Skin Secrets
A young woman with clear skin who may use tretinoin, TikTok's favorite skin care ingredient, takes a...

Tretinoin Is SkinTok's New Skin Care Cure-All, So Call Your Dermatologist ASAP

The before-and-afters are wild.

Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images

Retinal, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C have all been celebrated as skin care saviors, but lately, another buzzy ingredient has been causing a stir on TikTok. If you’re on the skin care side of the app, SkinTok to those in the know, chances are you’ve known about tretinoin for a while, but this prescription powerhouse is being lauded all over my #FYP for its acne-fighting prowess. It also helps with hyperpigmentation and texture concerns and has been shown to heal sun damage. All in all, tretinoin ticks all of TikTok’s skin care boxes, but it’s more complicated than your average OTC skin care ingredient.

“Tretinoin, or Retin-A, is a skin antioxidant and exfoliant that works to improve our skin’s appearance,” says Dr. Alexis Parcells, M.D, a New York and New Jersey board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of SUNNIE Skincare. Initially discovered over 60 years ago and used to treat severe acne, tretinoin is derived from Vitamin A. According to Parcells, in addition to treating acne, tretinoin also reduces inflammation, decreases hyperpigmentation, and improves collagen synthesis, which can smooth fine lines and improve skin tone and texture.

Tretinoin works its magic by promoting the shedding or turning over of affected skin as well as the unclogging of pores, which is why it’s helpful for controlling acne-prone skin, says Dr. Peter Young, M.D., medical director of Facet, a clinical skin health platform. Since many of the most common types of acne are caused by gunk getting clogged in your pores, the more dead skin you’re able to shed, the better. If you’re wondering how tretinoin is any different from retinol, you’re not too off base. “While over-the-counter retinols are effective, retin-A is stronger,” says Parcells. You’re likely to see similar results with retinol, but it’ll take much longer.

How do you use tretinoin?

Because tretinoin is so potent, it comes in incredibly small doses. Usually, tretinoin comes in the form of a cream but it can also be found in a gel form. You need to be careful about how often and how much you use it. First and foremost, you should have a dermatologist help figure out your exact parameters. Tretinoin creams have numerous levels of potency, “starting at a mild 0.005% cream all the way up to the strongest 0.01% cream,” says Parcells, who recommends “starting with a mild tretinoin formulation, then adjusting your tretinoin cream or other treatment based on your acne severity and response.”

What are the side effects of tretinoin?

“The most common side effect when starting to use tretinoin is skin irritation,” says Parcells, although this can be somewhat mitigated by starting out slowly and increasing your dose as your skin begins to tolerate the ingredient. “Initially, expect redness, peeling, and flaking of your skin,” she says. Additionally, many of the TikTokers who swear by tretinoin have reported experiencing a purge period.

Both Young and Parcells suggest avoiding exposing your skin to tretinoin and sunlight at the same time, since tretinoin can increase sun sensitivity and your skin could wind up blistering. You can avoid this by applying tretinoin at night and cleansing your skin in the morning. If your skin continues to feel dry and irritated, use a gentle skin care routine free of acid exfoliants and peroxide, and consider an oil-free moisturizer.

How can you best deal with the tretinoin purge effects?

The tretinoin purge can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months and can vary in severity, so keep an eye on your skin, and keep your dermatologist in the loop. When you’re new to tretinoin, TikTokers @thecoolestkev and @daniawiththegoodhair recommend putting your tretinoin on after first applying a layer of moisturizer. This gives your skin the added level of protection and hydration that it needs during the purge. Make sure you moisturize again after applying the tretinoin to keep dry skin at bay as best you can.

Who should be using tretinoin?

Young says that while the majority of people outgrow their acne by the end of their teenage years, some Gen Zers, particularly women, will continue to experience breakouts in their 20s, and tretinoin can be very beneficial for combating acne in the early adult years.” He also explains that since almost half of all lifetime sun exposure is received before the age of 18 and, since tretinoin works on signs of sun damage like dark spots and lines, there’s no harm in starting early.

Why does SkinTok love tretinoin?

After getting ambushed by hormonal acne that wouldn’t go away, Allison Whalen, a TikTok lifestyle influencer, tried tretinoin over a year ago. “Overall, I’ve had an amazing experience on tretinoin. I can’t even believe I have skin this clear,” she said. “I genuinely never thought that my skin could look like this.” In her video, Whalen goes into detail on how she dealt with the period of irritation that comes with using tretinoin and how she managed through the purging. As Parcells suggests, Whalen took things slow, eased her way in with a milder dose before upping the potency, and saw results in just six weeks.

@livvvmarkley, a TikTok skin care guru, has been using tretinoin for nearly two years, and she’s also still a fan. “If you can get through that purge, your skin will look beautiful and glassy,” she says in one recent video. “I promise you, starting tretinoin is going to change your skin care game.” Her purge went on for two months, and she still supports tretinoin. That’s real love.

Tretinoin before-and-after photos

If you just want some good, old-fashioned before-and-after pictures of what tretinoin has done for others, you can find plenty by searching for tretinoin journeys on TikTok. In fact, the hashtag #tretinoinbeforeandafter has over 9 million views and a plethora of videos to sate your curiosity. If you want to see long-term tretinoin healing, check out @aesthetician.emily’s video to see her skin’s improvement over a year and a half on tretinoin.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say, or, in this case, in the prescription face cream.