What You Must Know About Retin-A Cream For Stretch Marks
What’s in Retin-A
Tretinoin or retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A, is sold by prescription as a cream for skin conditions including stretch marks. Different trade names include Retin-A and Renova. Studies show that tretinoin really does reduce the length and width of stretch marks, if used on recent stretch marks, no more than a few months old, that are still red or pink and haven’t faded to a white or silvery color. It’s available in different strengths: 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1% (the last one gives the best results).
It’s confusing that Retin-A and Renova sound like, but aren’t the same as, Retinol, which is a vitamin A cream sold over the counter. Retinol is used in the same way as Retin-A but is less effective, because it only works when the vitamin A it contains is converted to tretinoin by enzymes in the skin cells, which happens at different rates for different people.
Why We Get Stretch Marks
Stretch marks occur when the middle layer of skin, the dermis, has lost the collagen that makes it elastic, and thus becomes thinned out by stretching, letting the pink blood vessels below shine through. These marks can be caused by pregnancy, rapid weight gain or loss, or overuse of corticosteroids, for example in ointments or pills to treat eczema. They really aren’t harmful, but some people are so bothered by the way they look that they welcome a chance to get rid of them.
Tretinoin works on stretch marks by exfoliating some of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) and stimulating collagen production in the dermis below it. This provides a “plumping-up“ effect which reduces the appearance of stretch marks.
Things You Should Know About Using Retin-A (Tretinoin) for Stretch Marks
- Expect side effects. Side effects from Retin-A are common and include redness and skin peeling. They are only temporary; if you have discussed them with your dermatologist, you don't have to worry about them. Retin-A will remove (“exfoliate”) the outermost layer of the surface of the skin, and so redness and dryness are to be expected. You can remedy the dryness by applying a layer of moisturizer after using Retin-A.
- It takes a while to work. Many people stop using Retin-A for stretch marks when they don't see results. They may be giving up too early; it may take 24 weeks to see improvement. If side effects persist or worsen, it’s better to go back to your doctor than to just quit.
- Don't expect Retin-A to work on old stretch marks that are months old and have faded to white.
- Don't use more than your dermatologist says to. Applying too much Retin-A or applying too often in the hope of a quick fix can irritate your skin and make it worse. If you experience side effects, your dermatologist may recommend skipping a few treatments and then gradually raising the dose back up to a level you can tolerate.
- Don’t use it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Retin-A and other vitamin-A-derived chemicals affect gene expression. Tretinoin applied to the skin has been associated with birth defects in rabbits, and in at least two cases in humans. Don't use it during pregnancy.
- Protect your skin from the sun during the whole treatment period. If you exfoliate your epidermis, you are removing the pigment that shields your skin from long-term damage by the sun. Use a strong sunblocking creme instead of moisturizer if you are going to expose the treated area to the sun.
- Tretinoin or Retin-A can interact with other drugs. Skin ointments with ingredients that cause dryness or exfoliation, for example salicylic acid, resorcinol, or sulfur, shouldn’t be used with Retin-A except on a doctor’s advice.
- Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) improves early stretch marks. PubMed/NCBI.
Arch Dermatol. 1996 May;132(5):519-26.
- Retin A, Retinoids, Retinol & Vitamin A Creams Used for Skin Rejuvenation: DermaDoctor Blog
- Causes and Treatment of Stretch Marks: Medical News Today
- Tretinoin and Retinoids: Learn about Toxicity. Truth In Aging
- Retinol: When to Use It, How to Use It. Truth In Aging
Drawbacks of frequent and long-term retinol and retinoid use.
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: Vitamin A
- Stretch marks - Mayo Clinic
Another useful article ("free subscription" may be required):
- Rolewski, Sheri L., "Clinical Review: Topical Retinoids." Dermatology Nursing. 2003;15(5). Can be read at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/464026.