How long does it take tretinoin to work
Ask your friend with the glowy skin for their secret, and there’s a good chance it’ll be one answer—tretinoin.
A prescription retinoid, tretinoin rejuvenates skin from the inside out. By promoting skin cell turnover, it can treat acne, fine wrinkles, and other skin concerns. However, tretinoin isn’t a short-term skin solution. Tretinoin may take up to twelve weeks to work.
Just picked up your tretinoin prescription? Let’s answer all questions about this skincare powerhouse, including how long does it take for tretinoin to work.
What is tretinoin?
Before diving into tretinoin, let’s first get to know its family tree—retinoids.
Retinoids are topical and oral skincare medicines derived from vitamin A, ranging from mild over-the-counter retinol to potent isotretinoin (also known as Accutane). You’ve probably seen a few different retinol products in your drugstore’s skincare aisle.
Tretinoin, or retinoic acid, is a high-strength topical retinoid. Since its effects are strong (and risky if misused), tretinoin is only available by prescription. You may recognize tretinoin by its brand names, such as:
Retinoids—including tretinoin—are like reboot buttons for skin. By encouraging new skin growth, they can lessen many common skin issues. A high-power retinoid, tretinoin can address more severe skin issues at a faster rate (although not immediately). Studies show that regular use of topical tretinoin can improve:
How does tretinoin work?
When it comes to this power skin care ingredient, how do tretinoin vs. retinol, or other retinoids compare? Like all retinoids, tretinoin works through one magic power—skin cell turnover.
Every day, your epidermis (the top layer of your skin) constantly sheds and regrows its skin cells to maintain its health. Tretinoin speeds up this turnover rate, encouraging dead skin cells to shed and new skin cells to emerge. The result? Brighter, healthier, and more youthful skin.
Faster skin cell turnover from tretinoin is shown to:
Prevent acne – Acne rises from a combination of excess sebum, irritation, and clogged hair follicles. By lowering sebum production and shedding dead skin cells faster, tretinoin can stop potential pimples from forming (at least after any tretinoin purge).
Brighten skin – Dead skin is the death of a fresh and “glowy” appearance. By speeding up natural exfoliation, tretinoin can lighten dark skin spots and keep you looking radiant.
Reduce wrinkles – Above all, use of this topical ingredient is prescribed for its rejuvenating properties. Use of tretinoin for wrinkles and fine lines has become increasingly popular. Studies show that retinoids can increase collagen and elastin, two proteins that give skin its volume and strength. This action can “fill in” fine lines and soft wrinkles, preventing and even reducing the signs of skin aging.
Active vs. Inactive Retinoids
So, how does tretinoin work differently than other retinoids? It has an active chemical formula.
Retinoids can be divided into two categories—active or inactive.Inactive retinoids, like retinol or retinaldehyde, must be converted by your skin’s enzymes into retinoic acid for absorption. This delays their benefits, but reduces potential irritation.
On the flipside, active retinoids like tretinoin are retinoic acid. This requires zero conversion on your skin’s surface, speeding up absorption and results (and potential skin irritation).
How long does it take to see results?
Tretinoin may be the high-achiever child of the retinoid family. However, don’t expect to wake up with a new face after one use. You need patience (and maybe a few adjustment weeks) to see final results.
When asking how long does it take for tretinoin to work, the real answer is—it depends.
According to research, tretinoin takes anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months to create positive changes. Factors that determine this time include :
Skin issues category (acne, wrinkles, dark spots, etc.)
Tretinoin formula strength
Frequency & consistency of use
So, how long does it take for tretinoin to work for you? Consider this typical timeline for usage:
At 2 to 4 weeks – After a few weeks, your skin cell turnover is kicking into high gear, but your skin will probably not be used to that extra action. This may cause some irritative and temporary effects like dryness, redness, and increased acne (called the tretinoin purge). Most importantly at this stage—stick with it. With patience, your skin can adjust to yield results.
After 4 to 6 weeks – After one month, you will likely see the first positive changes from tretinoin. As irritation dies down, your skin will acclimate to tretinoin’s high cell turnover rate—a process called retinization. You may notice a smoother texture, brighter appearance, and reduced oiliness.
After 12 weeks – At three months, most people reach their tretinoin “breakthrough”, especially for acne sufferers. Studies show that 12 weeks of tretinoin use can reduce comedones (pimples) by up to 85%. Additionally, increased collagen production and dead skin shedding can lightly improve fine lines.
After 6 months – At this point, tretinoin should begin to reveal its true refreshing powers. Multiple studies show that 6 months of consistent tretinoin use can reduce fine lines, elasticity, sallowness, and hyperpigmentation. Across these studies, nearly all reported that 6 months was the “turning point” for tretinoin’s anti-aging results.
After 12 months – Following one year, you may wake up with a new face. Research shows that one year of tretinoin use brings long-term changes to skin, particularly reducing signs of photoaging (sun damage).,
On its own, your skin regenerates every 4 weeks through natural skin cell turnover. If you take a full month off tretinoin, you may notice a decline in skin quality at that one month mark, since your skin has rebuilt on its own. To keep results, stick to your routine.
Which tretinoin cream is right for me?
Like most medicines, tretinoin comes in different strengths or concentrations. The right strength for you depends on your skincare history, skin condition, and goals.
All tretinoin topicals have a percentage number—this refers to the concentration of tretinoin in the formula. The higher the number, the stronger the topical. Usually, tretinoin comes in these concentrations:
0.025% – When choosing acne treatment for mild cases, most doctors prescribe this low-strength formula. Similarly, medical professionals may also start new patients or patients with severe skin issues here to reduce potential irritation.
0.05% – For most patients, this strength is the gold standard. Over four months, one study showed that 0.05% tretinoin significantly reduced fine lines and hyperpigmentation more than 0.01% tretinoin. Moderate acne may also benefit from this higher strength formula.
0.1% – The strongest concentration available, this formula is reserved for severe acne, wrinkles, or discoloration. Many patients see intense side effects at first with 0.1% tretinoin, due to its strength.
The best rule to keep in mind? Start slow. You can always work your way up to a higher strength tretinoin. The quicker you jump into a high-strength formula, the more likely you will see irritative side effects.
Side effects and considerations of tretinoin
Unless you are a pro retinoid user, you will likely experience side effects over the first few weeks. Let’s explore the potential symptoms and treatments for this adjustment period.
Tretinoin side effects
Technically, tretinoin’s skin cell turnover powers are irritating—at least at first. Until your skin catches up, this process may create some uncomfortable side effects.
Tretinoin skin purging is a common side effect of this skincare product and can look like stubborn acne breakouts. However, everyone has an individual reaction to tretinoin. Some people may have little skin irritation, while others may take weeks to see a tretinoin purge fade. Factors like skin sensitivity, past retinoid use, and tretinoin strength can all vary your common side effects over the first few weeks:
Mild itching or burning sensation
Dryness, flaking, or peeling
Acne purging or breakouts
Heightened photosensitivity (sun sensitivity)
While mild symptoms are typical, contact your medical professional immediately if you experience severe side effects like blistering, dermatitis (rash), nosebleeds, or non-stop burning. These may signal an allergic reaction.
Tretinoin side effects may be unavoidable, but you can lessen their severity. Take extra care with these derm-approved tips to smooth over any road bumps over the first few weeks:
Increase moisturization – Skin care products like tretinoin can cause dry skin. So, soothe any drying side effects by increasing the amount or richness of your moisturizer. You can also try applying tretinoin over your moisturizer or even sandwich it between two layers of moisturizer.
Use sunscreen – While tretinoin can reduce signs of photoaging, it also increases photosensitivity (your skin’s sensitivity to the sun). Load up on SPF protection while using tretinoin.
Start slow – To reduce side effects, start at a lower strength tretinoin formula. Your skin will have an easier time adjusting to its powers, preparing you for any higher strength formulas.
Check counteractions – Certain skincare ingredients may not agree with tretinoin. Avoid applying exfoliating or drying ingredients at the same time, such as benzoyl peroxide, AHA/BHA, salicylic acid, and vitamin C.
Find your Tretinoin glow with Favor
From hormonal acne to fine lines, tretinoin may be the long-term solution to your skin issues.
We believe skincare treatment should be easy, accessible, and effective. That’s why Favor offers dermatology care that can build customized and affordable skin regimens. Starting at just $15 per year, you can receive:
Prescription topicals like tretinoin
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