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dermatologist tips for how to apply a retinoids

Ask Dr. Bailey: How to Apply Retinoids

ask a dermatologist about skin care tips

Hello Dr. Bailey,

I have a question. I am considering getting a prescription retinoid, possibly renova in the lowest concentration since I think it is best for anti-aging purposes. My concern is that I really don't want the irritation and dryness that comes with using prescription retinoid. Is there any way to avoid irritation or is there a guarantee that irritation would occur if I decided to use prescription tretinoin? ~from Miyako

Hello Miyako,

I love the impact of retinoids for slowing skin aging. I have used them myself for over 30 years and have thousands of patients using them too, including people with sensitive complexions. I have written extensively on why I love retinoids on both my blog and on the information-packed pages of our online store. I have also written on how I use them in my practice. Here, I want to recap the skin care benefits of retinoids:

Retinoids can help:

  • Boost your skin's collagen turnover to help fight wrinkles and skin aging
  • Increase epidermal cell turnover to brighten your complexion and to help prevent clogged pores, which is one of the key steps credited to starting acne
  • Even out uneven pigment in sun spots and melasma
  • Reverse the early steps in pre-cancer and skin cancer cell formation

The bottom line is that there are so many reasons to use a retinoid product that I prescribe them abundantly!  Remember, however, if you are using a prescription product, it is your prescribing doctor that is 100% in charge of how you use the medicine, including the steps you use to reduce or prevent irritation.

Expert's 2 top tips to help you use a retinoid skin care product.

  1. To help lower the risk of retinoid irritation and retinoid dermatitis, I counsel my patients to "start low and work slow" when they add a retinoid to their skin care routine. This is because skin has to adjust to retinoid therapy.
  2. When you start a retinoid, all other skin care products may need to be adjusted if you have sensitive skin. Retinol will exfoliate skin and make it slightly more sensitive. 

best professional retinol to fight skin agingThis advice applies to ALL retinoids. In my practice, I have patients on different forms of retinoid skin care products because both prescription and non-prescription products work well. Many people choose to use our non-prescription Retinol Intensive Night Cream for its convenience and because many people find it less irritating than Retin-A. My aesthetician and I incorporate our Retinol Cream into skin care routines as a night cream. Remember that retinoids are inactivated on contact with light, so they should be applied right before bed for the best results.

best skin care routine to use with retinol and Retin AI always stress that any professional product like Tretinoin or my Retinol Night Cream be used in a supportive complete skin care routine for best results. A Complete Skin Care Routine™ involves using products for the 4 essential skin care steps for healthy skin. These are:


This is particularly important for complexions that are already sensitive. Also, retinoids can make skin more sun sensitive. This means that high quality sun protection products are also really important.

What is the best skin care routine to use with retinol and other retinoids?

All products including products you use to CLEANSE, CORRECT, HYDRATE AND PROTECT your skin need to be chosen to support results and reduce the risk of skin irritation and sun sensitivity. In my practice, I build a Dr. Bailey Complete Skin Care Routine™ for using retinoids as follows:

best skin cleanser to use with retinol and retinoidsCleanse skin with a gentle, hypoallergenic, pH balanced and sulfate-free cleanser such as my Extremely Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser.   
For an extra level of clean, my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Facial Toner works really well to get the last vestiges of product, dirt and oil off skin without drying.

Oily and acne-prone skin often do well with my Triple Action Exfoliating Cleanser or Foaming Acne Cleanser.   All these products can be used with a Clarisonic System a wash cloth or your fingertips. 

best products to help your skin tolerate retinoids, retinol, retin aI help fight skin dehydration and irritation by add water-binding and irritation-fighting products such as my Instantly Luminous Multi-Action Serum and my Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy. The combination helps to soothe early irritation. These are applied right after cleansing skin in the morning. At night, the correcting step is the retinol product which can be applied after the Serum and Green Tea or alone.

best moisturizers to use with retinolAlways use a moisturizer that fits your complexion. Favorite options include my Daily Moisturizing Face Creams for Dry or Oily. 

best sunscreens to use to fight skin aging with retinolSun Protection is critical, and the last product applied every day!! Makeup, if used, goes on top and is NOT a substitute for sunscreen. Pick the right sunscreen matched for your complexion and product preferences. 


With retinoid use, I stress building a Complete Skin Care Routine. Using just one retinoid product alone will not get you the same level of results. You need to build a routine made of supporting products to help your skin tolerate retinoids. Patients and clients in our office tell us every day how happy they are with their complexion once they start using retinoids along with their Complete Skin Care Routine. Interestingly, the more years they use the retinoids, the more obvious it is that retinoids really do slow skin aging.

I'm a big fan of retinoid skin care, in case you haven't noticed! 

Best wishes with your retinoid therapy!

Warm Regards,

Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist

The information in the Dr. Bailey Skin Care web site, and related links, articles, newsletters and blogs, is provided for general information and educational purposes only. It is the opinion of Dr. Cynthia Bailey, or other indicated authors. Consult your physician or health care provider for any specific medical conditions or concerns you may have. (This also applies to patients in her medical practice; the information here is not a substitute for, or an extension of, the medical care she provides for you.) Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read here. Use the information and products on this site at your own risk. Use of this site indicates your agreement with these statements and the Terms and Conditions of If you do not agree to all of these Terms and Conditions of use, please do not use this site!