Topical Retinoids in Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review

Am J Clin Dermatol. 2019 Jun;20(3):345-365. doi: 10.1007/s40257-019-00423-z.


Background: Topical retinoids are a first-line treatment for acne vulgaris.

Objective: This systematic review aims to evaluate the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of topical retinoids approved in the United States for the treatment of acne vulgaris.

Methods: A PubMed and Embase search was conducted using the search terms 'adapalene,' 'tretinoin,' 'tazarotene,' and 'acne vulgaris.' Selection of articles fit the following inclusion criteria: clinical trials evaluating both efficacy and safety/tolerability of topical retinoids approved in the United States for the treatment of acne vulgaris and published between January 1, 2008 and September 1, 2018. Exclusion criteria included clinical trials involving 20 subjects or fewer, subjects under 12 years of age, and topical retinoid combination therapies with moisturizers or aloe vera. Of 424 search results found, a total of 54 clinical trials were chosen based on selection criteria.

Results: Topical retinoids are superior to vehicle in improving Investigator Global Assessment and Investigator's Static Global Assessment (24.1-28.8% and 13.3-17.3%, respectively; p < 0.001). A topical retinoid combined with benzoyl peroxide led to IGA improvement compared with vehicle (26.1-34.9% vs 7-11.8%; p < 0.001) at Week 12. Topical retinoid plus an oral antibiotic was superior to vehicle in reducing lesion counts (64-78.9% vs 41-56.8%, p < 0.001). There was no significant difference in efficacy between tretinoin and tazarotene. Tretinoin 0.05% resulted in 62% of patients experiencing AEs compared with adapalene 0.1% (19%) and adapalene 0.3% (40%). More patients receiving adapalene were tolerant of the AEs compared with tazarotene (55.4% vs 24.4%; p < 0.0012).

Conclusions: Topical retinoids are safe and efficacious for the treatment of acne vulgaris. They should be used in combination with benzoyl peroxide to optimize results in patients. The differences in efficacy of topical retinoids appears minor; therefore, the type of topical retinoid is not as important as choosing a particular strength of topical retinoid and combining it with an antimicrobial agent. Adapalene has a superior tolerability profile amongst topical retinoids.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acne Vulgaris / diagnosis
  • Acne Vulgaris / drug therapy*
  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Administration, Oral
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Benzoyl Peroxide / administration & dosage*
  • Benzoyl Peroxide / adverse effects
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Dermatologic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Dermatologic Agents / adverse effects
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Retinoids / administration & dosage*
  • Retinoids / adverse effects
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Dermatologic Agents
  • Retinoids
  • Benzoyl Peroxide