The Complete Beginners Guide to Tretinoin

Are you considering using tretinoin to improve your skin? If so, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed.

This guide is designed to help beginners understand everything they need to know before starting their tretinoin journey.

Here, I will explain what is tretinoin and how does it work.

I will also give some tips on how to avoid irritation and how to ease discomfort while using tretinoin.

Lastly, I will help you create the best routine to support your skin and help you get the best results from this powerful medication.

Beginners Guide to Tretinoin - The Skincare Culture

NB: What if I told you I can show you how to never have acne again? If you have acne and want it gone, read this message.

What is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, is an active form of vitamin A.

It is one of the most studied and research-backed ingredients in skincare products and works incredibly well to fix various concerns, including acne, pigmentation, and aging.

Tretinoin, all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA), is a prescription form of vitamin A patented in 1957, FDA approved for medicinal use in 1962, and topical use in 1971. It was originally marketed under the brand name Retin-A, but there are many brands that you can find today, depending on your location.

All tretinoin products are the same and contain very similar ingredients. What’s different is the brand that carries them as well as some slight variation in ingredients, but nothing too significant.

What’s different is the vehicle of the formula and the strength of the active ingredient.

Namely, tretinoin comes in either gel or cream formula.

The gel formula usually contains alcohol denat. and is prescribed to people who are dealing with acne. The cream formula, on the other hand, usually contains heavy emollients such as isopropyl myristate and is generally aimed at people who have been prescribed tretinoin for anti-aging purposes.

Additionally, tretinoin comes in three different strengths: 0.25%; 0.5%, and 1% (the strongest.)

There are also micro formulas that are usually given to very sensitive skin, but these aren’t very popular, and as a result, they are not sold in many countries in the world.

How Does Tretinoin Work?

Tretinoin speeds up cell turnover (the rate that your skin produces new cells and sheds them from its surface).

Skin cell turnover slows down as you age and causes dead skin cells to accumulate on the surface of your skin. This prevents your skin from reflecting light and can leave you with a dull and tired complexion.

Slow skin cell turnover is also one of the main causes of acne and leads to clogged pores that form whiteheads and blackheads and can become inflamed to form more severe acne when bacteria start feeding on the cellular debris inside the pore and proliferating.

How to Apply Tretinoin Correctly?

How to Apply Tretinoin Correctly - The Skincare Culture

The best way to apply tretinoin for maximum efficiency is after your evening cleanse.

Wait until your skin is fully dry after cleansing, and apply a pea-sized amount by dotting bit by bit in different areas of the face, including the forehead, cheeks, chin, temples, and jawline.

Once your dots are evenly distributed, start by rubbing the product into the skin with only two fingertips. You don’t want your tretinoin to stay on your hands, so it’s important not to use your entire palms or more than two fingers to rub it in.

After you’re done, make sure to wash your hands with soap because your fingertips will start to peel if even a little bit of tretinoin remains on them.

Wait at least 20-30 minutes before applying a moisturizer on top of tretinoin because you don’t want to dilute or move the product around, as this will lead to decreased efficacy and uneven coverage.

Benefits of Using Tretinoin

Consistent tretinoin use will help decrease skin concerns such as wrinkles, pigmentation, and acne.

Tretinoin will also give you a clearer, even, and more uniform complexion.

Additionally, tretinoin will also help refine uneven skin texture and can improve pitted acne scarring.

Side Effects of Using Tretinoin

Side Effects of Using Tretinoin - The Skincare Culture

The main drawback to using tretinoin is that it’s quite irritating and often gives you dry, flaky skin that’s more prone to stinging and redness.

This occurrence is the worst during the first few weeks until your skin gets used to it, but for some people, this doesn’t happen at all, and for others, it can take a couple of months (or 6-8 weeks) to clear up.

Another common side effect of tretinoin use is purging, which is when a product makes your skin worse before it gets better because the active ingredient basically makes your skin expel all the clogs that were going to eventually become pimples much faster.

Lastly, increased sun sensitivity is also a side effect of using tretinoin, which means you will have to be diligent with your sunscreen application, or your skin will be likely to burn easier and faster while on tretinoin than usual.

Also, don’t forget to apply sunscreen in all the areas where you’re using tretinoin, so if you are bringing it all the way down to your neck and decolletage, sunscreen application there is a must too.

When to Expect Results from Using Tretinoin?

For acne treatment, improvement is usually seen within 2-3 months of regular use.

Anti-aging benefits of tretinoin will require six months or more, depending on what you are trying to target.

Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, signs of sun damage (such as brown spots caused by sun exposure,) should start fading after six months of consistent use.

Fine lines and deeper wrinkles will likely take longer, and results could be seen after 1-2 years of consistent tretinoin use.

Additionally, any improvement seen requires continual use for maintenance. Assuming the treatment is well tolerated, the only reason to discontinue would be pregnancy. 

6 Tips for Keeping Your Skin Healthy While Using Tretinoin

How to Deal With Tretinoin Irritation - The Skincare Culture

Here are six tips on how to deal with tretinoin side effects and keep your skin healthy when starting tretinoin:

Start Low & Gentle

The best thing to do when first starting tretinoin is to start with a lower strength, such as 0.25%, and opt for a vehicle that includes emollients, such as cream-based tretinoin.

Apply Tretinoin to Dry Skin

Tretinoin is more readily absorbed by wet or damp skin, which is likely to be way too aggressive and cause irritation, stinging, and sensitivity.

Which is why you should always apply tretinoin on clean, dry skin.

Apply Tretinoin on Alternate Days

Start by applying tretinoin every 48 to 72 hours because this will help your skin get used to it somewhat faster.

Avoid leaving longer than 72 hours between applications because the retinization process will likely pass and get triggered again with the next application.

This will cause you to constantly deal with the side effects while your skin will take longer to get used to the active ingredient.

So while you think you are helping your skin by only applying tretinoin two times a week in the beginning, you are actually prolonging the process of getting used to the active ingredient.

Apply Tretinoin Twenty Minutes After a Moisturizer

When starting tretinoin, you want to really take your moisturizing game seriously and diligently apply moisturizer in the morning and evening (20-30 minutes after applying tretinoin) as this will help to soothe and protect your skin barrier.

Apply Moisturizer over Tretinoin

If your skin starts becoming too irritated, it’s best to avoid applying tretinoin for a couple of days.

Alternatively, you can apply tretinoin 20-30 minutes after applying a moisturizer. This method will buffer the strength while still giving the desired results.

Have a Gentle Skincare Routine When Startin Tretinoin

Having a simple skincare routine that consists of gentle products is key when starting tretinoin, as your skin will likely get irritated in the first few weeks and will need special care and support.

The Best Skincare Routine When Starting Tretinoin

The Best Skincare Routine While on Tretinoin - The Skincare Culture

Here’s the best skincare routine for when starting tretinoin:

Gentle Cleanser

A gentle, non-foaming cleanser that won’t strip and dry out your skin is incredibly important when starting your tretinoin journey.

Nourishing Serum

A nourishing serum isn’t a must, but it’s a nice addition to your skincare regimen when starting tretinoin, as it can help hydrate the skin and ease some of the initial discomfort.

Opt for something that contains hydrating, soothing, and nourishing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, green tea, licorice extract, chamomile, etc.

Heavy-Duty Moisturizer

As I already mentioned above, moisturizing is one of the most important steps in your tretinoin journey.

A good moisturizer will support your skin barrier and reduce irritation.


Pick a sunscreen that contains a high SPF of 30 and above that’s gentle and non-irritating to your skin.

What You Shouldn’t Use While on Tretinoin?

When using tretinoin, your skin is likely to get more sensitive and reactive. Some peeling and flaking may also occur to varying degrees depending on your skin’s tolerance.

When using tretinoin, it is important not to use scrubs, exfoliating acids (especially AHAs), and enzymes, as well as harsh and drying cleansers that can make your skin burn and feel uncomfortable.

My Other Tretinoin Related Articles:

Is Generic Tretinoin as Effective as Retin-A?

Does Tretinoin Work for Wrinkles?

Adapalene vs Tretinoin: Which is the Best for Anti-Aging?

How to Layer Tretinoin With Other Products?

10 Best Moisturizers to Use With Tretinoin

How to Fix Dry Skin From Tretinoin?

How do You Know Tretinoin is Working?

Can You Mix Benzoyl Peroxide With Tretinoin?

The Acne Solution: Your Ultimate Guide To Flawless Complexion

An extensive, no-nonsense course showing you how to never have acne again, from a licensed Esthetician specializing in oily/acne-prone skin.

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