Dear Dr. Bailey, Does light break down tretinoin (Retin A)? If I put tretinoin 0.025% cream on a half hour after I cleanse, and then wait around in very low light (TV or computer) for several hours before I go to bed, is the tretinoin breaking down/degrading from that low light? Thanks for your answer, 'Cura'
Wow, I really like how you are thinking through the details of your tretinoin therapy. This is a question that is actually quite complex. The short answer is that quite possibly the visible light from light bulbs may degrade Retin A to some extent. Retinol, the non-prescription alternative to tretinoin, also is light sensitive. Just how much and how quickly is impossible to know because it depends on the output of your light bulbs.
The tretinoin in Retin A cream is very prone to break down by exposure to light.
UVA breaks down tretinoin the most but the peak wavelength that does this is 420nm, which is just into the visible light spectrum right outside of the UVA wavelength spectrum. This means that visible light from light bulbs can break down your tretinoin. So can sunlight with its visible light rays, UVA and UVB rays.
Why do doctors prescribe Retin A (tretinoin) as a cream that you use at night?
As a dermatologist who commonly prescribes Retin A, I recommend to my patients that they apply their tretinoin as the last thing they do before going to sleep. Most of us sleep in the dark and this takes care of the light versus tretinoin issue. I keep my tretinoin on my bedside table for that purpose. I also apply Retinol Night Cream at night. I use it because it is less irritating but still give me the anti-aging benefits that I think are equivalent to tretinoin without the irritation. I use this more often that tretinoin now.
It's also important to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen that reliably blocks both UVA and UVB during the day to keep light out of your tretinoin treated skin. I prefer the mineral sunscreen agents for this job and recommend only reputable sunscreen products with at least 5% or more zinc oxide. Look for a really good mineral zinc oxide broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher for your Retin A treated skin. The mineral sunscreens basically sit as a particle shield on the outer surface of the skin and prevent light from passing through to any of the skin layers.
This is a very well thought out question. I hope I've been able to help.
Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist
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If you found this information helpful, you may also want to read:
Bassam M. Tashtoush, Elaine L. Jacobson, and Myron K. Jacobson, UVA is the major contributor to the photodegradation of tretinoin and isotretinoin: implications for development of improved pharmaceutical formulations, Int J Pharm. 2008 March 20; 352(1-2): 123–128.