Retin-A Cream Australia

This fact sheet explains the basics of Retin-A Cream; how it works, how to use it and how to get it in Australia.

Written by
Kate Evans
Medically reviewed by
Dr Claudia Xiao
min read
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Table of contents

Retin-A is a prescription topical treatment, that can come in multiple forms. A powerful tool used to treat acne and sun-damaged skin [1], and with anti-aging properties, Retin-A is a form of vitamin A — a compound derivative known as retinoids.

Retin-A is a type of tretinoin cream, and was the first retinoid; its use as an acne treatment dates back to the 1970s [2].

What is Retin-A cream used for?

Retin-A — and more broadly, retinoids — have multiple uses. As the skin is a retinoid-responsive organ, it's able to absorb topical retinoids (such as Retin-A) readily [3].


Predominantly, retinoids are known for their impact on acne — they are used as the first-line treatment for inflammatory, comedonal or combination acne; this includes topical retinoids like Retin-A [4].

Stimulating the growth of new skin cells, unclogging pores and promoting the normal flow of sebum are just a few of the positive effects Retin-A can have on acne.

Acne scars

With acne, scars may develop as a result of injury and inflammation — pink, red or dark spots on your skin that may last for several weeks [1].

Applying a tretinoin product like Retin-A can reduce the accompanying swelling and inflammation, and can assist with the prevention of acne scarring [5].

Ageing skin

Tretinoin is said to have "potent" anti-ageing properties [6]; when it was approved by the FDA in 1971, dermatologists and patients alike noticed this effect.

Retin-A works by spurring faster turnover of surface skin cells, and increasing the production of collagen — both of which help to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Sun-damaged skin

If you've had sunburned skin one too many times, you may find that you have developed dark spots — also known as age spots or liver spots — over time, on your face, hands neck or arms.

Retin-A assists with fading age spots and softening rough patches of skin [2] and also improves skin tone.

What are the benefits of using Retin-A Cream?

Retin-A is considered a "highly effective" agent, and the use of it often results in a high degree of acne clearance [4]. One of the earliest benefits Retin-A users note is skin that feels fresher, smoother and more evenly pigmented [7].

Longer-term benefits of Retin-A include anti-inflammatory effects [8], the prevention of clogged pores developing [1], and improvement in skin texture, fine lines and dyspigmentation [3].

How long does Retin-A take to work?

Retin-A starts to work in your skin cells right away [1]. In the first 3 weeks, your skin may start to "purge" — due to the rapid skin cell turnover Retin-A enables, dead skin cells come to the surface, and your skin may become red and irritated as it adjusts to this new rate.

It may take 12 weeks or more of using Retin-A before full improvement of acne is noticed [9]; if it has not improved in this time, or skin irritation becomes severe, check with your healthcare provider.

What are the side effects of Retin-A?

Although tretinoin is considered to be one of the more cost-effective retinoids, forms of it, including Retin-A, are considered "slightly irritating" and more photolabile (susceptible to change due to light) than other retinoids [3].

Side effects of Retin-A may include:

  • Burning
  • Peeling
  • Stinging
  • Pruritus (a medical term for itching)
  • Erythema (redness of the skin, resembling a rash)
  • Dryness
  • Photosensitivity (heightened skin sensitivity when exposed to UV)

These effects may be known as retinization; the period when the skin adjusts. It is recommended to handle peeling by applying a moisturiser after applying Retin-A cream.

To avoid sunburn, it is recommended to apply Retin-A cream at night. On a daily basis, sunscreen with a level of SPF30 — at the least — should be worn.

If the above side effects persist beyond 4-5 weeks of using Retin-A, you may be especially sensitive to retinol.

Allergic reactions to Retin-A include hives, swelling, severe irritation or burning, blistering and changes in the skin colour of the treated areas [10]. In responses like these, seek medical attention.

How often should I use Retin-A cream?

When it comes to Retin-A, the first thing you should do is conduct a patch test — particularly if you've never used retinol before. If you've found that after a few days your skin patch isn't red or itchy, you can incorporate Retin-A into your skincare routine.

However, Retin-A should not immediately be used every evening — it's recommended to build up tolerance by using it every other night, particularly if you have sensitive skin [2].

For the best results, follow your health practitioner's instructions carefully.

In general, however, you should wash your skin with a mild soap — using your hands, not a washcloth or sponge — and dry it gently. Wait between 20-30 minutes before you apply Retin-A cream, as the skin must be completely dry or it may cause irritation [11].

Squeeze a pea-sized amount (just over a centimetre) of Retin-A cream onto your fingertip; this should be enough to apply to your whole face [9]. Dab first onto your forehead, chin and cheeks, then spread over the entire affected area. Smooth gently into the skin.

If the Retin-A cream is still visible, the amount you've applied is too much; Retin-A should become invisible almost immediately.

Wash your hands after application to remove any traces of Retin-A that may be left.

Do not use Retin-A cream on sunburned skin, windburned skin, or on open wounds.

Is tretinoin the same as Retin-A?

Retin-A is a type of tretinoin, which is a type of retinol. However, it may come in different forms — a cream, gel, lotion or liquid [9].

Do you need a prescription for Retin-A in Australia?

Although over-the-counter versions of retinol exist, Retin-A is a prescription-only medication. To secure a prescription, you can head to a GP or access it via telehealth with an Australian healthcare practitioner.

After a prescription is issued, it'll then be passed to a pharmacy for dispensing. 

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