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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

Ask an expert: What happens if you stop using tretinoin?

Many people stop using tretinoin when their skin clears. Here’s what can happen next.

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Curology Team
Nov 09, 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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  3. > Ask an expert: What happens if you stop using tretinoin?

If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who experience acne each year,¹ chances are you’ve heard of tretinoin, a topical retinoid that treats skincare concerns including acne, anti-aging, and skin discoloration. (Call us biased, but at Curology, we’re pretty big fans of the stuff.) 

Tretinoin works to increase your skin’s cell turnover rate, and while it comes with some possible side effects, they can be avoided or at least minimized. But what happens if you stop using tretinoin altogether? 

Here we’ll explain how tretinoin works, things to consider before beginning to use it, and what may happen if you stop using it. Just keep in mind each person’s skin reacts differently to tretinoin. The best thing you can do is follow your dermatology provider’s instructions from beginning to end. And remember, skincare is a journey—your skin will change over time, and so should your skincare products. 

What is tretinoin? How does it work?

The FDA originally approved tretinoin to treat acne, but doctors eventually noticed that it also helped improve skin tone and texture. Now it’s used to help address skincare concerns regarding acne as well as signs of aging and hyperpigmentation,² which is why experts often refer to it as the “gold standard” of acne and anti-aging treatments. Also marketed under brand names such as Retin-A, Refissa, and Tretin-X, the prescription-strength retinoid (aka retinoic acid or vitamin A derivative) works by increasing skin cell turnover, stimulating cell growth, and boosting collagen production (aka “shed, grow, and glow”).³ In other words, it causes cells to divide and die more quickly, prompting new ones to take their place. This helps prevent new blemishes, improve firmness and texture, and reduce the appearance of dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles.

What to keep in mind when using tretinoin

Some people may experience side effects when using tretinoin, especially as their skin adjusts. Also, it’s possible for irritation from tretinoin to make skin darker, especially if you have more melanated skin.⁴ Most people adjust to using tretinoin—but it’s important to follow the medical advice of your licensed dermatologist or dermatology provider regarding how much to use and how often to use it. 

Here are some considerations as your skin eases into using a topical with tretinoin: 

  • Your skin may become irritated. During the first month or two, you may notice an increase in redness and acne. That’s normal! Tretinoin speeds up cell death and renewal, and your skin needs time to adjust. These breakouts are temporary. If you experience severe irritation, talk to your medical provider, as other medications can help lessen the likelihood of your skin becoming irritated while you’re using tretinoin.⁵ Hold off on waxing facial hair while using tretinoin because it can wind up irritating the areas of skin you’ve waxed. 

  • It takes time to notice results. It typically takes four to eight weeks for acne to improve. That said, it’s not a one-and-done ordeal—each person’s skin is different and reacts differently to tretinoin. If you don’t notice any changes after 8-12 weeks, check in with your dermatology provider. (If you’re a Curology member, we’d love to hear from you!) 

  • Less is more. Tretinoin works by boosting your skin’s cell turnover rate, which can leave your skin sensitive to the sun and more susceptible to sun damage.⁶ That’s why it’s important to always use tretinoin as part of your nighttime skincare routine. Apply a thin layer (a pea-sized amount) to your face and neck after washing your face in the evening. After using your cleanser and moisturizer in the morning, remember to apply sunscreen with SPF 30 (again, even on cloudy days!). 

Woman wearing towel in head smiling

Will your skin change permanently?

Tretinoin can treat acne, but it can’t cure it. In fact, nothing can. Acne is treatable, but it’s not curable. Whether tretinoin or another acne treatment, it’s best to use it until the tendency to break out has passed—or as instructed by your dermatology provider. As for aging—tretinoin slows the signs of aging but cannot stop it altogether. Tretinoin is the prescription-only cousin of over-the-counter retinol. Whether you’re using tretinoin to address concerns related to acne, aging, or hyperpigmentation, always follow your derm’s instructions.

What happens if you stop using tretinoin for acne?

For many, tretinoin is highly effective at treating acne, but it’s still possible to experience breakouts once you stop using it. Even while using tretinoin, you may continue to experience breakouts from time to time (we’re looking at you, hormonal acne!), but that's also completely normal. 

If you’re wondering what happens if you stop using tretinoin for a week or so, the truth is it’s difficult to say for sure. After all, everyone’s skin is different and reacts differently, and what happens when you start or stop using tretinoin—or any skincare treatment for that matter—won’t necessarily be the same as another person’s experience. It’s impossible to say when to discontinue use or what happens when you stop using tretinoin cream. Again, that answer is different for everybody. It’s true that some people with persistent acne use tretinoin for years, but generally speaking, most stop once they have clearer skin or if they’re no longer seeing results. Other people may continue to use tretinoin after their breakouts subside for the most part for maintenance therapy. Remember, tretinoin may be the “gold standard,” but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone’s skin. Also, one person’s skin may clear up faster than another’s, which is why following your dermatology provider’s instructions is so important—they can provide proper professional advice based on your unique skin’s needs. 

Either way, if you’re using tretinoin to treat acne, your dermatology provider is your best resource for knowing when to call it quits. Always check with them to see if tretinoin is right for you before beginning treatment, as there are some contraindications (like if you’re pregnant or nursing⁷).

Curology makes trying tretinoin simple

Curology is a customized skincare service that helps take the guesswork out of your skincare routine. Licensed dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options using ingredients like tretinoin.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Not a member? Signing up is easy! Just answer a few questions and snap a few selfies to help us get to know your skin and skincare goals. If Curology is right for you, one of our dermatology providers will create a personalized prescription formula to target your specific skincare concerns. They can also recommend other products, like the acne body wash or emergency spot patch. And the service doesn't stop there! We’re here for you to answer any questions you have about the products you’re using or your skincare routine—all you have to do is reach out to your provider. 

Best of all, the first month’s on us.* Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.

FAQs

What is tretinoin? How does it work?

The FDA originally approved tretinoin to treat acne, but doctors eventually noticed that it also helped improve skin tone and texture. Now it’s used to help address skincare concerns regarding acne as well as signs of aging and hyperpigmentation, which is why experts often refer to it as the “gold standard” of acne and anti-aging treatments.

What to keep in mind when using tretinoin

Some people may experience side effects when using tretinoin, especially as their skin adjusts.

Here are some considerations as your skin eases into using a topical with tretinoin: 

  • Your skin may become irritated

  • It takes time to notice results

  • Less is more

Will your skin change permanently?

Tretinoin can treat acne, but it can’t cure it. In fact, nothing can. Acne is treatable, but it’s not curable. Whether tretinoin or another acne treatment, it’s best to use it until the tendency to break out has passed—or as instructed by your dermatology provider.

What happens if you stop using tretinoin for acne?

For many, tretinoin is highly effective at treating acne, but it’s still possible to experience breakouts once you stop using it. Even while using tretinoin, you may continue to experience breakouts from time to time (we’re looking at you, hormonal acne!), but that's also completely normal.

• • •

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

  1. American Academy of Dermatology. Skin conditions by the numbers. (n.d.).

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

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

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Retinoid or retinol? (n.d.). 

  5. Leyden, J., et al. Reduction in tretinoin-induced facial irritation with dapsone gel: A phase IV, split-face study.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2012, April 1).

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

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

• • •
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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