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Tretinoin for Hair Loss: The Latest Research

Katelyn Brenner FNP

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Vanessa Gibbs

Published 09/28/2021

Updated 10/19/2023

Just from the title of this article, you may be saying, “Wait… Tretinoin — isn’t that a skincare thing?” Yep. 

Tretinoin is usually reserved for your skincare routine, but there’s some evidence showing tretinoin for hair loss may be a thing too.

Here’s the TL;DR: When used in combination with minoxidil, topical tretinoin may — we repeat, may — increase hair growth. But further studies are needed. 

If you’re exploring a new addition to your hair routine, read on to dive into what the science says so far about tretinoin for hair loss, whether tretinoin can cause hair loss and what other hair loss treatments are available.

What Is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin is used as an ingredient for anti-aging and to treat acne, both topically and orally. Tretinoin is a vitamin A derivative and part of the retinoid family, sold under the brand name Retin-A. In fact, it’s possibly one of the most potent retinoids out there. 

Topical tretinoin is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for: 

Oral tretinoin is FDA-approved for conditions like: 

  • Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL)

  • Moderate to severe acne and cystic acne

Tretinoin can also be prescribed off-label (which is when a medication is prescribed for something that it’s not FDA-approved for) to treat conditions like: 

  • Psoriasis 

  • Flat warts 

  • Early stretch marks 

So, as you can see, tretinoin uses are primarily in skincare — not hair.

Tretinoin for Hair Growth: The Research

We know that tretinoin can help your skin in a variety of ways, but what about your hair? Well, there’s not much research on tretinoin for hair growth.

The research we do have concerns minoxidil, a popular FDA-approved to treatment for androgenetic alopecia (AKA male-pattern baldness and female-pattern hair loss). 

Off-label, it’s used to treat other hair loss conditions like alopecia areata (round patches of hair loss), telogen effluvium (which can be caused by stress) and chemotherapy-induced hair loss. 

Why are we talking about minoxidil all of a sudden? Well, tretinoin can increase the absorption of minoxidil, which may influence hair growth. The key word here? May

That’s right — tretinoin and minoxidil might be a match for the ages. But more research is needed to know for sure. 

Here’s what the research has found so far: 

  • Tretinoin could allow you to use minoxidil once a day, not twice. A 2007 study compared two treatments in men with male pattern baldness. One group used a combined solution of 5% minoxidil and 0.01% tretinoin and a second group used 5% minoxidil alone. Both groups experienced hair growth, with no statistically significant differences between the groups. 

But the group using the combined minoxidil and tretinoin treatment only applied the treatment once a day, whereas the minoxidil-only treatment was applied twice a day. So, tretinoin might not enhance hair growth, but it could take that second treatment off your to-do list. 

  • Tretinoin could make you respond better to minoxidil. Minoxidil can be an effective hair loss treatment, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Tretinoin could change that. A 2019 study found that 43 percent of participants who were initially predicted to be nonresponders to minoxidil responded to the treatment after five days of 0.1% tretinoin application. 

  • Tretinoin could increase hair growth. Finally, the juicy stuff. A 2004 review of studies highlighted older research that found that 0.025% tretinoin combined with 0.5% minoxidil led to visible hair growth in 66 percent of patients tested. The researchers said that people may want to try minoxidil by itself first and only add in tretinoin if they’re not satisfied with the results.

But before we start breaking out the tretinoin, we’ve got to tell you that this study is very old and very small. Whomp whomp. 

So, what can we learn from this? Well, for one, it confirms what we said — much more research is needed before we can say anything definitively. And two, it’s not clear if tretinoin can increase hair growth on its own, but it could enhance the effects of minoxidil and potentially lead to more hair growth. 

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Is Tretinoin for Hair Growth FDA Approved?

That’s an easy one. No, tretinoin isn’t FDA-approved for hair growth. 

Currently, topical tretinoin is only FDA-approved for anti-aging treatments and acne treatments. Oral tretinoin is FDA-approved for conditions like acute promyelocytic leukemia and moderate to severe acne and cystic acne. 

Any use of tretinoin for hair growth would be off-label, and remember, the jury’s still out on whether it works or not.

Can Tretinoin Cause Hair Loss?

Google “hair loss” and just about anything else and you’ll find someone in a forum saying there’s a link and sharing their story. But does tretinoin cause hair loss? 

In short, it doesn’t look like it. 

Hair loss isn’t listed as a common side effect of topical tretinoin and there are no studies that have found a link between topical tretinoin and hair loss — at least, not that we know of.

But there is some research linking hair loss to the oral form of the medication, and alopecia is listed as a common reaction in oral tretinoin.

One study found that lab-grown human scalp hair follicles stopped growing when they were exposed to all-trans retinoic acid, a.k.a tretinoin. About 80 percent of the hair follicles exposed to tretinoin prematurely entered a catagen-like stage in hair growth, compared to just 30 percent of the control group.  

In less clinical terms, catagen is the transition phase in the hair growth cycle when hair follicles get smaller and your hair is one step closer to shedding. Eeek. 

But before you panic, tretinoin hair loss is only possibly linked to oral tretinoin, not topical tretinoin treatments. So, there’s that. 

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Alternatives to Tretinoin for Hair Loss

Science may not be able to tell us yet whether tretinoin definitely helps with hair loss. But there are other hair loss treatments to consider, including: 

  • Minoxidil. We’ve already covered how tretinoin may make minoxidil more effective, but minoxidil is still a valid treatment on its own. It’s FDA-approved for male-pattern baldness and works by shortening the telogen phase (the resting phase) of hair growth. This extends the anagen phase (the growing phase). Known under the brand name Rogaine®, minoxidil can stimulate new hair growth and prevent further hair loss. You can get this treatment in many forms, including topical minoxidil foam and minoxidil solution.    

  • Finasteride. Finasteride is also FDA-approved to treat male-pattern baldness. It stops testosterone from being converted into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), a hormone linked to hair loss. You can use finasteride as an oral tablet or as a topical solution, usually in the form of a spray. 

We’ve covered minoxidil, but if you need proof that finasteride works, a 2022 study found that topical finasteride increased hair count after 24 weeks of use compared to a placebo. And a 2019 study spanning 10 years found that 91.5 percent of participants saw an improvement in hair growth when taking oral finasteride.  

  • Combined minoxidil and finasteride. Research shows that a combined minoxidil and finasteride treatment can be more effective for male pattern hair loss than treatment with just one of these products. We offer the best of both worlds in our topical finasteride & minoxidil spray.  

  • Supplements. Nutritional deficiencies may lead to hair loss, so if you’re deficient in nutrients like biotin, iron or zinc, supplements could help your hairline. Check out our biotin gummies, for example, and consider speaking with a healthcare provider to determine whether you’ve got any nutrient deficiencies and what supplements would be best for you. 

  • Switch up your hair care routine. Use a volumizing shampoo and volumizing conditioner to give your hair a boost, or try our thickening shampoo with saw palmetto for fuller-looking locks. Treating your hair with more TLC can help to stop further hair loss, so avoid any hairstyles that pull on your hair (looking at you, man bun), as well as at-home coloring, perming, chemical straightening and relaxing. 

  • Microneedling. Microneedling involves pricking your scalp with hundreds of tiny needles. This torture device — sorry, hair loss treatment — has been shown to stimulate new hair growth. Research shows that 12 weeks of microneedling and minoxidil could be more effective than using minoxidil alone.

Start by speaking to your primary care provider or a dermatologist, or do an online consultation with a licensed healthcare provider.

An expert can figure out what type of hair loss you’re experiencing — whether that’s good ‘ol male-pattern baldness or alopecia caused by a traumatic event, for example.

From here, they can recommend the best hair loss treatments for you.

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The Verdict on Tretinoin for Hair Loss

Looking for a hairline fix? Tretinoin may not be it. 

But there is a little bit of evidence that it can help. Let’s recap the key points: 

  • Tretinoin may make minoxidil more effective. There isn’t much research into tretinoin as a hair loss treatment by itself. But it could give minoxidil a boost, or at least let you use minoxidil less often — small wins. 

  • There’s no evidence linking tretinoin and hair loss. Despite what you might read online, topical tretinoin isn’t linked to hair loss. Hair loss is a potential side effect of oral tretinoin — but that’s not the kind you’d be using for your hair.

  • Consider hair loss treatments with more science behind them. Keep tretinoin for your skin and consider the FDA-approved treatments minoxidil and finasteride instead — or a powerful combo of the two. 

Check out our range of hair loss treatments, from topical sprays to oral medications, to get started.

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