Topical retinoids in acne vulgaris: update on efficacy and safety

Am J Clin Dermatol. 2008;9(6):369-81. doi: 10.2165/0128071-200809060-00003.


Topical retinoids represent a mainstay of acne treatment because they expel mature comedones, reduce microcomedone formation, and exert anti-inflammatory effects. The first-generation retinoid tretinoin (all-trans retinoic acid) and the synthetic third-generation polyaromatics adapalene and tazarotene are approved for acne treatment by the US FDA, whereas topical tretinoin, isotretinoin (13-cis retinoic acid), and adapalene are accredited in Canada and Europe. Topical retinoids have a favorable safety profile distinct from the toxicity of their systemic counterparts. Local adverse effects, including erythema, dryness, itching, and stinging, occur frequently during the early treatment phase. Their impact varies with the vehicle formation, skin type, frequency and mode of application, use of moisturizers, and environmental factors such as sun exposure or temperature. The broad anti-acne activity and safety profile of topical retinoids justifies their use as first-line treatment in most types of non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne. They are also suitable as long-term medications, with no risk of inducing bacterial resistance, for maintenance of remission after cessation of initial combination therapy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Adapalene
  • Administration, Topical
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Isotretinoin / therapeutic use
  • Naphthalenes / therapeutic use
  • Nicotinic Acids / therapeutic use
  • Retinoids / administration & dosage
  • Retinoids / therapeutic use*
  • Safety
  • Tretinoin / therapeutic use


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Naphthalenes
  • Nicotinic Acids
  • Retinoids
  • Adapalene
  • Tretinoin
  • tazarotene
  • Isotretinoin