Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are a form of vitamin A and come in a cream, gel or lotion. Their main function is to help reduce the production of sebum and prevent dead skin cells blocking pores thus causing blackheads and whiteheads (overproduction of sebum, which acts as a waterproof shield, can clog the skin’s pores).

Topical retinoids make the skin produce new cells more quickly. They also encourage the skin to produce more collagen, which helps give our skin strength and elasticity, along with replacing dead skin cells, but less pigment. Retinoids can help make the skin smoother, fade spots and make the skin’s colour more even. Retinoids are prescription medications.

Topical retinoids can help in the treatment of acneExamples of topical retinoids are:

  • Tretinoin
  • Adapalene
  • Tazarotene


Tretinoin is usually prescribed for the treatment of whiteheads and blackheads. It works by increasing skin cell turnover which aid the natural exfoliation of the outer layers of the skin. It also encourages the release of blackheads or whiteheads inside the pores and stops the formation of new blackheads or whiteheads. Flaking and irritation may occur due to increased skin cells and you should avoid exposing your skin to the sun without sun protection.

It is important to persevere with Tretinoin as it can be very effective for whiteheads and blackheads: but you may not see an improvement for many weeks.

Note: Isotretinoin and Tretinoin are two very different drugs that work on acne in very different ways. While Isotretinoin Is taken by mouth, Tretinoin Is applied directly to the skin.


Adapalene prevents the formation of blackheads and/or whiteheads and reduces inflammation. It can effectively clear pimples and unblocks pores. Whilst using Adapalene you should protect your skin from the sun and you should use a sun protection if out in the sun. You may experience irritation, redness, burning and peeling; however, these symptoms usually fade.


Tazarotene is a treatment used to combat bacteria which is often associated with acne. It is used to regenerate the skin's surface cells, revealing new unblocked pores.

Improvements can be seen within a few weeks however it may take longer for some people.

Note: Tazarotene can harm an unborn baby. If you can become pregnant, use a reliable form of birth control while taking this drug. If you do get pregnant, stop using this drug and call your doctor right away.

The above three retinoids are used to treat mild-to-moderate acne.

Retinol is another form of vitamin A which has similar but milder effects and can be bought over the counter.

Your doctor will prescribe the relevant topical retinoid appropriate for your symptoms – please talk with your doctor about any aspects of treatment of acne using Topical Retinoids.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 14 September 2017

Next review: 14 September 2020