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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

8 tips for using tretinoin in skincare treatment

Some call it the gold standard for acne and anti-aging skin concerns—but it can take time for your skin to get used to it.

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Curology Team
Oct 24, 2022 · 6 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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When you use prescription-strength retinoids like tretinoin, your skin may need time to adjust. We know you’re anxious to see results—like, yesterday! But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Bombarding your skin with too much too soon can result in skin that’s dry, itchy, flaky, or red. That said, a little bit of irritation when first starting out is common. Your skin is actively working to adapt and your tretinoin is doing its job, which is to increase cell turnover and boost collagen production.¹

Here we’ll share the acne and anti-aging benefits of tretinoin, explain how it works, and provide tips on how to incorporate it into your skincare routine. 

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin—aka Retin-A— is a popular prescription-only retinoid. It’s used to treat acne outbreaks and reduce signs of aging, including unwanted texture changes, dark spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and firmness.² In some cases, medical providers prescribe tretinoin and other retinoids to treat other skin conditions like skin cancer and psoriasis.³

Tretinoin is one of the best topical treatments for acne and anti-aging, but it takes time before you see results. For acne, it can take about two months to see noticeable results. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to notice its anti-aging effects. Of course, these timelines can vary, so patience is key!

Keep in mind that no treatment works overnight, and topical tretinoin is no exception. It’s also important to remember that everyone’s skin is unique and what works for one person won’t work for another—and that’s okay! 

What is the difference between tretinoin and retinol?

Retinol and tretinoin are both topical retinoids (sometimes seen in the form of retinoid creams), which are vitamin A derivatives. Retinol is available over the counter and is not as powerful as tretinoin. But it tends to be a little easier on sensitive skin.⁴

Tretinoin generally works faster and more efficiently, but it’s only available by prescription. Because it’s typically stronger than over-the-counter retinoids, it may take longer for your skin to adjust to it. But, if you’re used to using retinol, you may be able to transition to tretinoin more easily. 

Some people choose to stick with over-the-counter retinol. But you should understand your options before making your decision. If you want to dive deep into the differences between tretinoin and retinol, we’ve got you covered.

The difference between tretinoin and retinol infographic

How does tretinoin work on your skin?

Here’s what’s happening under the surface of the skin when you use tretinoin: Tretinoin binds to retinoic acid receptors (think of receptors as a lock and tretinoin as the key). When this happens, tretinoin is able to exert a variety of positive effects (e.g. increased cell turnover, decreased clogged pores, shedding of dead skin cells, etc.). More recently, tretinoin has been used in combination with antibacterials like benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin to create topical treatments with antibacterial, comedolytic, and anti-inflammatory properties. These combination therapies are proven to effectively treat acne.⁵

As an added bonus, having fewer dead skin cells helps improve the appearance of dry, rough, and aging skin. Tretinoin also promotes collagen production, which gives the skin a smoother, more even texture.⁶ 

To put it simply, tretinoin treats and helps prevent blocked pores because it works deep into the follicles to clear dead skin cells and “normalize” cell turnover. This also improves hyperpigmentation, i.e., sunspots and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. 

8 tips for incorporating tretinoin into your skincare routine 

Here are eight of our top tips for easing tretinoin into your skincare routine. These can helpgive you the results you want, so be patient. 

  1. Before using tretinoin cream—or any other topical leave-on cream, lotion, or gel—wash your face with a gentle cleanser (ideally one for your skin type).

  2. Only use tretinoin at night before bed and start slowly. Use a small amount two to three times a week to start and increase the frequency as tolerated.  

  3. Up the usage as your skin gets used to tretinoin. Over time, your skin should get accustomed to the treatment, and you can begin using it more often. Gradually increase the number of days you use tretinoin during the week.  

  4. Apply moisturizer before tretinoin use (instead of after) if you notice dryness/irritation from tretinoin.  

  5. Use a pea-sized amount that covers the face and neck in a thin layer. To minimize skin irritation, remember, less is more.

  6. Dry skin or peeling may be a tretinoin side effect. That said, if you experience facial swelling or hives, discontinue use and talk to your dermatology provider.

  7. Compliment your routine by layering skincare products with tretinoin to help you reach your skincare goals. Examples include a vitamin C serum for its anti-aging benefits or hyaluronic acid for its hydrating superpowers. If you’re a Curology member, your Curology dermatology provider may also design a cream tretinoin with other active ingredients. 

  8. As always, apply sunscreen each day. Your skin may be temporarily drier, and you may also experience more sensitivity to the sun. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or more—and remember, the best sunscreen is one you’ll use daily!

  9. Be patient with the treatment, and remember that everyone’s results are different. While acne often improves in six to eight weeks, it can take many months to notice any significant anti-aging changes from creams with tretinoin. In the meantime, don’t downplay celebrating the small victories, like fewer breakouts and improved texture.

Who should use tretinoin? 

Tretinoin helps reduce signs of aging like dark spots and wrinkles. It can also treat acne. If you’re looking for a single treatment that slows down the clock of time and/or treats acne, tretinoin may be right for you. Discuss its uses and benefits with your Curology dermatology provider or healthcare provider. 

If you’d like to try an over-the-counter product first, give retinol a try. Just check the ingredient list to make sure there aren't any comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients. Over-the-counter retinol is only proven to improve the signs of aging, but you can look for a form of adapalene (Differin) if you’re dealing with acne!

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Curology and tretinoin

One of the easiest ways to get prescription skincare is through Curology. We’re a telehealth skincare service that pairs our members with licensed dermatology professionals. While we can’t guarantee they’ll prescribe tretinoin, your provider will make the best recommendations for your skin and skincare goals. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Getting started is easy. Just take a quick quiz and snap a few selfies. We’ll review your skin concerns to determine if tretinoin is the best way to meet your goals. If it is, we’ll design a personalized prescription formula just for you. We’ll pair that with Curology’s cleanser, moisturizer, and any other product your dermatology provider thinks will benefit your skin. We believe in personalized service from personalized prescription formulas to expert guidance. If you have questions, we want you to ask!

If you’re ready, give Curology a try. It’s free for 30 days. Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) for shipping and handling.* 

FAQs

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin—aka Retin-A— is a popular prescription-only retinoid. It’s used to treat acne outbreaks and reduce signs of aging, including unwanted texture changes, dark spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and firmness. In some cases, medical providers prescribe tretinoin and other retinoids to treat other skin conditions like skin cancer and psoriasis.

What is the difference between tretinoin and retinol?

Retinol and tretinoin are both topical retinoids (sometimes seen in the form of retinoid creams), which are vitamin A derivatives. Retinol is available over the counter and is not as powerful as tretinoin. But it tends to be a little easier on sensitive skin. 

How does tretinoin work on your skin?

Tretinoin binds to retinoic acid receptors (think of receptors as a lock and tretinoin as the key). When this happens, tretinoin is able to exert a variety of positive effects (e.g. increased cell turnover, decreased clogged pores, shedding of dead skin cells, etc.).

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Mukherjee S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety.Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006). 

  2. Baldwin H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (June 2013). 

  3. Szymański Ł., et al. Retinoic acid and its derivatives in skin. Cells. (2020, December 11). 

  4. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Intver Aging. (December 2006).

  5. Schmidt, N, et al. Tretinoin: A review of its anti-inflammatory properties in the treatment of acne.Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (November 2011). 

  6. Mukherjee S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety.Clinical Interventions in Aging. Ibid.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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