Advice on tretinoin: what you need to know about the retinoid

I’m a month into my Tretinoin journey, and it’s already my favorite skin product I’ve ever used. I’m relatively new to retinol and retinoids and have largely avoided them since a disastrous stint with Differin left me with nothing but a bad escape and regrets. My understanding is that everyone’s skin will react differently to these more advanced level skincare products – Differin (or adapalene) might be the key to clear and luminous skin nirvana for some, but it just doesn’t didn’t work for me no matter how slowly I introduced it into my routine or how much I hydrated. Needless to say, I was nervous about starting tretinoin, a retinoic acid so strong that in the US you can only get it by prescription. In case of incorrect use, dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman warns that tretinoin can cause severe dryness, irritation and flaking.

Tretinoin is a powerful anti-aging and anti-acne, and I’m not ashamed to say that dozens of TikTok testimonials convinced me to start using it. I started my relationship with Retin-A, a popular prescription product that contains tretinoin, using a pea-sized amount once a week for three weeks. I then increased it to twice a week. I’m just now seeing results: the texture of my nose and chin has softened and brightened significantly in a way that years of salicylic acid products have never achieved. However, I feel a slight dryness and flaking of the cheeks, so I decided to consult dermatologists. Dr. Whitney Bowe and Dr. Dendy Engelman on best practices, including which ingredients to pair with tretinoin and which to avoid at all costs.

Nourish your skin barrier

To keep your skin healthy, Dr. Bowe recommends looking for products containing prebiotics, squalane, ceramides, and sunflower seed oil. Prebiotics, like inulin and alpha-glucan oligosaccharides, “support the growth of beneficial bacteria.” Squalane is a form of squalene, a compound found in the skin that the body produces less with age. Squalane works as an excellent moisturizer, helping to make skin smoother and softer. Ceramides are also naturally present in the skin and are essential for the skin’s protective barrier, which helps protect the skin and retain existing moisture. According to Dr. Bowe, “Ceramides work to replenish, hydrate and soothe the skin, in addition to helping improve the appearance of skin texture, strength, hydration and elasticity, which which can also help with the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles”. She recommends sunflower seed oil for sensitive skin because it is soothing and also helps retain moisture in the skin barrier.

Be aware of other active ingredients in your routine

Because tretinoin is quite strong, it’s important to make sure all other products in your regimen are compatible. Dr. Engelman recommends avoiding benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, salicylic acid, or sulfur because they also contain exfoliating agents that will further irritate the skin. Dr. Bowe advises avoiding exfoliating acids and vitamin C, but notes that peptides may work well in conjunction with tretinoin.

protect your skin

Tretinoin can increase your sensitivity to direct sunlight, causing you to burn more easily, so it is advisable to use it at night and be extra careful about wearing hats, avoiding direct sunlight sun and reapply your sunscreen. Dr. Engelman recommends the Prevage City Smart Hydrating Shield SPF 50 by Elizabeth Arden.

To be clear, tretinoin isn’t for everyone – definitely see your dermatologist rather than asking your friend to get you a tube in Mexico like I may or may not have – but it’s worth it to consider whether you want to reduce acne or the first signs of aging. As someone who previously believed they would only have to deal with one of these concerns at a time, tretinoin is a godsend.

About Sally Dominguez

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