So you’ve heard of tretinoin (aka Retin-A) and you’ve seen the stellar before and after pictures. But you’ve also heard of some scary tretinoin caveats.
Listen, I was right where you are now. Wondering if this product could finally take care of my acne, but scared of the process.
This is why I'm writing a tretinoin field guide. I’m trying tretinoin as an acne treatment and reporting my experiences, tips, and tricks.
If you're wondering how to start tretinoin like a pro, this field guide is for you.
Tretinoin has been called the foundation of effective acne therapy and is a mainstay in anti-aging skincare. I want to try tretinoin to clear up adult acne and brighten old acne marks.
All my life, I had crystal clear skin. That was until I was about 23. (I skipped middle school acne and jumped headfirst into adult acne.)
Throughout the years I’ve worked to stabilize my hormones and step up my skincare. But, my skin continues to be temperamental.
Since tretinoin increases skin cell turnover, it can push clogged pores to the surface, and keep pores from getting clogged in the first place. In other words, it’s pretty great for acne.
It can kill acne-causing bacteria, reduce inflammation, and regulate sebum production.
Over time, it resurfaces your skin -- ridding old acne hyperpigmentation and scarring. Eventually resulting in clear, healthy-looking skin.
But there’s a bit of a caveat to this treatment, as it can initially cause peeling, irritation, sun sensitivity, and cause skin purging. When you start tretinoin you’ve got to know your stuff, and have a plan.
While the good side to tretinoin is pretty amazing, the side effects can scare people away from using it. (Including me.)
If you have acne, you are already fighting tooth and nail to keep your skin clear -- the idea of voluntarily causing a “purge breakout” feels insane.
But, the purge is very temporary (for most) and is actually a good sign the product is doing its job.
Sadly, there isn’t too much you can do about skin purging. You can, however, reduce irritation by prepping your skin and allowing for acclimation.
Here is what I did when I started tretinoin.
I prepped my skin by focusing solely on increasing the health of my skin barrier. I used hyaluronic acid, ceramide-rich products, peptides, and I used very mild cleansers.
If you prepare your skin well, you won’t be putting a powerful retinoid onto dry, over-exfoliated, or undernourished skin. You’ll be putting it on skin that’s protected and ready to take the hit of a retinoid.
I stopped using products that are harsh and stripping like alcohol-based products, AHA/BHA treatments, and harsh foaming cleansers in preparation a few weeks before starting.
Second, I considered formulations. You can buy tretinoin-only products and they’re great. But, studies show that using compound tretinoin products that contain niacinamide can decrease redness, itching, irritation, and peeling.
Niacinamide is skin-loving, calming B-vitamin that acts as a buffer between your delicate skin and the powerful retinol.
My prescription from Strut Health combines 0.05% tretinoin, prescription-strength niacinamide and a small amount of lactic acid.
It’s important not to jump the gun with tretinoin strengths. I made sure to start with a medium-dose product. My formula is 0.05%.
It’s recommended to start with a low dose and build up your tolerance.
In general, 0.05% is well tolerated as a starting point for most skin types.
Studies have shown that 0.05% produced more skin improvement when compared to the weaker 0.01%.
A golden rule when it comes to tretinoin is, slow and steady wins the race.
Your skin needs time to acclimate to this powerful product. Jumping in the deep end can cause uncomfortable irritation.
This is why it’s recommended to ease in. A good rule of thumb is to take a month to allow your skin to acclimate before using regularly. A schedule of acclimation might look like this:
Week 1: Use once a week
Week 2: Use twice a week with two days in between.
Week 3: Use three times a week with one day in between
Week 4: Use four times a week with one day in between.
*If irritation occurs, slow down! You can cut your tretinoin with moisturizer if it’s too strong for you, or step back to a less frequent schedule for a few weeks.
By the end of this first month, your skin will likely have acclimated and you can continue on an every other day schedule, but listen to your skin and don’t push it. After the 4th week, you’ll begin to see stubble changes in your skin.
When using tretinoin, it’s best to prioritize mild skincare. This means laying off other products that are stripping and exfoliating. Instead, focus on keeping your skin hydrated, and protected.
My morning routine is a little more elaborate than my night routine. Keep scrolling to see the products I am using as I start tretinoin.
All products are acne-friendly, non-comedogenic, and fragrance-free.
Step 1: Gentle foaming cleanser
Step 2: Humectant toner while the face is wet (hyaluronic acid)
Step 3: The Buffet (peptides) by The Ordinary plus Niacinamide by The Ordinary
Step 4: Pat on an emollient oil like jojoba oil or rosehip oil if dry or simple daily lotion
Step 5: Tinted SPF 50 and I reapply throughout the day.
Step 1: Hydrating cream cleanser
*wait for your skin to completely dry*
Step 2: Strut Anti-Aging Formula
*wait for the product to dry*
Step 3: Simple ceramide rich lotion or heavy cream
Step 4: If needed, apply the Cicaplast Baume B5 repairing balm
I wash my face with a hydrating cream cleanser and pat my face dry. As I’m just starting tretinoin, I let my skin completely dry before using tretinoin.
When your face is wet or damp, products absorb more into the skin. And too much too fast can irritate the skin.
So, to avoid that, I normally let my face dry for about 10-20 minutes.
I don’t put anything else on my face before tretinoin. (I skip the normal toner and any other active ingredients.)
Then I pump out a pea-size amount of Strut Anti-Aging formula and smooth it across my face.
I avoid my under eyes, corners of the mouth, and the very sides of my nose as these areas are sensitive and prone to peeling.
Then, I use a simple cream moisturizer that is rich in ceramides and peptides.
In the morning I wash it off and make sure to pack on the SPF.
After seeing how gentle the Strut Anti-Aging 0.05% tretinoin formula is for me -- I used it twice for my first week. I spaced this out with 3 days in between.
(If you have sensitive skin, don’t be as brave. My skin is not sensitive.)
After two uses, I only saw a tiny bit of flaking skin around my nose and acne marks.
Irritation level: 0/10
Acne report: To my surprise, my acne looked somewhat soothed after using it twice. Don’t get me wrong, it was still there (no magic here, folks) but it wasn’t as inflamed as before.
Thankfully, the first week of acclimation went well! Strut Health’s compound formula is thoughtful, packed with soothing niacinamide, and very gentle.
I’ll be stepping it up next week.
I’m trying tretinoin and reporting a field guide of my results. So many people are nervous to try tretinoin because of the tricky acclimation process and the potential for skin purging.
That’s why I’m here, an acne-prone twenty-something, writing all about what to expect when trying tretinoin.
Follow along to learn how to try tretinoin like a pro.
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