External Retinoids for Acne


External or topical retinoids are common treatments for acne. They have been formulated to reduce inflammation and irritation on the affected areas. These topical medications may be used on their own or in combination with other acne treatments. These gels or creams should be applied once a day on the affected area. Do remember to wash the affected area thoroughly before the application. However, if the area becomes irritated, applications should be done less frequently. Peeling and redness are considered to be normal reactions that should resolve within the first few weeks of using topical retinoids. You may want to get checked by your dermatologist just to be sure that what you are experiencing is part of that normal reaction. 


Adapalene is becoming common as a topical retinoid but it is still pretty new compared to tretinoin. It is usually sold under the name Differin and is available as either a cream or gel, which is formulated with 0.1% strength. There is also a 0.3% gel preparation. Compared to the more popular retinoid, adapalene is less likely to cause skin irritations, and produces a milder case if it does. It can be applied together with benzoyl peroxide with no problem, and can even improve the efficacy of clindamycin, which is an antibiotic. Adapalene does not just produce an anti-inflammatory effect but also an exfoliation effect.


Tazarotene is another topical retinoid that may be pretty new compared to tretinoin. It is marketed under the name, Tazorac. It is sold as a gel, which is formulated at either 0.05% or 0.1% strengths. The problem with this particular external retinoid is that it is more expensive than other retinoids. It may provide very effective treatment but it can cause more skin irritations compared to adapalene and tretinoin. It can even cause extreme dryness, itchiness and redness. However, it may still be recommended by your dermatologist depending on your skin condition. If you have both acne and psoriasis, then Tazarotene may be the best retinoid for you because it can also treat psoriasis.


Tretinoin is the most popular external retinoid. It is marketed using several names, such as Avita, Retin-A, and Renova. The retinoid is also sold as a generic medication. As a cream, it is available in 0.02%, 0.025%, 0.0375%, 0.05%, 0.01% and 0.1% formulations. As a gel, it is available in 0.01%, 0.05%, 0.04% and 0.025% strengths while it is only available in one strength as a liquid (0.05%). Tretinoin is also available as a 10 mg capsule. The liquid form, however, is the most potent among all formulations. Gels are more potent than creams. 

Tretinoin is popular and undoubtedly effective. It cannot, however, be used together with benzoyl peroxide. The two medications cannot be used at the same time. 

When using Tretinoin for the first time, you may experience some skin irritation and your risk of sunburn will also increase. 

Tretinoin is the very first retinoid to be formulated specifically for topical acne treatment. It is also used as an ingredient in hair loss treatments, as well as wrinkle-reducing and anti-aging creams. It is not advised, however, for women who are pregnant or who are planning to get pregnant soon to use tretinoin as it may cause serious defects on the fetus.

The above are the existing external retinoids. Your doctor should be able to prescribe the retinoid that will best treat your acne.