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Topical Retinoid Medicines for Acne


Generic NameBrand Name
adapaleneDifferin, Avage, Tazorac, Renova, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro
Generic NameBrand Name
tazaroteneAvage, Tazorac, Renova, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro
tretinoinAvage, Tazorac, Renova, Retin-A, Retin-A Micro

How It Works

Topical retinoids work by unplugging clogged pores, allowing other topical medicines such as antibiotics to enter the hair shaft and fight underlying infection. You often use a topical antibiotic along with a topical retinoid, an oral antibiotic, and benzoyl peroxide.

Topical retinoids come in cream, gel, and liquid forms. You apply the medicine to your skin once a day, usually at night, about 20 to 30 minutes after washing your face.

Topical retinoids also work to reduce outbreaks by preventing dead cells from clogging pores.

Why It Is Used

You typically use topical retinoids for moderate to severe acne that has not responded to other treatments.

How Well It Works

Topical retinoids work very well to clear pores and to reduce the frequency and severity of acne outbreaks. The use of a retinoid along with topical antibiotic or benzoyl peroxide may work better than either medicine alone.

Side Effects

Side effects of topical retinoids include:

  • Sensitivity to sunlight.
  • Dryness or acute redness and peeling of the skin.

Tazarotene is sometimes more irritating than tretinoin or adapalene.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

At first, topical retinoids may make acne worse. You may notice redness and peeling of your skin when you first use topical retinoids.

Topical retinoids, especially tazarotene, are not recommended during pregnancy. Talk to your doctor before using topical retinoids if you are pregnant or think you could become pregnant. Also, if you are breast-feeding, talk with your doctor before using topical retinoids.

Tretinoin works best if you start with a lower strength and change to a higher strength as needed. Doing this may reduce redness and peeling of your skin. If your skin becomes very red and peels, try using topical retinoids every other night or every third night instead of every night.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)Click here to view a form.(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerAlexander H. Murray, MD, FRCPC - Dermatology
Last RevisedFebruary 3, 2011

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