What should I know about tretinoin topical before using it?

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

When you are using topical tretinoin creams or gels, you should know what to avoid in order to prevent complications, and when to expect improvements in your skin.

Let's start with what to avoid:

  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure: Your skin will be more sensitive to sunlight and burn much more easily while using tretinoin topical. Make sure you use sunscreen and protective clothing while in the sun, and avoid long periods of sun exposure. I was not careful as a teenager and I ended up with a bad facial sunburn.
  • Avoid getting this medication in your eyes, nose or mouth or on your lips. If you do, wash them right away with water.
  • Do not apply tretinoin topical to sunburned, dry or broken skin or wounds. Wait until the skin is healed to use tretinoin.
  • Avoid using other topical medications in the same area you are applying tretinoin topical medication. Tell your doctor about all of your over-the-counter and prescription topical and other medications. Interactions have been found with sulfur, benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol and salicylic acid, commonly leading to excessive dryness and peeling of the skin.
  • Avoid using other products that significantly dry out the skin and have high concentrations of spices, astringents or alcohol. You should apply a moisturizer after applying the tretinoin to help decrease the dryness and peeling it can cause.

As for when to expect improvements in your skin condition after you begin using this medication, your acne may get worse for a little while. However, after a few weeks you should see improvement. If you do not see a significant improvement within eight weeks, let your doctor know.

You should be aware of possible side effects of tretinoin topical. These include: a burning sensation, redness, dryness, scaling, flaking or peeling skin in the area where you are applying the medication. If these do not subside or become severe, call your doctor. Let your doctor know if you have a sensitivity or allergy to fish or are sensitive to the sun before using tretinoin topical medication. Also, the safety of tretinoin topical use while pregnant or breastfeeding has not been tested. Make sure to tell your doctor if you are pregnant or breastfeeding before you use this medication.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.