What is Tretinoin and How Do I Use It?

You might have heard of tretinoin, the prescription-only retinoid renowned for its ability to transform dull, congested complexions into healthy, glowing skin. It has an impressive list of benefits, from targeting acne to reversing signs of ageing, but how should you be using it? Here’s our guide on all things tretinoin, from percentages and routine, to complementary products and ingredients to avoid.

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a first generation retinoid, one of the many chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A. It’s a potent, prescription-only ingredient, prized for its regenerative and rejuvenating properties. 

What can tretinoin treat?

Tretinoin can be used for multiple skin concerns. When used topically, it’s capable of quickly regenerating skin cells, clearing up acne (even preventing future flare-ups) and targeting the fine lines that go hand-in-hand with ageing. It also works to smooth rough skin texture, plump up areas of sun damage, and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and melasma.

Tretinoin for acne

When it comes to treating mild or moderate acne, tretinoin is one of the most effective methods. Tretinoin increases skin cell turnover meaning that excess sebum, dead cells and bacteria are cleared more rapidly. The results include everything from less pimples and smaller-looking pores, to increased brightness and smoother skin.

Tretinoin for anti-ageing

Tretinoin has been proven to boost the body’s natural production of collagen. This makes it a highly effective treatment for the fine lines and wrinkles associated with ageing or sun damage, as it plumps and smooths the skin. In fact, studies show that older and sun-damaged skin often has depleted reserves of collagen – and this can actually be reversed by sustained use of tretinoin. 

How do I use tretinoin?

Before you start, you’ll need approval from a dermatologist or GP. This is because tretinoin is extremely potent – up to 20 times more potent than any over-the-counter retinoids you might have tried before – so it’s important to get a professional opinion on whether or not it’s the right treatment for you.

When you’re first prescribed tretinoin, you might wonder why you’ve been given a low percentage, especially if you’ve got Tretinoin Cream 0.015% and you’ve read that it can go up to 0.1%! Dr Catriona Maybury, Consulting Specialist at Dermatica, says that, “most dermatologists tend to recommend using a lower or less frequent dose retinoid at the start of treatment, and observe how well a patient can tolerate topical tretinoin, before increasing the strength gradually.” 

The percentage you’re prescribed might also depend on what you’re hoping to treat. Tretinoin Cream 0.025% is often prescribed for mild acne, while 0.05% is favoured for the symptoms of ageing. The strongest cream – 0.1% – is usually reserved for moderate to severe acne.

How to ladder your skincare

When it comes to using your prescription, we recommend taking a ‘laddered’ approach. As Dr Maybury mentions, this involves increasing the dosage gradually to avoid irritation and allow the skin enough time to build up to regular retinoid use. 

When you’re using topical tretinoin for the first time, or starting a higher strength, try applying it every other night to begin with (we recommend applying your formula in the evening, but more on that later). If you tolerate this well after a few weeks, without too much inflammation, you can begin applying it every single night.

What should I include in my routine?

Your dermatologist should fill you in on the products that will perfectly complement your tretinoin prescription – at Dermatica, you’ll get a personalised treatment plan, which makes this bit easy! The essentials, however, are simple. To get the most out of tretinoin you should:

  • Apply it before bed, so that sunlight doesn’t break it down
  • Wash your face prior to use with a gentle, simple cleanser
  • Use a moisturiser free from peeling agents
  • In the morning, apply a layer of SPF to treated skin

There are ingredients you should avoid when you start using retinoids, too. Other topical acne products are normally not recommended to use at first, particularly those containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid or exfoliants, along with products containing alcohol, such as some astringent cleansers, or aftershaves. Ingredients like these cause dryness when used in conjunction with retinoids, and anything that heightens sun sensitivity should be avoided, too. 

Is SPF essential with tretinoin?

Remember we mentioned it’s best to apply tretinoin at night? There are two reasons; firstly, so it doesn’t react with your daytime products, and secondly, because retinoids may make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. That means that, irrespective of what time of day you apply them, you need to wear a high SPF when using them. Without suncream, you’ll leave your skin vulnerable to the very problems that you’re trying to avoid! Opt for SPF 30, at the least.

How to get Tretinoin

Interested in tretinoin? Start a consultation with Dermatica and we’ll recommend the right ingredients for your skin.

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Harriet Brandt
Originally published March 08 2022, updated May 03 2022

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