Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Getty/Veronique Beranger

If you’ve been hearing a lot about tretinoin as it relates to skincare, know that this wonder-ingredient is nothing new—but thank your lucky stars you’re now in the know. Tretinoin comes in three different formulas (gel, lotion, and cream) and is only available by prescription. To get all the intel on tretinoin, including what it does and who it’s for, we reached out to New York City dermatologist, Joshua Zeichner, MD. Here’s what you need to know about this antiaging, acne-clearing active ingredient.

What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin vs. Retinol?

A major difference between tretinoin and retinol is their levels of potency. Both are in the vitamin A family—tretinoin is vitamin A and retinol is a vitamin A derivative—and they can both be used to reduce signs of aging. Put simply, retinol gives many of the benefits of its more powerful cousin tretinoin, but with a gentler hand. “[Topical retinoids] all are related to each other,” says Dr. Zeichner, “and when the over-the-counter versions are applied to the skin they are converted to tretinoin which is the active form in the skin.” If you’re looking to supercharge the effects of your retinol serum or moisturizer, it might be time to talk to your dermatologist about tretinoin.

Who Should Use Tretinoin?

Two of the most common uses for tretinoin are to treat acne and combat signs of aging. “Tretinoin is perhaps the best studied tropical product to treat fine lines and wrinkles,” says Dr. Zeichner. By promoting new collagen production and calming skin irritation, it can strengthen the skin’s foundation—in turn, reducing signs of aging. He explains that it’s also used as an effective treatment for acne by keeping skin cells from clumping together, which is what can cause oil to get trapped within pores.

How Should Tretinoin Be Used in a Skincare Routine?

Dr. Zeichner recommends arming skin with damage-preventing products in the morning and treating skin with products that repair damage (i.e. tretinoin) at night. Counter to what you might think, he recommends applying a moisturizer to skin prior to tretinoin. “Think of the moisturizer as a buffer or primer to get the skin ready for the topical retinoids.” It increases hydration while minimizing the potential for irritation. Word to the wise: Dr. Zeichner warns that more is not better in this particular instance. “In the first 2 to 4 weeks, tretinoin is associated with skin irritation as you adjust to the product. I usually have patients apply it every other night for the first few weeks while their skin acclimates.” He advises to spread a pea-sized amount over the entire face with each application.

WATCH: This Is the Antiaging Cleanser Jackie Kennedy Used for Her Gorgeous Skin

Can I Use Tretinoin Even If I Have Sensitive Skin?

First and foremost, talk with your doctor about the right options for your skin. He or she might be able to offer new treatment options that could be less sensitizing than others, such as Altreno. “[It's] a new prescription tretinoin lotion that uses a specialized delivery system to minimize the risk of irritation,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “It is FDA approved to treat acne and delivers all of the reliable results we expect from tretinoin.”

Advertisement