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What’s the Difference Between Tretinoin and Hydroquinone?

While they both come up a lot in skincare conversations, tretinoin and hydroquinone are very different. Despite their differences, these two potent topical creams can help with many of your skin concerns — especially when used in tandem. Learn more about how tretinoin and hydroquinone can help with anti-aging, uneven skin tone, and more.

Tretinoin vs Hydroquinone: What’s the Difference?

Tretinoin and hydroquinone play unique roles in skincare. Tretinoin is mainly used to reduce fine lines and wrinkles or acne, while hydroquinone is best for lightening dark spots and melasma.

Tretinoin is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A. You may also hear it called retinoic acid or Retin-A. It’s extremely potent — up to 20 times stronger than other retinoids like retinol. When you apply tretinoin to your skin, it stimulates the production of collagen and increases cell turnover.

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Nurx offers prescription hydroquinone to treat melasma for $30 per month.

Currently, tretinoin is only available as a prescription. However, you can get it in different strengths depending on your needs. Tretinoin can be difficult to tolerate for people with certain kinds of skin conditions like rosacea, eczema, and dry skin. 

Hydroquinone, on the other hand, is a topical medication that helps to lighten areas of your skin that are darker than your normal skin tone, such as in melasma. In your skin, you have cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes are where melanin is made — the pigment that gives skin its color. Sometimes conditions like inflammatory acne and melasma result in an over-production of melanin, which can cause uneven darker patches on the skin. Hydroquinone works by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in  melanin production. 

When hydroquinone is applied to dark spots caused by excess melanin, these spots  become lighter resulting in less splotchy skin.

Hydroquinone is available as a prescription. It can be helpful to treat many kinds of dark spots, particularly those from melasma and old acne marks.

Neither tretinoin or hydroquinone should be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

What Are the Benefits of Tretinoin and Hydroquinone?

Benefits of Tretinoin

Studies have found that tretinoin increases the production of collagen in the skin, which naturally slows as you age without intervention. Collagen is a protein that gives skin its elasticity and fullness. Your skin appears more youthful when you have more collagen, and fine lines and wrinkles often improve. 

Tretinoin can also improve your skin’s texture. It does this by speeding up skin cell turnover, helping your body produce fresh, new cells. It also exfoliates old skin cells, which can sometimes help lessen hyperpigmentation or uneven skin tone. These benefits also make tretinoin one of the few FDA-approved treatments for photoaging.

Finally, tretinoin is a powerful tool to fight against acne. Not only does it act as an anti-inflammatory agent, but it can also prevent clogged pores, reducing the chances of you suffering a breakout.

Benefits of Hydroquinone

By blocking excess melanin production, hydroquinone can treat a number of hyperpigmentation disorders. For example, it’s great for treating persistent dark marks left behind by acne and melasma. It also helps with post-inflammatory marks from conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and even old bug bites. Nearly any type of hyperpigmentation that’s in the top layer of skin — called the epidermis — can benefit from hydroquinone treatment.

Hydroquinone also doesn’t have a lot of side effects when used on a short-term basis. You may get mild skin irritation and sun sensitivity. If hydroquinone is used for a long period of time (more than 3 months continuously), it can cause a very rare condition called ochronosis. This appears as bluish-brown pigmentation in the areas in which the hydroquinone is applied, and is very difficult to treat.  It does not appear suddenly, but if you start noticing that your dark spots are getting darker instead of lighter from using the hydroquinone, then you should stop this medication and notify your provider.  

Can Tretinoin and Hydroquinone Be Used Together?

Yes, tretinoin and hydroquinone work great as a combo treatment. In fact, using tretinoin can help hydroquinone penetrate deeper into the skin thanks to its exfoliating properties. You can sometimes find them combined into one prescription-strength cream, or you can use them separately.

Just remember that these are powerful ingredients. You should always consult your provider before deciding to use both at the same time to make sure it’s a good idea for your personal skin type.

Which One Is the Best Fit for My Skin?

By now, you probably know that tretinoin is best used as an anti-aging treatment, while hydroquinone excels at battling dark spots and hyperpigmentation. But how do you know exactly which one you should be using? Here’s a look at how each topical cream can specifically help your skin.

Tretinoin Is Good for Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Tretinoin is an anti-aging powerhouse, meaning it should have no problem dispatching fine lines and wrinkles. It does not work for deeper wrinkles.  Hydroquinone doesn’t work at all against fine lines and wrinkles, so stick to the collagen-boosting power of tretinoin.

Tretinoin Treats Active Acne

Breaking out is no fun, but tretinoin can help. It works to clear pores that are clogged with dead skin cells and oils. By clearing away these blockages and stimulating the production of new cells, it can help your acne get better after a few months. Tretinoin also has anti-inflammatory properties to help reduce active pustules and pimples that are causing problems.

Hydroquinone Is Good for Melasma and Hyperpigmentation

Not much can beat the power of hydroquinone when it comes to hyperpigmentation. Rather than just exfoliating the top layer of skin, it actually limits the production of more melanin so your dark spots become lighter.

Hydroquinone Reduces Hyperpigmentation Left By Acne

Let’s say your acne is a thing of the past. Great! But unfortunately, it left you with a nasty reminder of its presence in the form of post inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which can last for months after your active acne has resolved. Unlike tretinoin, which tackles active acne, hydroquinone can help to ease the appearance of old acne marks. Over time, it can lighten and fade these tell-tale marks so they’re no longer visible.


Now that you know more about tretinoin and hydroquinone, you can have more of a say when it comes to your skincare regimen. Since both are prescription treatments, ask your provider which one would be best for you. Don’t feel like scheduling an in-person appointment? Nurx makes it easy to see a provider online and get your prescription delivered, all without leaving the house. Get your treatment today!

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