What is Tretinoin and how does it work?

Hannah Wilson

When it comes to skincare there are tons of obscure ingredients out there that seem a bit of a mystery. Perhaps you have come across tretinoin on the packaging of a product in the past, or during a Google search for acne solutions. If you’re confused, don’t worry.

Here at Face Dr, we encourage everyone to do due diligence on skincare ingredients to understand what they are applying to their skin, and our team of experts have worked in the skincare industry for decades doing just that - we’re here to help. 

Want to skip straight to your free consultation with a Face Dr Skin Expert? Tap the button below. 

Obagi Medical

We are an authorised stockist of the Obagi Medical range which contains a number of tretinoin creams and gels we often recommend to clients. In this article, we’re shining a light on this ingredient and everything there is to know about using it - the good, the bad and the acne!

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  • What is tretinoin?
  • What is it used for?
  • How does tretinoin work?
  • Who is tretinoin best for?
  • Who would not benefit from tretinoin?
  • Are there any tretinoin side effects to be aware of?
  • What should you not use tretinoin alongside?
  • What products contain tretinoin?
  • What do the percentages mean?
  • Summary: Is tretinoin for you?


What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin skincare for acne vulagaris


Tretinoin is the generic name for synthetic, first-generation all-trans-retinoic acid, and is the active ingredient derived from vitamin A. Its topical application was first introduced to dermatology in the 1960s, and it has been widely recognised in skincare as an effective treatment for acne


What is it used for?

Tretinoin is primarily prescribed as an acne treatment as it helps keep pores free from impurities. Research shows tretinoin can reduce inflammation, prevent follicle clogging, and exfoliate skin. Although acne is the main use for tretinoin, it is sometimes prescribed to treat sun-damaged skin too and reduce the appearance of dark spots. 


How does tretinoin work?

How does Tretinoin work?


You may have seen the name ‘retinol’ on skincare products in the past. Retinoids are a group of compounds derived from vitamin A, and tretinoin and retinol both fall into this category. Both encourage the stimulation of collagen and elastin resulting in smoother skin, but here’s where they’re different: 

  • Retinol is the natural form of vitamin A, and is a mild version that rarely irritates sensitive skin.
  • Tretinoin is the stronger, synthetic version of vitamin A and is likely to cause irritation for the first few weeks of use, so it is not always suitable for sensitive skin. This is why you’ll find retinol in high-street products, but you need a prescription for tretinoin. 

Tretinoin actually works by irritating the skin as it speeds up the life cycle of skin cells, making them divide and die faster and allowing newer, healthier cells to replace them.


Who is tretinoin best for?

If you suffer from acne, this could be the ingredient you need to see results. With many skincare products it often depends on the type of acne you experience:

  • Non-inflammatory acne is more surface level. Think blackheads and/or whiteheads.
  • Inflammatory acne is sometimes referred to as cystic acne. It can be painful as it exists deep in the skin.

According to a 2017 review, topical retinoids (tretinoin being one) are highly effective on both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne, helping to clear existing acne and reduce future breakouts. Research suggests tretinoin can also work for those with other skin concerns, as it can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve sun-damaged skin, reduce dark spots, and improve skin texture and tone.


Who would not benefit from tretinoin?

Obagi Medical Tretinoin


As effective as tretinoin can be for some, the existence of other medical problems can affect its use and effectiveness. Some people who may not benefit from using it include those with:

  • Dermatitis
  • Seborrheic (dandruff) 
  • Eczema 
  • A fish allergy (the product may contain ingredients derived from fish)
  • Sunburn (the product may irritate skin and cause itching)

In addition, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding you may wish to opt for another product as there is a lack of data surrounding the use of tretinoin in such cases. As a prescribed treatment, it is important to communicate any possible contraindications to your Skin Expert to determine the best treatment for you. 


Are there any tretinoin side effects to be aware of? 

Just because tretinoin is applied topically does not mean it is free from possible side effects. For many people, there is a high likelihood tretinoin will irritate skin in the first few weeks of use and could result in redness, dry skin, peeling and/or itching. 

These effects should subside after a few weeks as your skin adjusts to the product, but if you are unsure of any symptoms, stop using the product and book an appointment with your Skin Expert as soon as possible to discuss altering the frequency of use or strength of the product. Some symptoms to watch out for include: 

  • Irritation that gets increasingly worse
  • Blistering or crusting of the skin
  • Swelling or excessive redness
  • A change in skin pigmentation


What should you not use tretinoin alongside?

Which skincare ingredients can't you mix with Tretinoin


Reactions can occur if using tretinoin in the same area as another product. Speak to your Skin Expert before using any of the following:

  • Topical products containing a peeling agent like benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulphur
  • Products that make skin sensitive to sun
  • Irritating hair products, like hair removal products
  • Products with high alcohol content, like shaving creams
  • Abrasive products like some soaps, exfoliators and cleansers. Since tretinoin is likely to make skin more sensitive, your Skin Expert can advise what daily products are best used alongside
  • Dry products like some makeup. Tretinoin can cause the skin to flake or peel so makeup can be difficult to use. Keep it to a minimum and have your Skin Expert advise on which products are best

Typically tretinoin is applied in the evening, so you may be able to apply other topical products in the day without them interfering - your Skin Expert will be able to discuss a suitable routine for you. 


What products contain tretinoin?

There are many products containing tretinoin, however at Face Dr we only recommend a select few science-backed brands we feel are the best of the best. These products use medical grade ingredients, and research supports their effectiveness.

One brand we recommend is Obagi Medical, which offers tretinoin creams and gels on prescription in multiple strengths to cater to different skin needs. If you want to learn more about these products or try them, you can book a consultation with one of our Skin Experts. 


What do the percentages mean?

Obagi Medical Tretinoin


You may have noticed our Obagi Medical range offers tretinoin products with different percentages:

As these are prescription-only products and require a professional to recommend, the correct percentage will depend on the severity of acne, skin type and other factors. You can book a consultation with us to discuss a possible tretinoin product prescription, and the percentage can be adjusted over time depending on the results.


Summary: Is tretinoin for you?

So, is tretinoin the skin saviour you’ve been waiting for? The answer is… possibly. 

If you suffer from acne, Obagi Medical tretinoin creams and gels may work for you, but your Face Dr Skin Expert can advise whether this product is right for your specific skin issues. We will only ever prescribe what we feel is necessary for your skin. If you receive a prescription for a tretinoin product after consultation, this product will be unlocked for you to purchase online.

Consultations are conducted via a secure video link, so you can get expert skincare advice in the comfort of your home. There is never any obligation to purchase from us once you have your prescription, but if you do we’ll post them to you next working day, anywhere in the UK.

Ready to speak to a Skin Expert?

It’s normal for our skincare routine to regularly need changing. We need to adapt to take into account everything from our individual skin conditions, to...
Read more
Are you experiencing random breakouts? How about unexplained dry or flaky skin? Whatever is going on, it could indicate the skincare routine that’s been working so well for you is no longer providing results. Let’s dive into some of the biggest reasons why your skincare routine might cease to work.
Read more
Find the best facial masks to try in the comfort of your own home. Facial masks are an excellent way to target skin concerns and add a little more TLC to your skin routine. Discover our top mask recommendations from ZO Skin Health, Obagi and other brands on the market.
Read more
We dive into retinol, what makes it different from other retinoids, why you might wish to try it, how much the best retinols cost and more.
Read more

What is retinol and how does it work?

By Hannah Wilson

If you’re confused about the difference between retinol, retinoid, tretinoin and other related words, we’re demystifying it all right here! From its benefits to retinol side effects to which retinols will suit your skin type, let’s take a deep dive into this incredible ingredient. 
Read more

We want to make sure you have all the information about the products you put on your skin, so we’re breaking down everything there is to know about this superstar retinoid cream; what it does, who it’s for, the ingredients that make it so effective, and we’ll share some reviews so you can decide if it’s the best product for your skin. 

Read more