Retinoids are a class of medication that are prescribed to treat a variety of skin conditions, including acne, aging skin, and psoriasis. Topical retinoids are derived from vitamin A and formulated for use on the skin. They are available in the U.S. by prescription only.
Topical retinoids are a primary component of acne treatment because of their unique ability to open clogged pores. This makes topical retinoids a “first-line” therapy for people with mild, moderate, and even severe acne.
Because topical retinoids reduce inflammation and prevent new acne lesions from forming, they are often prescribed for maintenance therapy to avoid the use of antibiotics and prevent the development of antibiotic resistance. The long-term use of topical retinoids for acne may also decrease the risk of developing acne scars and provide improved skin texture.
Topical retinoids may be used alone or in combination with other acne medications, such as benzoyl peroxide or antibiotics (erythromycin, clindamycin, or minocycline).
There are several different topical retinoids available in a variety of brands, including:
- Adapalene (Differin®)
- Tazarotene (Fabior®, Tazorac®)
- Tretinoin (Atralin®, Retin A Micro®, generic)
There are also combination treatments that combine a topical retinoid with another acne medication. These include adapalene + benzoyl peroxide (Epiduo® Gel), tretinoin + clindamycin (Veltin®), and tretinoin + clindamycin (Ziana®).
All topical retinoids are generally safe and effective, but their use can often result in skin dryness and irritation. Skin irritation resulting from topical retinoid use (“retinoid dermatitis”) occurs most commonly within the first 2 to 4 weeks of starting the medication and lessens with continued use. The regular use of a gentle skin cleanser and moisturizer can help relieve the skin irritation.
Topical retinoids can also increase the skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet light. If you use a topical retinoid, you should use a sunscreen with SPF of at least 15 to prevent additional skin irritation.
Topical retinoids are usually prescribed for use daily. Use at night is recommended because the sun’s UV radiation can degrade the medication and diminish its effectiveness.