If you’re reading this article, either you a) already have a retinoid in your hands and are looking for the best way to use it, or b) you’re thinking about getting one.
Either way, congrats—retinoids are one of the most amazing ingredients in skincare and will go a long way to making your skin look absolutely amazing. However, how to use retinoids isn’t a walk in the park—trust me. I’ve used retinoids for the past seven years for my adult acne (and I guess at this point, for anti-aging too).
Retinoids are a holy grail category of product for me—I couldn’t imagine my routine without one because it does so much heavy lifting when it comes to making my skin look good. How to use tretinoin cream isn’t as straightforward as you might think, though.
This category of ingredients is really confusing for the initiated—there are a lot of similar-sounding names that are easy to mix up! It’s important that we’re all on the exact same page when it comes to retinoids—so let’s define what exactly that is before we can talk about how to use Retin-A.
Table of Contents
- What is a Retinoid?
- How Often to Use Retinol/Retinoids/Retin-A
- Does Everyone Get Irritated by Retinoids?
- What Are the Retin-A Side Effects?
- How Frequently to Use Retinol?
- Retin-A: How to Use it in a Skincare Routine
What is a Retinoid?
Retinoids are a group of molecules that are derived from Vitamin A. It’s the name that covers pretty much all Vitamin A derivatives. Retinoids are used for both anti-aging and anti-acne. However, they’re not all created equal! There are multiple generations of retinoids—just like a family, and they each act slightly differently when applied to skin. Vitamin A has to be converted to one of these forms in order to work on the skin.
Is Tretinoin a Retinoid?
Yes! First-generation retinoids include tretinoin, retinol, retinal, and isotretinoin. Yes, these are ALL different! Second-generation retinoids include etretinate and acitretin. (Never heard of these? Me neither. First and third-generation retinoids are much more common!) Third-generation retinoids include tazarotene and adapalene
Is Vitamin A the Same as Retinol?
Not exactly. Imagine Vitamin A as the ‘grandmother’ of the family, with each molecule in the generations down being derived from Vitamin A in different ways to give their individual effects. They act quite different from Vitamin A, and in fact pure Vitamin A applied to skin doesn’t do much. That’s why retinoids were created—molecules that our skin can actually do something with.
What groups each retinoid to a specific generation is that they have similar modifications to the original Vitamin A structure within that particular group. I’m not going to get into that too deeply, but it’s a crucial difference.
Is a Retinoid the Same as Retinol?
Technically, retinol is a type of retinoid.
What makes plain retinol different from prescription retinoids is that retinol on it’s own isn’t usable right away by the skin. Retinol, or how it may appear in ingredients lists as retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate, retinaldehyde, propionic acid, or retinyl acetate, needs to convert to all trans retinoic acid before it can be effective.
(All trans retinoic acid is just another name for tretinoin, by the way! I hope you’ve been taking notes!)
For this reason, retinol products are generally considered gentler than the prescription-strength versions. Are they less effective? Well, you could say that they take a much longer time to see effects, but given enough time they can definitely help. However, if you’re looking for a product to treat acne, prescription retinoids are the go. Their formulations will be much more effective for clearing skin.
In comparison to retinol, prescription retinoids are already converted into forms that don’t require any further processing to be effective on the skin. They can be readily used by skin straight from the get-go, which is what makes them so potent (and prescription-only in some countries). If you’re thinking of noping out of this blog post because you use retinol, don’t worry! This guide is great for how to use retinol too.
How Often to Use Retinol/Retinoids/Retin-A
I know—it’s really tempting to just go ahead and slather it on twice a day. Using more of it means you get results faster, right?
How to use retinoids properly has one golden rule: start using them slowly. How to use Retin-A (and any Vitamin A-derived skincare) takes patience.
I see so many people in social media falling into the trap of thinking they’re not going to get irritated from a retinoid because they used it every night for a week with no irritation. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works!
The thing with retinol usage is that they’re not like acids, where you get an instant stinging sensation and irritation when you overuse them.
Retinoids and Retin-A play the long game when it comes to skin irritation because of how deeply they affect corneocytes, just one type of keratinocyte (skin cell) that makes up the epidermis (the upper layer of the skin).
As part of the natural skin cycle, these corneocytes travel from the lower layers of the epidermis to the upper levels of the stratum corneum (the topmost layer of skin, the one we touch and feel). When they make this move is when skin becomes irritated—retinoids literally rearrange corneocytes. It takes a while to get to this stage, which means that the side effect of irritation sneaks up on a lot of people!
Does Everyone Get Irritated by Retinoids?
Some people claim they never get irritated from retinoids or tretinoin usage. The thing is, it’s really rare for someone to not get irritated at all. To be honest, when someone says their retinoid doesn’t irritate them, I assume a) they’re lying and b) they’ve used it for a week or less. In my opinion, it’s always better to assume that your skin will get irritated (and have the right products preparing for that) than to think you won’t, but end up with really irritated and red skin.
What Are the Retin-A Side Effects?
I’ve already touched on irritation as one of the tretinoin side effects, but there are a couple more major ones. Let’s get this one thing out of the way—these side effects are likely to happen and you should prepare yourself for them. However, just because you don’t get one or more of these side effects doesn’t mean tretinoin isn’t working. Here are the two other side effects of tretinoin usage:
The most famous side effect is the tretinoin purge. Skin purging is definitely a phrase that sparks fear in most peoples’ hearts—especially if you’re using retinoids for acne.
The thing is, there’s no getting around the purge. A skin purge is usually classified as a ‘acne flare’ in medical journals and by dermatologists, and the simple way to put it is an increase in acne for a short period of time before it all goes away.
You can tell if you’re going through a tretinoin purge if you seem to have more acne in places that you normally get it. The thing about skin purging is that it doesn’t last the same amount of time for everyone. I’ll have a blog post about purging (and how to deal with it) up very soon!
Dryness and Peeling
Dryness and peeling is another common Retin-A side effect, and is usually paired with irritation. Because your skin’s corneocytes are rearranging themselves, skin tends to dry out faster than it normally would if you didn’t use a retinoid. However, don’t get this mixed up for reducing oil production—peeling skin is usually caused by a lack of water-based hydration.
You can combat dryness and peeling by adding more watery serums to your routine, and using a thick occlusive (especially in the early stages of adding retinol to your routine) on dry spots to help them heal over faster.
Increased Sun Sensitivity
Using daily sunscreen is non-negotiable if you use any type of retinoid. Retinoids make skin more sensitive to the sun, potentially causing more damage than good. This Retin-A side effect gets overlooked a ton—the truth is, you should be wearing a dedicated sunscreen product every day anyway. However, the importance of that basically triples if you use anything that photosensitizes your skin, like a retinol—so don’t skip it!
How Frequently to Use Retinol?
When starting to use any retinoid, slow is the name of the game. Because retinoids fundamentally change your skin deep in epidermis, it’s really unlikely to avoid any irritation at all. However, introducing it slowly to your skin
As I said before, every night is too much, too fast. A great starting point for most is twice a week. Or if you want to take it really slow, some dermatologists recommend short contact therapy—where you wash off the product after a certain amount of time. You would eventually build up to applications where you leave the retinol on overnight, and then you can think about how often a week you apply it.
But how slow is too slow?
That depends on what you’re using Retin-A or Retinol for. If you’re using a retinoid for anti-aging, you can take advantage of starting reeeaallly slowly, like with a once-a-week application at first.
However, when it comes to using a retinoid for acne, there is a small element of speed we want to keep—and that’s because of the purge that I mentioned before. It depends who you ask, but I would rather get over the purge quickly, rather than draw it out for longer than it needs to be. By applying a retinoid consistently (but not too frequently) you can speed up skin cell turnover (which is what affects the purge).
I think a good rule of thumb for most people is twice a week for around 6 weeks, three times a week for 6 weeks, every other day for 6 weeks, then from there, you can maintain every other day OR go ahead to nightly application.
Retin-A: How to Use it in a Skincare Routine
This is a really contentious subject—I’ve seen so much information about using retinoids after thin, watery-textured products based on an application rule of ‘thinnest texture to thickest’. If you ask me, that’s not a blanket rule that applies here!
People forget that tretinoin or other retinoids aren’t regular skincare, which the texture rule generally works for. Retin-A, Differin, and most retinoids are actual medications.
Since it’s a medication, my view is that any retinoid ideally should go on clean, dry skin—ahead of any toners, first essences, serums, whatever. In my experience of using many, many prescription acne treatments, you are always going to get the best results when you apply it directly to the affected area.
However, in reality, applying it before or after a thin watery serum is completely up to you. I would still keep it to one layer in between bare skin and tretinoin—applying too many products before your retinoid could make it pill up. You know, when you product build up that looks like eraser dust? Blech.
Personally, this is the nighttime skincare routine order that I use.
- Cleanse (with a gentle, non-foaming cleanser)
- Hydration Serums/Toners
- Facial Oil
- Occlusive, applied to very dry spots
It’s important to note that this is only my evening routine—you should only use retinols once a day, at night. I know what you’re thinking—what about other products I already use? Can you use retinol and Vitamin C together, for example?
Yes, but ith conditions.
When starting a retinol, it’s a good idea to hold back on all other actives for a while. This includes Vitamin C, Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and pretty much any type of exfoliator. This loops back to skin coming sensitive due to retinol usage (at first.)
After three months, you’re good to go to start adding products back in—but take it easy and start with just one at a time and you’ll be on your way to good skin.
If you’re ready to start your retinoid journey, I have a downloadable guide for you right here—including the 10 Commandments of Using Retinol and a FREE suggested schedule for how to use retinoids in your routine!