Tips on How to Use Tretinoin in Your Skin Care Routine

It takes years to cultivate a skin care routine. Trial, error, trial, (more errors), and finally you have a set of products Work. Until… they didn’t. Whether you’re welcoming an unexpected breakthrough or tempted by a shiny new product, the handpicked selection on your top shelf is sure to change. With new skin concerns, new ingredients force you to change the whole thing regimen. When it comes to taking your daily arsenal to the next level, the best step is to see a dermatologist for the right treatment for your skin. But carrying a prescription home is one thing, creating a night routine is another one. If you’ve ever searched Google wondering “how to use tretinoin in your skin care routine,” don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone.

Tretinoin is the most commonly prescribed retinoid — and for good reason. It is effective, comes in different concentrations for different problems, and is a more targeted treatment than over-the-counter retinol. If you’ve tried your hand at retinol night cream But still looking to fade hyperpigmentation, fight acne and reduce signs of aging, tretinoin might be right for you. Like any product, though, to get the most out of it, it’s best to tweak the rest of your routine to prepare your skin for your tretinoin journey.

Featured image of Riley Reed.

Maybe it’s just me, but I always answer the call of a famous new ingredient, a well-packaged cosmetic, and the latest luxury holy grail. My habits have been mostly the same over the past few years, but I have a few exceptions. And honestly, I trade with myself. For example, if I finish a bottle of vitamin C, I’ll buy a replacement bottle from the newest brand I’ve caught my eye on on Instagram. Or, as the seasons change, I try to mix things up myself. Exfoliating Mask and collagen body cream inside wintermist serum and sunscreen in the spring, etc.

But it’s not just my mood swings and whims that change and affect my skin care routine. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to my skin. I calm my routine when it’s overwhelming, and I step it up when I have an outbreak. This is how I reap the benefits of my product. I learned this as a teenager when I was prescribed a topical acne medication and it has stayed with me ever since. Therefore, if you are using a prescription retinoid, it is paramount to listen to your skin.

Read on to find out if you’re a good candidate for tretinoin and how to include it in your routine if you are.

What is tretinoin?

Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A, also known as a retinoid. Tretinoin usually comes in gel or cream form. Less commonly, it can also be applied topically in liquid form, or even taken by mouth. It is one of the most common ingredients in prescription acne treatments. Like other retinols, tretinoin also helps with wrinkles and fine lines hyperpigmentation. Unlike the retinols you are familiar with, tretinoin is much more potent. So much so that it’s only available with a prescription.

Tretinoin is available in three concentrations: 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. 0.025% is the mildest and is often prescribed for overall skin improvement or mild acne. 0.05% is usually specified for against aging and reduce wrinkles. 0.1% is the highest concentration and should be used with caution. Usually prescribed to people who already have experience with retinoids, it is used for severe cases of acne, pigmentation, deep wrinkles and fine lines.

What effect does tretinoin have on the skin?

Tretinoin accelerates cell turnover. But so are over-the-counter retinol creams. So what’s the difference between tretinoin and retinols that you can find in your pharmacy beauty aisle? Effect. For any vitamin A derivative to work, your skin needs to convert it to retinoic acid. I’ll spare you too much on the science, but tretinoin is stronger because it’s already in the form of retinoic acid. This means your skin doesn’t have to spend time converting and can function normally.

Because of its strength, tretinoin works faster than OTC retinols. It stimulates cell turnover, removes dead skin cells and wipes bacteria from your pores. Additionally, studies show that tretinoin helps stimulate collagen production and block the inflammatory pathways that cause acne. Combined, this makes it a powerful acne fighter. It has also been approved by the FDA for signs of influence, like wrinkles and dark spots. Overall, it’s a highly effective ingredient for cleaner, smoother, and more even-toned skin.

Who should consider tretinoin? Who shouldn’t?

Tretinoin is only available by prescription, so consult a dermatologist if you’re looking to add it to your routine. Your skin type and concerns will determine if tretinoin is right for you. If you’re looking to address wrinkles, dark spots, severe acne flare-ups (including cystic acne) and skin texture problems, tretinoin can be an effective treatment. To be a good candidate, you must also have a really elastic skin. This means almost no sensitivity at all. Most experts recommend starting with an OTC retinol to see how your skin reacts. Tretinoin isn’t necessarily your first choice. Starting with a milder retinol may address your concerns. It is also more suitable for people with acne scars, severe melasma or hyperpigmentation. Or, if you’re over 35 and looking to reverse sun damage and signs of aging, tretinoin could be a good choice.

As a more potent retinoid, tretinoin is probably not suitable for those with sensitive skin of any kind. A history of eczema, rosacea, or frequently irritated skin also indicates a fragile skin barrier, through which tretinoin can penetrate deeper. It’s best to skip any vitamin A if you’re pregnant, just to be cautious. As in all cases, consult your doctor to see if tretinoin is right for you.

Is tretinoin safe to use?

When used correctly, tretinoin is completely safe to use. However, due to its effectiveness, users may experience dryness and increased sun sensitivity when they start using tretinoin. To combat this, make sure to moisturize and protect your skin from the sun. It’s best to start slowly, using tretinoin a few nights a week, then increase the frequency as your skin adapts. Tretinoin also should not be used excessively or with other active ingredients such as acids. This can damage your moisture barrier.

What is “Punishment”?

Unfortunately, for many users, the infamous tretinoin “purification” is real. But it’s not a sign to turn around, give up, and run away screaming. Actually the opposite! Going through the purification process means your skin is adjusting to the treatment and learning to repair itself.

When you start using tretinoin, your skin will go through cell turnover faster than usual. This means that all irritants and acne-causing bacteria are pushed to the surface faster. This leads to inflammation, which causes acne. Even if you don’t use tretinoin to treat acne, the skin resurfacing process can bring potential bacteria to the fore, meaning those looking for anti-aging effects may well be left out.

How can you decreased sensitivity to tretinoin?

Even though you can’t do much stop Purifying, resisting the harsh temptations of your skin. This will only irritate your skin further at such a volatile time. Instead, be as gentle as possible.

Starting slowly with your tretinoin may decrease the intensity of your cleanse. If you feel excessive inflammation, you may want to reduce it to less frequent use. Some ingredients are helpful in softening the effects of tretinoin, like niacinamide. Niacinamide is a great addition to your routine as it helps calm irritation while reinforcing the effects of the retinoid.

How do you use tretinoin in your routine?

Deciding whether to start tretinoin is not the only question. How do you include tretinoin in your skin care routine? What is the best way to use tretinoin for best results? Many people have asked, and the answer is simple.

When you start taking tretinoin, your skin goes through a lot, very quickly. Be kind to your image and do everything to make the transition as easy as possible. When starting your tretinoin journey, focus on ingredients that won’t strip the skin or cause further irritation. You can also add ingredients that work well alongside your prescription retinoid. And of course, you will have to take your facial skin care more seriously. Use tretinoin at night, then apply sunscreen to protect your light-sensitive skin during the day. You can eventually get ingredients like acids back into your routine — but only if your skin is less sensitive.

If this sounds like you have to rebuild your entire routine, I’m not lying: you can. Here’s a guide to choosing tretinoin-friendly products to reinvigorate your skin routine.


A good cleanser will keep your skin clean without stripping your skin of its natural oils. Be wary of ingredients like sulfates, perfumes, or alcohol in your cleaners. These will dry out your skin when you need it most. Choose something gentle, yet effective, that is acid-free. Also, make sure to clean gently with your fingertips. Rubbing with a facial applicator or even a face towel can be too abrasive when using tretinoin.

Toner toner

Firming can help replenish your skin with moisture, but only if you choose the right one. Skip anything with alcohol, and instead choose a hydrating and refreshing addition to your routine. If you’re used to acid toners, you’ll have to stop using tretinoin for a while. Either way, apply your toner, then wait for it to dry before applying tretinoin. You can also add moisture to your skin during this step by using a gentle moisturizer.


To avoid excessive skin irritation while you start using tretinoin, most experts recommend saving your serum in the morning and using tretinoin at night. Good serums are those that complement the effects of your retinoid. Niacinamide helps soothe irritated skin and protect the skin barrier. Moisturizing serum keeps your skin from becoming too dry. And finally, the vitamin C serum helps to facilitate collagen production.


Moisturizing the skin is one of the best ways to minimize tretinoin side effects, like irritation and dryness. Experts recommend using a stronger moisturizer when starting out with tretinoin while keeping your skin care type in mind. If you already have dry skin, you’ll want to use a super-rich moisturizer. If you have oily skin, you still want to up your moisturizing game, but it doesn’t have to be too strong. Just make sure you choose products that are free of synthetic fragrances to avoid irritation. When starting out, apply moisturizer directly after applying tretinoin to minimize possible irritation. As your skin adapts, you can leave the tretinoin on for about 20 minutes before applying your moisturizer.


I cannot express how important it is to always wear your sunscreen (freely!) This is especially true of tretinoin. Retinoids increase your sensitivity to the sun, so whatever job your tretinoin is doing will be immediately damaged without adequate sun protection. Try clean mineral sunscreen to provide a physical shield between you and the sun. And remember to reapply during the day!

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