How tretinoin works for your skin

The gold-standard ingredient for clear & smooth skin

Once you start establishing a serious skincare routine, it’s hard to escape the call of retinol. The beloved ingredient gets recommended again and again for a reason—it works. We’ll let you in on a secret, though: retinol has an even more effective cousin. Meet tretinoin.

What is tretinoin?

Dermatologists consider tretinoin the gold standard for treating fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin texture, loss of firmness, and even acne 1,2,—all those inevitable and common skin concerns that tend to find their way to your face after a certain amount of lived experience. Next to sun protection, tretinoin cream is often considered your best ally for smooth, clear, and even skin. 

So what exactly is it? Most literally, tretinoin is a topical retinoid. The retinoid family of chemical compounds is derived from vitamin A, which plays an essential role in your body’s growth and development. One family member in particular, retinoic acid, helps skin cells grow and develop. Tretinoin is a form of this retinoic acid 3 (usually in a cream or a gel) that you can apply directly to the surface of your skin to reap the benefits of healthy skin cell growth.

What does tretinoin do?

Tretinoin helps your skin cells shed, grow, and glow.

  • Shed: In healthy skin, skin cells naturally turn over. The top layer of your skin constantly sheds as old skin cells die and new ones replace them. That process slows down with age, so old skin cells stick around longer, looking dull, letting dark spots linger, and clogging pores. But like a skilled party host at the end of a long night, tretinoin ushers those old skin cells away. It speeds up cell turnover to give dead, damaged skin cells the boot.4
  • Grow: On the flipside, tretinoin welcomes in fresh, plump skin cells and gives them the support they need by stimulating the production of the protein collagen5. Key to skin firmness and structure, collagen deteriorates with age (plus UV damage) and isn’t replaced as quickly. But tretinoin boosts the production of new collagen, and the appearance of fine lines diminishes as collagen grows.
  • Glow: As new cells replace old ones, skin can look brighter and more even. Dark spots fade, dull skin sheds, and blemishes decrease.

Tretinoin vs. retinol: What’s the difference?

Both popular skincare ingredients are topical retinoids, but the main difference between tretinoin and retinol is how directly your skin can use them— and therefore, how well they work. 

Since tretinoin is already a form of the retinoid compound your skin cells can interact with, the ingredient gets straight to work encouraging the growth of healthy new cells. Retinol, on the other hand, must be converted by skin enzymes to the usable retinoic acid form before it affects your skin cells 6.

Tretinoin is much more effective than retinol—it’s been observed to be around 20 times (!) more potent 7, although we need further research to confirm this conversion.

Where can you get tretinoin?

The FDA classifies tretinoin as a drug, so it’s available by prescription only in medications such as Retin-A. You’ll need to get tretinoin through a medical provider, like your Agency provider.

For your Future Formula, your Agency provider starts you off with a tretinoin strength that targets your goals while still going gentle on your skin. As your skin adjusts to your tretinoin prescription over time, your provider can increase the strength of your formula.

How to use tretinoin

Agency providers recommend applying a thin layer to cleansed, dry skin at night. When starting out, you can ease your skin into tretinoin by applying your formula a couple nights per week and then build up to every night, depending on how your skin reacts. 

Your skin may be more sensitive at first, so be cautious about using tretinoin alongside other active ingredients like exfoliating acids (AHAs and BHAs) and vitamin C. Once you’ve adjusted to your tretinoin cream, you can slowly resume your previous routine.

We’re always big on daily sun protection, but it’s essential to wear sunscreen while using tretinoin since your skin may be more sensitive to UV rays.

How long does it take for tretinoin to work? 

When it comes to anti-aging skincare, the best ingredients help remedy the past while setting up your skin for a bright future. With consistent use, tretinoin gives you the best of both. 

It takes time for your skin cells to turn over, collagen to be produced, and pores to unclog, so it’s typical to begin seeing tretinoin results in two to six months (although results can vary from person to person). With consistent use and diligent sun protection, your skin will continue to improve, and you’ll have tretinoin on your side to keep future skin concerns at bay.

Is it safe to use tretinoin daily? Tretinoin is safe and can be effective for all skin types and tones when prescribed and used appropriately.

You may go through a temporary adjustment period with dryness, redness, peeling, and flaking—especially if you have dry or sensitive skin—when you first introduce tretinoin into your skincare routine. But Agency’s personalized and progressive approach aims to help your skin acclimate to tretinoin easily. We tailor your Future Formula to your skin’s precise needs to help minimize the possibility of irritation. In case you need it though, we have a guide with tips for minimizing irritation.

Keep in mind that tretinoin is actually helping to slough off old skin cells, so some peeling in the beginning is completely normal. However, if your irritation is more significant or lasts longer than a couple months, your Agency provider can advise on spacing out applications or adjusting your prescribed strength until your skin builds up a tolerance for daily use.

When first starting out, you might experience a tretinoin side effect called “purging,” which is a temporary flare of breakouts as your pores clear out. While this phase can be frustrating, it helps set the stage for clearer skin down the road.

Want to know more about your Future Formula?

You know your skin—we’re here to help you know your skincare. Our team of dermatology experts has helped create guides to each of the forward-thinking ingredients in your Future Formula. 

Learn how these ingredients also help your skin face the future: azelaic acid, tranexamic acid, niacinamide, dexpanthenol

1. Hilary E. Baldwin, et al. 40 Years of Topical Tretinoin Use in Review Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

2. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).
3. Łukasz Szymański, et al. Retinoic Acid and Its Derivatives in Skin. Cells. (December 2020)..
4. Hilary E. Baldwin, et al. 40 Years of Topical Tretinoin Use in Review. Ibid.
5. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Ibid.
6. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Ibid.
7. Siddharth Mukherjee, et al. Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging: An Overview of Clinical Efficacy and Safety. Ibid.