Skin Care

Tretinoin: What you need to know before using prescription retinoids on your skin

MoleMap Team
August 16, 2023
9 minutes

Discover the benefits, side effects and sun safety precautions you need to take when using tretinoin prescription retinoid cream.

Tretinoin has been all the rage in the skin­care world recent­ly. Tout­ed for its abil­i­ty to treat acne, smooth out fine lines and wrin­kles, and improve sun dam­aged skin, there’s no won­der it’s so pop­u­lar. But is it safe for your skin?

If you’re think­ing about incor­po­rat­ing this pre­scrip­tion retinoid cream into your skin­care rou­tine, you’ll need to ensure you use it prop­er­ly to avoid any unwel­come side effects. Plus, you’ll need to be extra care­ful when out in the sun. Read on to learn why.

Do you want to read this article later?

Do you want to read this article later?
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin (also known as pre­scrip­tion retinoids or pre­scrip­tion vit­a­min A) is a high­ly potent, med­ical-grade top­i­cal vit­a­min A cream or gel. It con­tains retinoic acid, which is the most bio­log­i­cal­ly avail­able active form of vit­a­min A, and comes in dif­fer­ent for­mu­la strengths.

Unlike retinol and oth­er over-the-counter ver­sions of vit­a­min A, tretinoin is a pre­scrip­tion-only top­i­cal treat­ment. This means you can only pur­chase it if you have a script from a doc­tor or der­ma­tol­o­gist who has prop­er­ly assessed your skin and deemed its use appropriate.

Dermatologist with a patient

Tretinoin vs. Retinol: what is the difference?

Tretinoin and retinol are both clas­si­fied as retinoids — but there are some key dif­fer­ences between them:


  • Syn­thet­ic form of vit­a­min A
  • Only avail­able with a pre­scrip­tion (classed as a med­ical-grade skin­care product)
  • High­ly potent


  • Nat­ur­al form of vit­a­min A
  • Avail­able over-the-counter and found in many skin­care products
  • Milder for­mu­la­tion

What's my skin cancer risk?

Answer six simple questions (takes less than 1 minute) to discover your risk and the right skin check for you.
Check my risk

What is tretinoin used for?

It may seem like tretinoin has only been on the skin­care radar in recent times, but it’s actu­al­ly a pop­u­lar top­i­cal treat­ment for acne that’s been used for almost 50 years. It has been found to help reduce inflam­ma­tion asso­ci­at­ed with acne, clear exist­ing acne and reduce the sever­i­ty of outbreaks.

But treat­ing acne isn’t tretinoin’s only ben­e­fit. A 2012 study indi­cates that it may also be help­ful for:

  • Improv­ing skin tone and texture
  • Reduc­ing the appear­ance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Reduc­ing the appear­ance of dark spots on the skin
  • Improv­ing pre­ma­ture aging of skin due to sun dam­age (pho­toag­ing)

Oth­er research on the use of retinoids in the treat­ment of skin aging found that ​“amongst the retinoids, tretinoin pos­si­bly is the most potent and cer­tain­ly the most wide­ly inves­ti­gat­ed retinoid for pho­toag­ing therapy.”

How does tretinoin work?

Tretinoin works by speed­ing up the cel­lu­lar turnover in the skin, mak­ing skin cells divide and die faster so that new, health­i­er cells can replace them. How­ev­er, in order to stim­u­late this process, tretinoin must ulti­mate­ly irri­tate the skin. This is why peo­ple often expe­ri­ence uncom­fort­able side effects when first using this product.

Most peo­ple start to notice a dif­fer­ence in their skin after 2 to 3 weeks of using the prod­uct, but it can take 6 or more weeks for the full ben­e­fit to be seen.

tretinoin must ulti­mate­ly irri­tate the skin

Can tretinoin fade skin spots or sunspots?

Some research sug­gests tretinoin can fade the appear­ance of dark spots on the skin. How­ev­er, everyone’s skin is dif­fer­ent and a top­i­cal treat­ment alone may not be the most effec­tive way to fade sun spots on your face or body. This is why it’s impor­tant to con­sult with a der­ma­tol­o­gist before start­ing any sun spot removal treat­ment so you can get per­son­alised advice on the best approach for your skin.

Like­wise, it’s impor­tant to have a thor­ough skin check by a melanog­ra­ph­er or der­ma­tol­o­gist to con­firm whether the spots you want to fade are indeed sunspots and not some­thing more sin­is­ter. It can be dif­fi­cult to spot the dif­fer­ence between a harm­less sunspot and a poten­tial skin can­cer or melanoma so be sure to have your skin spots pro­fes­sion­al­ly checked before using tretinoin or oth­er pre­scrip­tion retinoids.

have your skin spots pro­fes­sion­al­ly skin check

What are the side effects of tretinoin?

Pre­scrip­tion retinoids like tretinoin are extreme­ly pow­er­ful. This means you must use them prop­er­ly under the guid­ance of your der­ma­tol­o­gist or doc­tor — or you could risk some unpleas­ant reac­tions like burn­ing skin or a dam­aged skin barrier.

Due to its poten­cy, tretinoin can cause some skin irri­ta­tion when you first begin using it as your skin needs time to adjust to the active ingre­di­ents. Some oth­er com­mon side effects of tretinoin include mild to moderate:

  • Skin red­ness or inflammation
  • Dry­ness
  • Peel­ing or flaking
  • Itch­ing

How­ev­er, most peo­ple notice a reduc­tion in these side effects after a few weeks of using the product.

Tretinoin pho­to­sen­si­tiv­i­ty: Why you need to be extra care­ful in the sun when using this product

Anoth­er side effect asso­ci­at­ed with the use of tretinoin is pho­to­sen­si­ti­sa­tion. This means it makes you more sen­si­tive to the sun’s harm­ful UV rays and you could burn eas­i­ly when exposed to sunlight.

From a skin can­cer pre­ven­tion per­spec­tive, this may be prob­lem­at­ic. One of the key risk fac­tors for skin can­cer is a his­to­ry of sun­burn so it’s easy to see why pho­to­sen­si­tiv­i­ty from tretinoin is con­cern­ing. While there is cur­rent­ly no evi­dence to sug­gest tretinoin use increas­es your risk of skin can­cer, it’s cru­cial that you take extra pre­cau­tions with sun pro­tec­tion when using this product.

How to pro­tect your skin from the sun when using tretinoin:

  • Avoid exces­sive sun expo­sure — do not use this prod­uct if you work out­doors or spend a lot of time out in the sun
  • Wear SPF 50+ sun­screen every day — even if you’re only stay­ing indoors as indi­rect sun­light through win­dows can still dam­age or burn your skin
  • Wear sun pro­tec­tive cloth­ing when outdoors
Tretinoin pho­to­sen­si­tiv­i­ty

Make reg­u­lar skin checks part of your skin­care routine

At MoleMap, we agree that look­ing after your skin is a top pri­or­i­ty. But when it comes to your skin health, we encour­age you to think beyond skin­care prod­ucts and start mak­ing reg­u­lar skin can­cer checks part of your skin well­ness rou­tine too.

By hav­ing a pro­fes­sion­al skin check or mole check every 6 to 12 months, you’ll give your­self the best chance to catch any sus­pi­cious spots or lesions ear­ly. Plus, you’ll also enjoy peace of mind that you’re keep­ing your skin safe — inside and out. Consider scheduling these regular checks at MoleMap Australia Skin Cancer Clinics for expert care and thorough examination.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

Latest News

Arrow IconArrow Icon

Is Red Light Therapy Safe And What Does It Actually Do For The Skin?

Read now

Are gel UV nail lights safe? Your manicure could be putting you at risk of skin cancer

Read now

10 top foods for skin health

Read now

6 ways to treat and soothe sunburn

Read now

5 top cruelty free sunscreens to protect your skin (and the animals)

Read now

Are fake tanning products safe for your skin?

Read now

Want the security of ongoing mole monitoring?

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter

Get preventative tips & hints on how to spot suspect moles. Plus, sun smart giveaways.
Thanks for subscribing!
Keep an eye on your inbox. We'll be there soon with all the skinformation to help you stay safe.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.