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Can Tretinoin Cause Acne? (What You Need to Know)

If you've been diving into skincare and acne treatments, you've likely come across the term "tretinoin" and might have asked: "Can tretinoin cause acne?" Tretinoin, a widely used medication to treat acne, has generated a buzz because of the 'tretinoin purge' — a period when acne seems to worsen before it gets better. This post will delve into the complexities of this topic, shedding light on the use of tretinoin to treat acne and the side effects that come with it.

Also read: How to choose the best acne treatment

Biggest Take-Aways:

  • Tretinoin is a potent acne treatment but can cause an initial increase in breakouts, known as the "tretinoin purge," due to accelerated skin cell turnover.
  • Mitigating tretinoin side effects involves gradual application, proper skincare routines, and avoiding harsh products.
  • In some cases, it may be beneficial to avoid tretinoin, especially for those who can't tolerate its side effects. Alternatives like retinol, which is less potent, can be considered.
  • Exposed Skin Care offers an effective alternative to managing acne, combining scientific and natural ingredients to treat and prevent acne without causing severe side effects or a purge phase.

Woman applying Tretinoin to her skin acne

What Is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a vitamin A derivative known as a retinoid. It is a topical medication used to treat acne and improve the appearance of the skin by promoting cell turnover, thereby revealing new skin cells and reducing the appearance of acne scars. Tretinoin is considered highly effective at treating acne due to its potent impact on skin cell turnover and collagen production.

Tretinoin cream and other topical products containing the active ingredient tretinoin are typically applied to the skin's surface. Despite the many benefits, many tretinoin users may experience common side effects such as dryness, irritation, redness, and peeling. Moreover, some may find that their acne worsens before it gets better. This phenomenon is what's referred to as the "tretinoin purge."

The Tretinoin Purge: Fact or Fiction?

The 'tretinoin purge' is a term that emerged from the observation that, upon first use, tretinoin may seem to cause acne breakouts. The increase in breakouts is a common side effect and can be particularly frustrating for those using tretinoin for acne treatment.

But why does this happen? Tretinoin speeds up the skin cell turnover rate, which can lead to acne as it forces the skin to shed dead skin cells more rapidly. This process might give your skin the appearance of having more acne. The accelerated cell turnover rate can also cause skin irritation, leading to more redness and dry skin.

Image of woman with towel worried about face

Tretinoin users may notice that the purge starts within the first few weeks of treatment and might last several weeks. Some might even experience the purge worse than others. However, the apparent increase in acne is typically temporary, and the skin often improves after the purge, resulting in less acne.

The Connection: Can Tretinoin Cause Acne?

Technically, tretinoin doesn't cause acne per se. Instead, it accelerates the acne cycle, making it appear to be causing more acne. In the initial stages, you're likely to see an increase in pimples, blackheads, and other symptoms of acne. This might seem like tretinoin is causing the acne, but what it's doing is bringing underlying pimples to the skin's surface.

The idea that acne gets worse before it gets better when you’re using tretinoin might seem daunting, but it's essential to remember that this is a normal part of the process. The result, after the initial purge, should be clearer skin.

Tretinoin: Common Side Effects

Tretinoin may cause a range of side effects, the most common of which is skin irritation. Other common side effects of tretinoin include:

  • Dryness: Tretinoin may cause your skin to become extremely dry, especially in the first few weeks of use.
  • Peeling: Your skin might start to peel due to increased cell turnover.
  • Sensitivity to Sunlight: Tretinoin makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it's important to use sunscreen when going outside.
  • Redness: Irritation from tretinoin can also cause your skin to turn red.

Lying down woman with red face

Not everyone will experience these side effects, which usually subside after the first few weeks of treatment.

Tips for Using Tretinoin

Despite the possibility of an initial tretinoin purge, tretinoin is highly effective at treating acne. To minimize the side effects of tretinoin and make your experience smoother, consider these tips:

  • Start Slow: Start using tretinoin every other day and gradually increase to daily use.
  • Moisturize: Dryness and peeling are common, so use a good moisturizer to keep your skin hydrated.
  • Use Sunscreen: Tretinoin can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun, so be sure to apply sunscreen daily.
  • Don't Peel: Peeling is a normal part of the process. Avoid picking at your skin as it can lead to scarring.
  • Be Patient: Tretinoin takes time to show results. It might take a few weeks to see improvement.

Tretinoin and Other Topical Acne Medications

Tretinoin isn't the only game in town when it comes to topical acne treatments. Other topical products, such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, also effectively treat acne. However, avoiding using these products simultaneously with tretinoin is important as they may interact with tretinoin and lead to increased skin irritation.

Navigating the Journey: Mitigating the Impact of the Tretinoin Purge

Tretinoin is effective in treating acne, and while it can cause side effects like acne, it's also considered one of the most effective treatments for severe acne. But it's also known that tretinoin can cause a phenomenon known as skin purging, often referred to as the "tretinoin purge". Understanding this process can help you navigate the journey more successfully.

The tretinoin purge starts with an increase in acne breakouts resulting from accelerated skin cell turnover. This purge isn't limited to just severe acne cases — those with milder forms can experience tretinoin purge as well. While it might feel like your skin is worsening by causing more visible acne, it's essential to remember that this is a temporary phase. However, there are a few ways to avoid, or at least mitigate this unwanted effect:

  • Gradual Application: Starting with a small amount of topical tretinoin and slowly increasing its use over time can help your skin adjust.
  • Proper Skin Care Routine: Regular cleansing, moisturizing, and use of sunscreen can help combat possible side effects.

Woman applying moisturizer to face

  • Avoid Harsh Products: It's advisable to avoid products that can further irritate the skin, such as alcohol-based cleansers or physical exfoliators.

When starting with tretinoin treatment, there may be instances when it's better to avoid tretinoin altogether. It might be best to seek other treatments if you're pregnant, nursing, or have a pre-existing skin condition like eczema or rosacea.

Tretinoin and retinol are derived from Vitamin A but aren't interchangeable. Retinol is typically less potent and might be a suitable alternative for those who cannot tolerate tretinoin's potential serious side effects.

Benefits of Using Exposed Skin Care to Manage Acne

While using tretinoin to treat acne can be highly effective, it usually involves dealing with tretinoin side effects, including the infamous "tretinoin purge." This is where Exposed Skin Care comes into play as an alternative solution that can help you avoid the purge and manage acne effectively without making your skin worse by causing excess breakouts.

Exposed Skin Care Ultimate Kit

Exposed Skin Care offers numerous benefits:

  • Balanced Ingredients: The blend of scientific and natural ingredients helps treat acne without the harsh effects often associated with chemicals. This balance means you're less likely to experience the purging from tretinoin.

  • Versatility: The products cater to different skin types and acne levels, making them versatile for varied skincare needs.

  • Prevention and Treatment: Not only do Exposed Skin Care products help treat existing acne, but they also work to prevent future breakouts.

  • Minimal Side Effects: Since the products are less harsh than tretinoin, they are less likely to cause severe side effects.

Skincare is highly personal, and different solutions work for different people. But if you're concerned about navigating the tretinoin purge, Exposed Skin Care may be a worthy alternative.


In managing and treating acne, tretinoin usually emerges as a strong contender. It has proven highly effective in combating severe acne and improving skin's overall appearance, despite the initial challenges like the infamous "tretinoin purge." However, it's essential to remember that each person's experience with tretinoin can vary.

Strategies such as starting with a small amount, maintaining a consistent skincare routine, and seeking alternative products when necessary can make the process more manageable. Alternatives like Exposed Skin Care can be considered to avoid potential side effects, including the purge.

No matter the route chosen, the key lies in understanding and treating your skin with patience and care. Whether sticking through the initial purging phase with tretinoin or opting for an alternative solution, the path to clearer skin may be filled with trials and errors, but the results are usually worth the journey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can tretinoin cause acne to get worse before it gets better?

A: Yes, when starting tretinoin treatment, many users may experience what's known as a 'tretinoin purge,' where acne can worsen initially before improving.

Q: How long does the tretinoin purge last?

A: The tretinoin purge typically starts within the first few weeks of use and lasts several weeks.

Q: How often should I apply tretinoin?

A: Initially, it is recommended to apply tretinoin every other day, gradually increasing to daily use as your skin adjusts.

Q: What should I do to avoid severe side effects of tretinoin?

A: Moisturizing your skin, protecting it from the sun, and not peeling or scratching at your skin can help minimize the side effects.

Q: Can I use other acne treatments with tretinoin?

A: It's recommended to avoid using other acne treatments at the same time as tretinoin as they may interact and cause increased skin irritation.