do to your skin?

Tretinoin helps speed up the process of shedding dead skin cells and replacing them with new, healthy cells. This unique characteristic enables it to have anti-aging properties, which makes it an ideal compound to treat acne, wrinkles, and sun damage. Originally, tretinoin was developed as an acne treatment by:

  • Making the pores smaller
  • Decreasing the stickiness caused by your natural oils, so your pores don’t get plugged
  • Decreases the natural production of oils

When you use tretinoin (after getting a prescription from your healthcare provider), you should start noticing results in two to three week. However, it could take up to six weeks for significant improvement to occur.  If you don’t notice any changes after 12 weeks, consult your doctor for further advice. This may indicate that another treatment might be more effective for your specific needs.

What’s the takeaway?

Tretinoin is one of the premier ingredients prescribed to treat acne and additional skin-related issues. With that being said, it may not be right for everyone. Be sure to consult a doctor if you notice changes in your skin. Tretinoin might just become part of your regimen.

How can Pandia Health help?

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does tretinoin treat acne?

Tretinoin treats acne by decreasing the size of the pore, slowing oil production, and smoothing the skin.

What does tretinoin cream help with?

Tretinoin cream is typically used to treat wrinkles, acne scarring, and skin discoloration.

Can topical tretinoin cream treat stress acne?

Tretinoin can be used to treat stress acne. However, other methods such as hydration, increased face-washing, and stress management may be implemented first

Does tretinoin help dead skin cells?

Technically, yes! Tretinoin acts as an exfoliant by replacing old skin cells with new ones.

Is it safe to use tretinoin daily?

Yes! It is safe to use tretinoin on your skin daily. That said, it’s important to follow your doctor's orders for the frequency and directions on applying the product.

Disclaimer: The above information is for general informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your doctor or healthcare provider before starting or changing acne treatment. Some products might work for your skin type while others may not.