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Tretinoin Cream for Acne

author image J.M. Andrews
J.M. Andrews has been a professional journalist for more than 20 years. She specializes in health and medical content for consumers and health professionals. Andrews' background in medicine and science has earned her credits in a wide range of online and print publications, including "Young Physicians" magazine.
Tretinoin Cream for Acne
Two tubes of ointment Photo Credit: vasilypetkov/iStock/Getty Images

Teenagers and young adults almost inevitably get acne: according to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85 percent of people will suffer from acne cases ranging from mild (a few pimples) to severe (can cause disfiguring scars) in their lifetimes. Fortunately, tretinoin cream, available by prescription through your dermatologist, can help clear acne before it causes scars.

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Acne erupts when the skin's oil-producing glands (called sebaceous glands) produce too much oil. This oil provides a perfect environment for bacteria to proliferate and also clogs pores at the skin's surface. The clogged pores, bacterial infection and swollen sebaceous glands lead to inflammation. The result is a bad case of acne. Tretinoin works in part by keeping pores clear, which prevents new pimples from forming, according to the Mayo Clinic.


Tretinoin cream, which is derived from vitamin A, causes the skin's cells to turn over more quickly than normal. It prevents blackheads and whiteheads from forming, according to the AAD. As a bonus, it also erases fine wrinkles and age spots and can help to fade skin discoloration left behind by previous bouts with acne, the Mayo Clinic notes.


Medical studies back tretinoin as a treatment for acne. In one study, published in 2009 in the "Journal of Drugs in Dermatology," mild to moderate acne patients received either tretinoin or another topical retinol, tazarotene. The group that received tretinoin had 64 percent clearing of their acne at the 12-week mark, compared with just 19 percent clearing in the tazarotene group. In another study, published that same year in the "Journal of the Indian Medical Association," a group of acne patients treated with tretinoin saw 80 percent clearing of their acne during the study.

Time Frame

Tretinoin cream doesn't work instantly to clear acne, the Mayo Clinic warns. It may take patients three months to notice improvements, and Mayo Clinic dermatologists urge patients not to give up if they don't notice their skin clearing in the first eight weeks. In addition, you may need to keep using tretinoin long-term in order to keep your acne at bay once it clears, the Mayo Clinic says.


Tretinoin cream can cause skin irritation, especially at higher doses and in the first few weeks of treatment, the Mayo Clinic warns. In addition, skin treated with tretinoin often becomes sensitive to the effects of sun, wind and cold air. Dermatologists urge patients to use a sunscreen with at least SPF 15 whenever they will have sun exposure and to report any severe irritation from the cream to their physician.

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