How to use a topical retinoid successfully

A topical retinoid is a powerhouse in your medicine cabinet and your cosmetic bag. Why? The science behind regular use of a retinoid cream shows they decrease fine lines, even pigmentation, and smooth your skin. They may even offer some modest improvement for scars. For those of us that are acne-prone, they also help tame breakouts- this is their original indication and how they first came to the market.

However, starting a retinoid (a topical vitamin-A derived treatment) can be a challenging experience initially, as it can cause dryness, peeling, and even the odd acne flare up. Here are some tips to help you “retinize” your skin with ease.

  1. Go slow! Start out just 2 nights a week for 2 weeks, or until you are confident you are tolerating it without too much dryness or peeling.
  2. Apply in the evening. Many retinoids are not light-stable, meaning they do not perform as well when exposed to sunlight. This is why evening is the best time to apply.
  3. First, wash your face with a gentle cleanser such as Dove bar for sensitive skin, SkinBetter Science Oxygen Infusion Facewash, SkinMedica Facial Cleanser or Sensitive Skin Cleanser, or CeraVe Hydrating Wash or Bar.
  4. After washing, apply a gentle unscented moisturizer such as Toleriane Ultra or Fluide by La Roche-Posay or Neutrogena Hydroboost. For skin types that really crave hydration, SkinMedica HA5 or SkinBetter Science Trio moisturizer are recommended.
  5. Wait a few minutes (at least 5) until the moisturizer is dry- this is a good time to brush teeth and go through other nighttime rituals.
  6. Now, apply a pea-sized amount of the retinol or prescription-strength retinoid (if this has been prescribed by your doctor) to the entire face. Yes, one small pea-size is enough for the whole face. Dot it across your forehead, cheeks, nose and chin, then spread evenly across the skin. Avoid the area around the eyes, as this can be extra sensitive. Continue to do this 2 nights per week.
  7. After 2-4 weeks, if the skin is not too dry or irritated, increase your use to every second night, and after another 2-4 weeks increase to nightly use once you are tolerating the product. Don’t be afraid to go slow.
  8. Those with dry and sensitive skin may need to progress through these steps more slowly. If you overdo it, and skin becomes dry, flaky, or red- fear not- take a break for a few nights and use a moisturizer alone until your skin recovers. Then, start again but use your retinoid less frequently for a few more weeks. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to nightly use- the key is not to overdo it initially, and to stick with it even if you need to take a break.
  9. Wear a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, re-apply when you are outdoors, wear a hat and try to stay in the shade. Retinoids improve the health and increase the thickness of your skin, but they thin the “dead” layer of skin cells, leaving your skin slightly more vulnerable to the effects of the sun, so protect yourself.

If you do not experience peeling or dryness at all, question the efficacy of your product. Depending on the exact molecule and the concentration, efficacy can be different. Once you have “retinized” to your product, you may tolerate an increased percentage. Your dermatologist can help you choose the right product, and will know if your skin is ready for a prescription-strength retinoid.

Topical retinoids are safe and most beneficial when used long term, so once you are using it regularly, keep it up! Be aware, in most cases they should be stopped during pregnancy and breastfeeding- your dermatologist can discuss this with you.

This article is intended to provide general information and is not intended as a substitute for assessment and care from your doctor.


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Dr. Kuritzky is pleased to offer her services in french and english.
Dre. Kuritzky est fière d’offrir ses services en français ainsi qu’en anglais.

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