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Treating Acne with Topical Retinoids


Updated September 21, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Topical retinoids are a group of medications derived from vitamin A. They are used to treat both inflammatory and comedonal acne.

Topical retinoids work by speeding up cell turnover, sloughing away dead skin cells. They help to prevent comedones which, in turn, reduces the amount of inflamed blemishes too.

If you used topical retinoid to treat your acne, you might also get some additional benefits. Topical retinoids can make enlarged pores, or follicular prominence, less obvious. They are also used as anti-aging treatments, which is good news for many adult acne sufferers.

Topical retinoids can be used alone or along with other acne treatment medications, and you have a few different topical retinoid options:

Differin is more accurately described as a retinoid-like medication but, because it works similarly, it is lumped into the topical retinoid group.

Topical retinoids can also be found in combination with other acne treatment medications. These combo treatments give you the benefit of treating acne in different with just one application. Combo treatments that contain topical retinoids include:

Although all topical retinoids work in generally the same way, there are differences between each medication. Your doctor will help you determine which topical retinoid, if any, is right for you and your acne.


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"Prescription Medications for Treating Acne." AcneNet. 2010. American Academy of Dermatology. 24 Jul 2010. [http://www.skincarephysicians.com/acnenet/prescriptmeds.html]

"Tretinoin." MedlinePlus. 03 April 2000. U.S. National Library of Medicine & National Institutes of Health. 24 Jul 2010. [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a682437.html]

Weinstein GD, Nigra TP, Pochi PE, Savin RC, Allan A, Benik K, Jeffes E, Lufrano L, Thorne EG. “Topical Tretinoin for Treatment of Photodamaged Skin: A Multicenter Study.” Arch Dermatol. 1991;127(5):659-665.

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