Before Using Tretinoin, Here are 6 Things to Consider

Tretinoin (all-trans retinoic acid) is probably the most studied anti-aging and anti-acne skin care ingredient. I’d be surprised if you’re a skin care addict and you haven’t heard of it. It has 50+ years worth of scientific evidence to back it up.


If you’ve read the positive reviews from long-term tretinoin users, you might get tempted to go to your nearest drugstore and buy a tube. Before you do that, please read this post first. Disclaimer: I am neither a dermatologist nor a cosmetic chemist. I can only share my experience and the stuff I learned from reading about tretinoin studies and articles through the years.

Let’s start with the reason why I use tretinoin.

I take skin care pretty darn seriously so I limit myself to products whose active ingredients are proven to really do something.

Tretinoin was initially used as an anti-acne medication and it was found out later that it can help in retarding the photoaging process and in treating photodamaged skin. This is not one of those products that “reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” — it actually reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Because it can alter the skin, it is considered a drug and it should be treated as such… even if you can buy it without prescription here in the Philippines.

Except for moisture, this addresses all of my skin care needs in terms of acne, wrinkles, and skin texture.

Here are 6 things to consider before using tretinoin:

When this medicine was prescribed to me, I felt like I was not sufficiently informed to the level that I need to be informed. I took it to the interwebs to learn about this product. I hope I can cut down your reading time by summarizing what I learned and experienced.

1. This is a drug — an actual medicine like paracetamol or prozac (how random).

And this drug has side effects. But doctors won’t prescribe a drug if the benefit you can get from it doesn’t exceed the disadvantages.

Think: chemotherapy.

I know acne and wrinkles are nothing compared to cancer and I hope no one gets offended. I just want to demonstrate a point: Chemotherapy has serious side effects but it could be worth going through it ’cause it can treat cancer. It’s similar with this drug.

2. Tretinoin causes skin irritation and dryness.

Currently, I’m doubtful with the trueness of the skin purging concept i.e., the supposed process where a product brings out all the acne and “impurities” that are developing underneath the skin. After the alleged purging, everything becomes better, you are now pure, and you turn into an angel…

But, what I do know is, when you use tretinoin, you’re going to experience some sort of irritation — be it something that seems like purging or whatever. The irritation can look like a full-blown break out. In my case, it was severe redness, dryness, and raw skin.

Some people are more unlucky. They ended up looking worse, with more acne and hyperpigmentation than they had before treatment.

This goes away when the skin develops tolerance but it can leave some serious literal and emotional scars.

3. Tretinoin can cause skin flaking

The derm did tell me that tretinoin can cause flaking. But s/he said it so nonchalantly that I never would’ve expected a LOT of skin flaking. It’s so bad that I couldn’t wear dark shirts. The flakes were falling off of my face like dandruff.

The flaking stops when your skin develops tolerance to the drug (same with irritation in #2). I only experienced flaking for 2 weeks. On some people, it can last for months. If you can’t handle that, don’t start. This leads me to what you should consider next…

4. Tretinoin is NOT for short-term use

Tretinoin is not a spot treatment-type of product to be used only when you get a pimple. You also have to apply it all over your face. When you start using this, consider yourself engaged.

You can only see visible effects after a few months in. From what I gathered, it can take up to 3 months before you can see any significant change. This is true for me and for most articles and reviews I’ve read online.

Now, imagine yourself experiencing skin care hell for the first few weeks (or months) and not seeing light at the end of the tunnel until the third month.

3 months is a long time.

If you’re the type of person who wants to see results and prefers to see it NOW, tretinoin is NOT for you. Otherwise, go ahead, put a ring on it.

5. Tretinoin only works while you’re using it.

Tretinoin is NOT a cure for acne. This is not a one time thing.

One of the causes of acne is the inability of the skin to shed properly and regularly. Tretinoin helps with that as you are using it. Incidentally, because of this, many report reduced fine lines and a more refined skin texture. But when you stop, your skin goes back to its version of normal. Think of it like a moisturizer. Moisturizers can only moisturizer the skin when you use it. If you can stick with applying moisturizer every day, you can probably stick with tretinoin, too.

If this is disconcerting to you, avoid this product. As I said, it’s like getting engaged. You should be in it for the long haul.

6. Tretinoin requires commitment to sunscreen.

Aside from committing to tretinoin itself, you should also be committed to using sunblock EVERYDAY. Tretinoin increases sensitivity to the sun. Do not use tretinoin if you’re not willing to use sunblock or do any sun protection strategy like staying in the shadows or using an umbrella. You might end up with a waaay worse skin condition than before.

The derm prescribed me sunblock but she didn’t emphasize why it is VERY important that I use it. I don’t usually do what I’m told until I know why I have to do it. Fortunately, I was already aware of how damaging the sun is on exfoliated skin. Some people aren’t as aware and I find that many local dermatologists don’t stress this enough.

There you have it — the 6 off the top of my head. If I remember anything else, I’ll write about it in a future post. I hope this was helpful.


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