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Why is Retin A Prescription-Only?

by Ella Goodman 06 Jan 2020

Retin A has become very well known in the skincare industry, and by many consumers who are interested in products that help skin achieve and maintain a youthful, radiant, smooth appearance. What you might not know is that Retin A is only available through a prescription, while there are other types of retinol products which don’t require a visit with your dermatologist. What makes Retin A so unique from other retinol products that it requires a prescription? Let’s find out.

What Is the Difference Between Over the Counter and Prescription Skincare Products?

Retin A is unique in the fact that it isn’t classified as a cosmetic like many of the other skincare products on the market today. Instead, it is classified as a medication, which is regulated by the FDA. Considering that some retinoid products, like retinols, are available over the counter, the line between being a cosmetic and a drug is a little fuzzy in the case of Retin A.

According to the FDA, a product that is designed to make people more attractive, or alter their appearance in some way, is considered a cosmetic. We know that the products found at the makeup counter are generally considered cosmetics, but the term applies to other products like moisturizers, cleansers and serums that don’t require a prescription. For the most part, cosmetics hide or temporarily diminish flaws, although some non-prescription skincare ingredients have been shown to be effective in bringing about long-term changes in the skin.

There are also skincare products that are intended to work on a level so deep that they somehow affect physiological changes in the body. In this case, skin care products that affect the structure or cellular function of the skin to improve its condition and even reverse the signs of aging, are considered to be drugs under the FDA, and therefore require a prescription to acquire.

By law, cosmetics are required to be safe for use by consumers when used for the intended purposes and according to any instructions or labeling providing by the manufacturer. However, cosmetics are not required to receive FDA approval before they become available to you in the open market. In contrast to this, products that are considered drugs, like Retin A, are required to have FDA approval that states they are safe and effective for consumers before they can be prescribed.

Why Is Retin A Prescription Only?

Retin A is the brand name of a retinoid called tretinoin. Of all the compounds in the retinoid family, tretinoin is one of the most powerful. It’s much more powerful than the non-prescription retinol products you’ll find on the market. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more effective at producing the desired result, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Retin A, or tretinoin, is classified as a medication because of its mechanisms for bringing about cellular changes, including increasing the rate of cell turnover and enhancing collagen synthesis. Less powerful retinols can do this as well, but it happens at a much slower rate - often requiring more time and more product.

Because of Retin A’s power in bringing about changes, it only makes sense that there’s an increased potential for side effects as well, and this is the primary reason why the FDA classified Retin A as a prescription medication.

What Are the Side Effects of Retin A?

Retin A can cause sensitivities in individuals who don’t normally consider themselves to have sensitive skin. A dermatologist or your physician can assess your skin to determine if Retin A is appropriate for your condition, and what strength should be used. It is seldom the case that you’ll be prescribed the strongest Retin A product immediately, or that you’ll be advised to use it frequently at the very beginning. A lower strength prescription with instructions to use it sparingly at first is the general rule of thumb for someone’s first exposure to tretinoin.

In the worst-case scenarios, Retin A can cause a sensitive person’s skin to become extremely red, sore, and even blistered. However, in most cases, while many people do experience side effects with Retin A, they are generally much milder than these extreme examples.

Side effects from prescription Retin A that typically don’t present themselves in non-prescription retinol alternatives include:

  • Peeling
  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Burning
  • Warmth
  • Tingling
  • Irritation
  • Itching
  • Acne (might make acne worse for a short time before symptoms improve)
  • Sun sensitivity

In most cases, these side effects will resolve on their own after a few weeks of using Retin A. Once this period of adjustment is over, Retin A generally produces noticeable results. If Retin A side effects become truly problematic, it’s best to speak with the health care provider who prescribed the treatment about options.

If you find Retin A, or another tretinoin product, on the market without a prescription, trust that it is being sold illegally here. Other countries allow tretinoin to be sold without a prescription, and also offer lower concentrations that might not be as problematic. However, in the United States, all tretinoin is regulated and a prescription is required for use.

Are There Non-Prescription Alternatives to Retin A?

If you like the idea of the results Retin A produces, but aren’t keen on the associated side effects, there are other options available. Non-prescription retinol products have been shown to match the overall effectiveness of Retin A, without the side effects.

Keep in mind that results may take a little longer, and that the quality of the retinol product you choose is key. For example, Admire My Skin’s Clinically Effective Retinoid Cream is formulated with gentle ingredients such as organic aloe and jojoba seed oil, along with additional effective ingredients like hyaluronic acid and plant stems cells. It will work to transform your skin naturally and gently – without redness and irritation.

With a little research, you can choose products that support beautiful skin gently, and a vibrant, smooth complexion can be yours every day.

Looking for a Retinol product that is proven to work? Click here.

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