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    Topical Retinoid Medicines for Acne

    Topical Retinoid Medicines for Acne


    Generic Name Brand Name
    adapalene Differin
    Generic Name Brand Name
    tazarotene Avage, Fabior, Tazorac
    tretinoin Avita, Renova, Retin-A

    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

    All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

    Here are some important things to think about:

    • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
    • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
    • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

    Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have:

    • Trouble breathing.
    • Swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

    Call your doctor if you have:

    • Hives.
    • Severe skin irritation or skin irritation that doesn't go away after a few weeks.

    Common side effects of this medicine include:

    • Burning, stinging, or tingling.
    • Dry, scaly, or itchy skin.
    • Sensitivity to sunlight.

    Some skin irritation (burning, stinging, or itchiness) may happen for the first few weeks you are using this medicine. If the irritation is severe or doesn't go away, talk to your doctor.

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

    What To Think About

    Wash your face gently before applying this medicine. Try to keep it off skin areas that don't have acne. Also, keep it away from the eyes, lips, the creases of your nose, and inside your nose. Wash your hands after using this medicine.

    Protect your skin from sunlight and extreme weather while you are using this medicine. If you cannot stay out of the sun, wear protective clothing (such as a hat) and sunscreen.

    Some of these medicines are flammable, so avoid fire, open flames, or smoking while applying this medicine or right after applying this medicine.

    Taking medicine

    Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

    There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

    Advice for women

    Do not use this medicine if you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant. If you need to use this medicine, talk to your doctor about how you can prevent pregnancy.


    Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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


    By Healthwise Staff
    Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
    E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
    Last Revised January 23, 2013

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