Acne Treatment: Topical Retinoids

Topical retinoids are among the most commonly used acne treatment. Retinoids are substances that are derived from vitamin A. the topical retinoids are effective in reducing comedones, whiteheads and blackheads. The retinoids will stimulate the cell regeneration, and the new cells will eliminate the comedones, whiteheads or blackheads from the follicles. When administrated for a longer time, the topical retinoids may also prevent the formation of acne.

Retinoids for Acne

There are a few retinoids that can be used for acne treatment. These include:

  • Tretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Tazarotene

The retinoids may be administered as tablets, but may also be used as topical ointments. In addition to treating acne and preventing the formation of new comedones, the topical retinoids are also known to fight the signs of aging and reduce the formation of wrinkles.


Tretinoin is a vitamin A derivate and is the most frequently used retinoid, being a natural solution. Topical ointments and creams are prescribed to patients with comedones, whiteheads and blackheads.

Products such as Retin-A, Renova or Avita also contain tretinoin and can be applied in patients that have severe acne. These may contain different concentrations of tretinoin, however, the concentration rarely exceeds 2,5%. A dermatologist will recommend a product that is suitable to each patient in part, depending on the severity of the acne.

Tretinoin is available in the form of gels, creams and solutions. Gels are known to be more powerful and will be prescribed if the patient has severe acne flare ups. Typically, tretinoin creams, gels and solutions should be applied only once per day and results may be visible after 3 months of treatment.


Adapalene is a newer formula retinoid solution, also derived from vitamin A. Adapalene is a synthetic product. Adapalene creams may be found in pharmacies and the product may also be marketed as Differin. They cause less irritation than tretinoin products, but are considered less effective. Signs of improvement should be visible in 2 to 3 months after the beginning of the cure.


Tazarotene, also found as Tazorac, is a retinoid solution that has been recently developed. The product is considered more effective than tretinoin, but it is more expensive and may also cause more skin irritation, especially in patients with sensitive skin.

Retinoids Side Effects

Retinoids used as topical creams, solutions or gels may have a few side effects such as:

  • Skin rashes (especially tretinoin)
  • Light sensitivity and increased chances of getting sunburns
  • Allergic reactions
  • Burning sensation
  • Birth defects, so the products shouldn’t be used during pregnancy

The retinoid topical solutions will only be available through medical prescription. The dermatologist should be notified if the side effects are serious.


Retinoid creams or tablets may interact with laser treatments, so the patient should avoid getting additional acne laser treatments while under retinoid treatment. A laser procedure can be safely performed only 6 months after discontinuing the retinoid treatment.

Tretinoin can interact with benzoyl peroxide, so these cannot be applied one after another.