Tretinoin is one of the most frequently prescribed medications in dermatology, thanks to how many different conditions it can treat. This effective and versatile drug is also affordable, readily available, and relatively low-risk compared to other skincare treatments on the market.
That said, as with some other medications, tretinoin can take a while to start showing results. And if you don’t use it consistently and correctly, you could see no results at all — or worse. That’s why, before starting tretinoin, it’s important to inform yourself about how it works. Here’s what you need to know about using tretinoin correctly and what to expect in the first six months.
Tretinoin Really Works — But It Can Take a While
As noted, one of the most exceptional things about tretinoin is the variety of skin issues it can address. It’s prescribed for a multitude of conditions including acne, winkles, fine lines, rough skin, uneven pigmentation, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots. Tretinoin is able to do all of this because it works in a number of different ways.
If you have acne, tretinoin can unclog your pores, preventing blackheads and whiteheads from forming. It also serves to slough away dead skin cells, which make up some of the material that causes this clogging. Tretinoin can reduce the appearance of scars from acne by encouraging new cell growth. It also controls oil production and inflammation in your skin, helping to prevent breakouts and clear up pustules.
If your skin shows signs of premature aging, like wrinkles, fine lines, and roughness, tretinoin can improve their look and texture. It does this by increasing the production of collagen, a substance that normally decreases as you age. With more collagen, your skin can generate more new, healthy-looking cells. Tretinoin fights pigmentation issues the same way, through increased cell turnover and growth.
One caveat about these benefits of tretinoin: They can take quite some time to kick in. It usually requires at least a few weeks — and sometimes several months — to start seeing any real results. Not only that, in the first few weeks, you might experience more irritation, redness, and/or acne breakouts. To see benefits from tretinoin, it’s important to keep using it consistently past this initial adjustment period.
Getting Best Results From Tretinoin Requires Taking Some Precautions
In order to avoid side effects and get the best results, be sure to use tretinoin according to instructions. Because tretinoin can cause increased photosensitivity — that is, sensitivity to sunlight — it’s best to apply it before bed. Tretinoin typically comes in cream form, and you apply it by rubbing it directly into the face.
About 20 to 30 minutes before you apply tretinoin, wash your face with a mild cleanser. To reduce the risk of irritation, make sure your skin has fully dried before applying tretinoin. To further mitigate the possibility of irritation, use gentle sunscreen and moisturizers in conjunction with tretinoin. Also drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated.
You should never use tretinoin for longer or more often than directed. Using too much tretinoin can cause increased irritation. Never apply tretinoin to sunburned skin or areas with open wounds. And when you’re applying tretinoin, be very careful not to get it in your eyes, mouth, or nose. Avoid the lips as well, since tretinoin can cause dryness or chapping. If some tretinoin accidentally gets on or in any of these areas, rinse it off with water right away.
For the first six months — especially the first two to three weeks — of using tretinoin, avoid excessive time in the sun, wind, or cold. Exposure to the elements will make you more likely to get a bad sunburn or dry, irritated skin. You should also avoid other products that could irritate your skin, like depilatory creams or harsh cleansers. You’ll want to start with the lowest possible dose of tretinoin while your skin adjusts to the medication.
Tretinoin Requires Vigilance Regarding Side Effects and Complications
During the first few weeks to six months of tretinoin use, you may have a heightened risk of side effects. These can include skin flaking, peeling, swelling, blistering, or crusting. Your skin may become more sensitive, and you could experience dryness, burning, stinging, or pain. Your skin might feel warm, or it could become lighter or darker than normal.
If these symptoms are mild, there usually isn’t any cause for concern. But if they’re severe or don’t go away, speak to a healthcare professional promptly. Tretinoin does have some rare, more serious side effects you need to be on the lookout for. Call a doctor immediately if you experience itching, hives, or severe pain or discomfort — these could signal an allergic reaction.
Tretinoin isn’t recommended for use when you’re pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive. In rare cases, fetuses that have been exposed to retinoids like tretinoin have experienced serious birth defects. It’s probably a good idea to stop using tretinoin at least a month before you start trying to get pregnant. You may need to factor this into your plans about when to start using tretinoin.
Certain groups of people should exercise particular caution when using tretinoin. These include children under the age of 12 and adults over 65. They also include folks with eczema, dandruff, dermatitis, and fish allergies. Individuals in any of these categories may still be able to use tretinoin. But they should monitor their symptoms closely, especially in the first few weeks and months of use.
Consistent, Correct, and Careful
Tretinoin is an amazing drug that can have lasting, powerful effects on your skin — and your confidence. It can make you look younger, clear your skin, and give you a healthy, radiant glow. But to reap the benefits of tretinoin, you need to follow the prescriber’s instructions to the letter. Your results will only be as good as the care and consistency with which you do so.