What is Tretinoin Cream Used For? A Complete Guide to Tretinoin Cream

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Over the past several years, medications called retinoids have become some of the buzziest skin care products around. Retinoids are chemicals that are derived from vitamin A, and tretinoin is one of the most popular topical retinoids available today.

While it may be gaining popularity, tretinoin isn’t simply a fad. It’s a prescription medication that’s been proven to treat a variety of skin concerns, including acne [1].

Keep reading to learn more about what is tretinoin cream used for and how you may benefit from incorporating tretinoin creams into your complete skin care program.

What is Topical Tretinoin Cream?

Effective skincare cream for the face

Tretinoin is a kind of vitamin A. While it’s most often used in cream form, you can also find topical tretinoin gel and ointment.

Unlike other retinoids available today, like retinol, tretinoin is a prescription medication.

This is because it’s more potent than OTC retinoids and, if it’s used improperly, can cause skin irritation.

Topical tretinoin is used to support skin cell regeneration. In other words, it helps your body produce new skin cells to replace old, damaged cells.

This results in a brighter, healthier complexion.

How Does it Work?

Tretinoin works by speeding up the skin cell cycle. This is a process that your body naturally completes to generate new skin cells and replace dead cells.

When it comes to maintaining healthy, glowing skin, the skin cell cycle is crucial.

During the skin cell cycle, new cells are formed in the innermost layer of the epidermis, called the basal layer. Then, these new, healthy cells move up to the surface of the skin to take the place of dead cells.

When they’re replaced, the dead skin cells create the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer of the skin. The stratum corneum offers protection against the sun’s harsh rays and prevents certain chemicals from reaching the deeper part of your skin [2].

Adding tretinoin to your regular beauty routine will make your skin cast off dead skin cells faster. This will allow your skin to produce new cells more rapidly. As a bonus, tretinoin stimulates your skin’s production of collagen, a protein that gives your skin structure, elasticity, and hydration.

What Is Tretinoin Cream Used For? What Does Tretinoin Cream Treat?

Tretinoin can treat a variety of skin concerns, including dark spots and rough facial skin. However, tretinoin is most often used for treating acne, fine wrinkles, and discoloration.

Happy and smiling middle aged woman applying face cream


Topical tretinoin is commonly used to prevent and treat acne. Studies have shown that it’s highly effective for both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne [3].

Tretinoin can speed up the healing process for existing acne while helping with breakout prevention.

This is partly due to its ability to keep your pores clear, along with increased collagen production and a faster skin cell cycle.


Wrinkles and fine lines can feel like an inevitability. But, tretinoin can help you fend off signs of aging while reducing the appearance of existing wrinkles.

Tretinoin boosts skin elasticity and cell turnover to help your skin retain its youthful glow.

As a potent retinoid, tretinoin is a more effective anti-aging solution than over-the-counter medicines.


Tretinoin has a lightening effect on the skin, so it’s often used for dark spots, mottled skin, discoloration, and photodamaged skin. By ramping up skin cell turnover, it can help your skin shed damaged, discolored cells faster.

RELATED: How To Remove Age Spots

How Long Does it Take for Tretinoin to Work?

Some people notice an improvement to their skin within just 2 to 3 weeks of using topical tretinoin. However, many people don’t notice results for around 6 weeks, which is the approximate length of the skin cell cycle.

It’s important to note that if you’re using tretinoin for acne, your skin may worsen a bit before getting better. However, if you don’t see an improvement after 8 to 12 weeks, it’s time to contact your healthcare provider.

Is Tretinoin Cream Safe?

Tretinoin is widely regarded as a safe, effective treatment for a range of skin conditions. While it’s a prescription topical medicine and should be used with caution, as directed by your doctor, it presents fewer risks than many other prescription acne medications.

What are the Risks and Side Effects? 

Possible adverse effects of tretinoin include allergic reactions and skin irritation. If you experience symptoms of an allergic reaction, including hives, trouble breathing, and swelling of the face, tongue, or throat, seek emergency medical attention.

Many people experience irritation within the first few weeks of starting treatment with tretinoin. However, if you develop severe skin irritation, including swelling, blistering, or crusting of the treated skin, tell your doctor immediately.

what is tretinoin cream used for

Common side effects of tretinoin include: 

  • A stinging or burning sensation of the skin
  • A sensation of warmth on the skin
  • Dry, peeling, or flaky skin
  • Scaling of the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Changes in the color of the affected skin

To prevent irritation with tretinoin, steer clear of other topical medications used to treat acne (such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and sulfur) unless recommended by your doctor. Additionally, avoid harsh skin products, steer clear of tanning beds, and wear protective clothing when you’re in the sun.

What Are The Benefits of Tretinoin?

There are several benefits of tretinoin for people struggling with skin concerns, including:

  • A more even skin tone and texture
  • Reduced inflammation in the skin
  • Greater safety and fewer side effects than with other prescription acne treatments, such as the oral medication isotretinoin
  • Safe for long-term treatment
  • Reduced frequency of acne breakouts

How To Get Tretinoin Cream

Topical tretinoin isn’t an over-the-counter product. So, you’ll need to see your doctor to get started with tretinoin.

Do I Need a Prescription from My Doctor for Tretinoin Products?

For tretinoin skin products, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will evaluate your skin, review your medical history, and answer all of your questions to determine if tretinoin is right for you. If it’s a good fit, your doctor can write you a prescription for tretinoin topical gel or cream.

ALSO READ: How To Lighten Your Skin


Young pretty woman applying face cream after taking bath

Q: How much tretinoin should I use?

Your doctor will determine the right dose and strength of tretinoin for you. Most adults are advised to apply a thin layer of tretinoin to the skin once daily, before bedtime.

Q: Should I apply tretinoin before or after moisturizer?

It’s important to moisturize with tretinoin to prevent irritation. You can apply tretinoin before or after moisturizer, but make sure to wait 15 minutes in between applying these skincare products for optimal absorption. Additionally, never apply tretinoin to wet skin, as it can cause irritation.

Q: Is tretinoin good for hyperpigmentation?

Tretinoin can brighten and repair the skin over time, making it a good treatment option for hyperpigmentation.

Q: Does tretinoin work for under-eye wrinkles?

While tretinoin may be used for crow’s feet, you shouldn’t apply it too close to the eyes. This includes the under-eye area. Always spread tretinoin away from the eyes, lips, and nostrils.

Q: Can I use tretinoin if I have eczema?

Tretinoin can further irritate skin that’s affected by eczema, as well as sunburned skin. So, people with eczema generally aren’t advised to use tretinoin.

Q: What are the benefits of tretinoin-hyaluronate topical?

Tretinoin-hyaluronate is a combination of tretinoin and sodium hyaluronate. Sodium hyaluronate is a form of hyaluronic acid, which can help hydrate and provide elasticity to the skin.

Q: Is tretinoin cream an antibiotic? 

Unlike many other prescription acne medications, tretinoin is not an antibiotic; it’s a retinoid.

Q: What’s the brand name for tretinoin?

Topical tretinoin is sold under several different brand names, including Atralin, Avita, Refissa, Renova, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro, and Tretin-X.

Q: When should I avoid using tretinoin?

You should avoid applying tretinoin topical on sunburns, skin that’s affected by eczema, and dry, flaky, or irritated skin.

Q: What is the treatment for a tretinoin cream burn?

If your skin becomes red, swollen, and/or discolored after applying tretinoin, you can apply a cold compress to the skin treated with the cream. Stop using tretinoin, use only a mild soap with a moisturizer for your skin, and call your doctor for medical advice [4].

Want to know what is the best skin lightening cream containing tretinoin? Read our guide and find out what is the most effective skin lightening cream.

Wrapping Up

With consistent use, topical tretinoin can become your secret (or not-so-secret) weapon for clear, smooth, and beautiful skin.

If you’re struggling with fine wrinkling, acne, or related skin conditions, it may be time to visit your doctor to discuss the benefits of tretinoin. With proper use, this medication can support the long-term health of your skin.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225141/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513299/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5574737/
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/retinol-burn
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About Alina Jumabhoy

With almost 10 years of experience writing for the skincare industry, Alina brings her unique perspective into all of the in-depth reviews and articles she writes.