I Finally Tried Tretinoin And I’m Never Going Back

Despite covering beauty for years and being well-versed in skincare, this editor had never implemented a vitamin A product into her regimen until now. Here’s what happened.
Patient Perspective
Written by Vivien Moon
06.30.2022
(26)Is this article helpful?6 min read
I Finally Tried Tretinoin And I’m Never Going Back	Photo by Rachel Cheng on Unsplash

As a beauty editor, being non-committal to skincare products and tools is a part of the job. While there are lotions, potions, products, ingredients, and devices we know are tried and true, it’s also our duty to test out the latest launches to stay abreast of the innovations on the market. Consider it research. Therefore, by keeping my vanity open to new products, maintaining a curated routine has been a challenge. Yes, I am mindful of the ingredients I use and how they play together, but, I am not as selective on which cleanser or moisturizer I will use from week to week. So, it comes as no surprise that most of my twenties were spent experimenting and prioritizing product testing over tailoring a personal routine – until I hit 30.

Knowing that my skin wont be smooth forever as fine lines, dullness, and pigmentation are a part of life, I knew it was time to do what I’ve been dreading: sticking to a routine with tretinoin. Because adding a prescription-strength vitamin A into the regimen requires a methodic approach (and patience), my hesitancy prevented me from diving into the deep end. Three months ago, I decided to finally incorporate the holy grail of youth-preserving ingredients into my routine, and here’s how that journey went.

What is Tretinoin?

For the newbies, tretinoin is “a vitamin A derivative, a type of retinoid that is available as a prescription,” explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a board certified dermatologist based in New York. The workhorse ingredient works by regulating skin cell turnover and can help prevent and treat acne, explains Dr. Garshick. But, the fun doesn’t stop there. “Additionally, because it can also help boost collagen production, it can help to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, in addition to acne scarring,” she adds. To simply put it, the prescription-strength ingredient “can help to improve overall skin tone and texture.”

The ingredient requires a prescription, and while Dr. Garshick was not my personal dermatologist, her insight is invaluable when it comes to all things skincare.

How To Add Tretinoin To Your Skincare Routine

What kept me from starting sooner was the barrier to entry, it is a process that requires more than a prescription to truly make it work. Below are some of Dr. Garshick's tips and recommendations for starting tretinoin.

Do

  • Start Slow: When adding any new product into your routine, especially one as potent as tretinoin, modesty is key. A pea-sized drop of the ivory cream is recommended once a week to build up a tolerance, and with time, the amount can be adjusted. As we always say, let your skin guide you and tell you what it needs. “It is best to incorporate tretinoin into a nighttime routine and, to start off using it just a few times per week and then increase the frequency as tolerated.”
  • Limit Exfoliants: Over-exfoliating the skin can cause a weakened skin barrier, loss of moisture, and therefore, more breakouts to arise. “It is best to avoid using any ingredients that can be harsh on the skin at the same time as tretinoin, such as exfoliating acids, including salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide – unless directed to do so.”
  • Be Patient: From purging to causing irritation, tretinoin is fickle as the barrier of entry is almost like an initiation process. Because the skin’s experiencing increased cell turnover,

Don’t

  • Skip the SPF: Sun protection should not only be the first line of defense in any skincare routine, it is vital when using a chemical exfoliant. “It is important to always be good about sun protection when incorporating a retinoid into your routine and wearing daily sunscreen,” adds Dr. Garshick.
  • Worry About A Purge: Purging, as it is lovingly known, is the process of the skin breaking out which may seem paradoxical considering the ingredient's efficacy when treating acne. However, this is perfectly normal and to be expected. If the acne persists, speak with a trusted dermatologist to adjust the routine or switch to a retinol alternative (hello, bakuchiol).
  • Complicate Things: It’s natural to want to rush the process, the benefits are numerous, after all. During the adjustment period, focus on the basics and how your skin adjusts before incorporating additional products. “I recommend applying tretinoin after cleansing and before moisturizing, but for those with dry or sensitive skin, it may be used after applying moisturizer which may help reduce the potential for irritation in some individuals,” Dr. Gashick advises.

My Experience With Tretinoin

We often discuss the timing of starting a product, the importance of doing a patch test, and the mindful approach required to ensure all ingredients work in harmony, so, to do this right, I overhauled my routine. My first step was to start tret during the winter months due to the decreased sun exposure I would have as my skin acclimates. My second step was cutting out other physical exfoliants. Due to tret being a heavy-duty chemical exfoliant, I opted to shelve my favorite AHAs and BHAs for the time being. Because of my hesitancy to stick to a set routine, I wasn’t going to take any risks with over-exfoliating. Here is a breakdown of my AM and PM routines.

AM Routine

Daily PM Routine

Tretinoin PM Routine

  • Environ Sebu-Wash Gel Cleanser
  • Alastin Restorative Skin Complex
  • Isla Beauty Whipped Dream
  • Tretinoin Cream, USP 0.025%

Now, to provide clarity on my skin, it’s normal, not prone to acne, and has very little pigmentation. My reasoning for starting tretinoin was to address any fine lines and wrinkles that may arise with time, as my belief has always been that it’s better to prevent than correct.

During the first few weeks of my journey, the irritation was minimal, and though I was prepared for a purge (cue dramatic music), it never came. Rather than a noticeable breakout, my skin went through a few weeks of whiteheads popping up at inopportune times, slight redness here and there, and more dryness than I usually experience during the colder season. Overall, my fear of the unexpected proved to be just that, a fear.

I have to admit that due to my being a regular person, my routine did waiver as I would try a new product on days when I wasn’t using tret. My goal was to be litigious throughout the process so as to not throw any curveballs, but I did experiment sporadically with a new gentle mask or two. I maintained my rule to avoid all other chemical exfoliants and was consistent with my SPF application (and re-application).

After three months, I can confidently say that my skin looks better than I expected. My primary concerns (fine lines forming on my forehead and marionettes) were not as prominent as my skin adjusted to tret.

The Takeaway

After carrying what felt like a dirty little secret of not incorporating vitamin A in my routine for quite some time, I am happy to report that the ingredient is all it’s cracked up to be. Offering a noticeable change to my skin in a matter of months, tretinoin has provided me with clearer skin, a smoother complexion, and fewer breakouts. Though the adjustment period felt like a waiting game, trusting the process proved to be worth it.

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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