Tips for Minimizing Irritation When Starting Retinoids

Health Writer

Retinoids (Retin A, Renova and others) are an acne treatment that is also known to reduce or minimize the look of wrinkles. This treatment is available through prescription only. While it is very effective, many people find the initial phase difficult. When starting to use tretinoin, your skin may become red, irritated, flaky and peel. You might notice dry patches, especially around your nose and mouth. You might think your skin looks worse than it did before. Some people stop using it because of these initial side effects. But, with continued use, it does work to reduce wrinkles and lines.

There are ways to minimize these effects and still benefit.

  • Start with a low dose and work your way up as your skin gets used to the medication. Retinoids come in various strengths: weakest to highest - 0.01, 0.025, 0.04, 0.05 and .1. Your doctor will talk to you about what strength he (or she) feels is best for you. A common misconception is that a stronger prescription will give you quicker results. Stronger prescriptions, however, can cause all the side effects and make you want to give up.
  • Start by using the medication once every other day or once every third day. Slowly work up to using it on a daily basis. This gives your skin a chance to get used to the medication.
  • Make sure your skin is completely dry when applying tretinoin. Wash your face and then wait at least 20 minutes before applying. Using it on wet skin can increase irritation.
  • Use a small amount. The general rule of thumb is that a pea-sized amount is enough to cover your entire face. Use only once a day. More is not better.
  • Start during the summer months. The cold weather can worsen the irritation and dryness caused by tretinoin.
  • If your skin is severely irritated, stop using for up to one week and then start again.
  • Use petroleum jelly around your eyes to avoid the medication getting too close to your eyes.
  • Keep your skin well moisturized. If you apply a moisturizer before the medication, wait 30 minutes in between to make sure your skin is completely dry. If you use the moisturizer after, wait about an hour. You can use moisturizer to dilute the effectiveness of the retinoids. If the medications irritates your skin, you can start by applying the medication right after moisturizer or mix the medication with some moisturizer when applying.
  • If your skin is prone to acne breakouts, ask your doctor about gel-based retinoids as these are less problematic for acne.
  • Always be sure to use a sunscreen and try to stay out of the sunlight. Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to the sun's rays. Retinoids should be applied at night and washed off in the morning.
  • Avoid using any astringents, exfoliants or other harsh cleansers as this can increase the irritation. Because retinoids work by increasing the production of new cells, it acts as an exfoliant and you shouldn't need any additional products.

Be patient. It can take up to 12 weeks of use to see the benefits of retinoids. During this time you might get discouraged but the redness and irritation is part of the process. If you have concerns about the amount of breakouts, irritation, burning feeling or redness, talk to your doctor about whether you should continue to use the retinoids or if you should discontinue use.


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