Knowing how to incorporate Retin A into your skincare routine can be tricky. Retin A can react with other skin care products causing redness, itchiness, and dry skin. However, used well, it’s a powerful anti-acne and anti-aging medication. Here I share my top Retin A tips to help you achieve success with this great medicine.
Tips for Retin A Users
Why do you need to be careful applying Retin A?
The active ingredient of Retin A is tretinoin. Tretinoin belongs to the retinoid drug class, and all products in this class can react with some ingredients in other skin products. This class of ingredients are also light sensitive, meaning they are best applied to your skin at night. Retinoids can also be irritating which means you must train your skin to tolerate them.
Nevertheless, Retin A (tretinoin) is well worth using for the spectacular difference it can make to your skin. My readers and patients know that I'm a big retinoid fan. I love the results you get from these strong anti-acne and anti-aging skin care products.
My top 10 Retin A tips
I have prescribed tretinoin to thousands of patients over my 35 year dermatology career and I've used it myself for almost as long. In answer to the questions below, here are my tips for Retin A skincare:
1. Apply tretinoin at night.
Tretinoin is light-sensitive so only apply it before you go to sleep at night. In the morning, wash it off thoroughly before applying your other skin care products.
2. Don’t mix tretinoin with certain skin care products.
Do not mix tretinoin with skin products that contain vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
Please note, you can use the above ingredients as part of your Retin A skin care routine if you apply them in the morning (having applied tretinoin the night before), but only after you’ve thoroughly washed off tretinoin.
If you are using Retin A Micro you’re less likely to experience a skin reaction with vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. However, Retin A Micro isn’t my favorite anti-aging product because pivotal anti-aging studies have only been carried out on the cream formulation.
Products that contain glycolic acid can be used with tretinoin, but the combination can increase skin irritation so be careful.
To help people avoid skin irritation, I’ve developed the Complete Facial Skin Care Routine Kit. My kit contains skin care products that are compatible with Retin A and other retinoids, that sooth skin irritation and help prevent skin dryness. It also includes the perfect sunscreen for people using retinoids.
3. Apply tretinoin after other skin care products.
When using skin care products with tretinoin, I usually advise my patients to layer these products before applying tretinoin.
Apply products such as Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy and the Daily Moisturizing Face Cream straight after washing and drying your skin. Wait 15 minutes, apply tretinoin, turn off the light, and go to sleep.
Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy and Daily Moisturizing Face Cream are included in my Complete Facial Skin Care Routine Kit. For my own skin care routine, I love combining Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy under tretinoin!
4. Keep tretinoin by your bed
To remind yourself to use tretinoin at night I recommend keeping it on your bedside table - that's where mine is.
5. Make sure your skin is totally dry before you apply tretinoin.
Waiting 15 minutes before applying tretinoin (see 3. above) allows excess surface water to evaporate from your skin. This minimizes tretinoin-induced skin irritation. This is especially important for people with sensitive skin.
6. If you find it inconvenient to wait 15 minutes before applying Retin A, consider using retinol.
Retinol is less irritating than prescription tretinoin, yet scientific studies show similar age-fighting benefit.
My Retinol Ultra-Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream is made with the highest allowed amount of pharmaceutically pure and stable retinol (1% denoted 10X). When you use this there’s no need to wait 15 minutes before applying another skin care product.
Plus, you don’t need to use Green Tea Antioxidant Therapy because Retinol Ultra-Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream already contains green tea antioxidants. That means you can top with Daily Moisturizing Face Cream, and you’re done. It’s what I do on nights when I don’t have time to wait 15 minutes.
7. Layer your skin care products from thin to thicker
I always recommend that patients layer their products from thin to thicker, or water-based to more oil-based, for best effectiveness. - Dermatologist Dr. Bailey
So, you would apply Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy before Daily Moisturizing Face Cream and Retin-A, or Retinol Ultra-Intensive before Daily Moisturizing Face Cream based on their relative consistencies and ingredient formulations.
8. Protect tretinoin-treated skin from the sun every day.
Although this is at number 8. it’s one of my most important Retin A tips. Tretinoin makes skin more light-sensitive, especially to the sun’s UV rays, so you need to take extra care.
When you’re out in the sun you need to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with physical mineral blockers. I believe zinc oxide is the most effective sunscreen ingredient for tretinoin users. If you plan to be in the sun for extended time, I recommend that you also wear a sun hat to shade your facial skin.
My top mineral zinc oxide sunscreen choices are the invisible high-tech zinc oxide sunscreens in my Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreen line of products. The Complete Facial Skincare Kit contains Sheer Strength Pure Physical SPF 30 Matte Tinted Sunscreen.
9. Build your skin to the highest tretinoin level it will tolerate.
Your skin must be trained to tolerate retinoids such as tretinoin and retinol.
The greater the strength you use the more benefits you will see. However, you need to start slowly to ‘train’ your skin. If you use too much too soon you may experience irritation, discomfort, or even skin irritation so significant that it feels like a mild chemical burn.
I tell people that using a retinoid is like a weight-training program because you always start with weights you can lift. Gradually, over time, you'll lift heavier weights as you gain fitness. - Dr. Bailey
With tretinoin, you start with .025% twice a week and eventually work to 0.1% nightly. With retinol, you can start with 1% 10X every third night and slowly work to nightly. If this is too strong for your skin, dilute the 10X by blending an equal half pea size amount in your palm with your moisturizer, this creates 0.5% 5X. Start with that twice weekly and gradually work to the full 10X.
Retinol is less irritating and easier to use than tretinoin. You can alternate retinol and tretinoin, which I do now at the age of 64. It’s a more convenient routine for me and I still get the great retinoid results.
10. Create a skin care routine that helps your skin tolerate Retin A.
Following my Retin A tips will help you use this fantastic medicine successfully. The skin care routine I follow is available in my Complete Facial Skin Care Kit. The kit contains high-quality, compatible products that help your skin to tolerate Retin A; they layer well with Retin A and help reduce skin irritation and sun sensitivity.
Frequently asked questions
Questions from my readers show how much confusion there is about Retin A and other tretinoin medicines:
Reader #1, Lori
Q: (My dermatologist) gave me a prescription of generic Tretinoin .025%. I've been using it for about 6 weeks now. My question is, is it strong enough to minimize these lines or am I wasting my time on this dose?
A: The best proven results come from using 0.05% and higher. The .025% will brighten the complexion and create a more youthful dewy glow but collagen induction to reverse wrinkles is more effective at the higher strengths.
Reader #2, Jan
Q1: Can I use the Green Tea Antioxidant Therapy product with my Retin A. (Retin A at .05% doesn't do anything to my face, so I just bumped up to .1%)? Correct me if I'm wrong, but the order to apply these at night would be: 1) Retin A, 2) green tea product, and 3) moisturizer (do I need a moisturizer)?
A1: I love the combo! The order I use is Green Tea Cream, Moisturizer, wait 15 minutes then Retin A. If you have oily skin then you may not need to use the moisturizer because Retin A is in a moisturizing cream base.
Q2: How much time do you need between applying 1 and 2 and 3 since I also read on your blog you should wait 15-30 minutes after you wash your face for the Retin A? Don't want to be up all night...
A2: The way I tell my patients to layer is: Green Tea and the moisturizer can be layered immediately. Wait 15 minutes then apply Retin A.
Reader #3, Anna
Q: I started using Retin A about a month ago and have had good results as far as the acne goes. I also bought your Complete Skin Care Kit, Advanced Corrective Eye Cream, and the Calming Zinc face soap. My question is, what morning and evening routine would you recommend for me to get the best anti-aging results? I want to use the products correctly to get the best bang for my buck, if you know what I mean.
A: You have a great combo of products! I tell my patients to use the Calming Zinc to cleanse in the morning then apply Green Tea to the facial skin and the Advanced Corrective Eye Cream around the eye area, Daily Face Cream is layered on the face on top of the Green Tea and then the entire face receives an application of the Sunscreen.
At night, Extremely Gentle Cleanser for cleansing, Green Tea to the face then Daily Face Cream, Advanced Eye Cream in the eye area, wait 15 minutes then Retin A to the face. Retin A is not really supposed to be applied within the eye area and the Advanced Eye Cream is formulated with retinol for retinoid benefits with much less likelihood of causing irritation of the delicate eye area skin.
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist who has practiced dermatology since 1987. She has performed well over 200,000 skin examinations during her career. She's the author of the longest running physician-written skin health blog in the world.
Disclaimer: Please know that I am discussing the use of a prescription medication. This information is for educational purposes only and to begin a discussion with your prescribing medical care provider, who is solely responsible for your use of this medication. Nothing you read here constitutes a patient/physician relationship with Dr. Bailey. Use this information at your own risk and consult your physician.