Prescription Tretinoin: What I've Learned in My First 6 Months

It can be a rollercoaster of emotions, from “OMG! My skin looks incredible!” to “OMG! Half my face is flaking off at the office!”
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Kara
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It can be a rollercoaster of emotions, from “OMG! My skin looks incredible!” to “OMG! Half my face is flaking off at the office!”

Using a retinol cream was always one of those things I thought I would do when I got “older.” I’d read about them in magazines my entire life; it seems they’ve been the gold standard for anti-aging, anti-wrinkle and anti-acne in skincare for decades. They’re basically prescribed for everything. 

Retinol is a form of vitamin A, and basically what it does when you apply it is checks out what’s going on with your skin cells, sees how messed up they are and what needs improving, and gets to work. It’s like “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” on your face.

And guess what: I’m older. I’m only 27, of course, but every day of 27 is one step closer to 30, which is closer to 40. At my last visit to my beautiful dermatologist, she listened to me gripe about stubborn acne scars and hyperpigmentation, as well as teeny wrinkles literally no other person but me could see, and she asked, “Well, why aren’t you on a retinol?”

So now I am. 

I mean, I have been for about six months, and it has been an interesting six months indeed. Retinol can be a rollercoaster of emotions, from “OMG! My skin looks incredible!” to “OMG! Half my face is flaking off at the office and no one said anything!” I’m on a 0.05% dose, which is pretty low, but this stuff is potent. You can, of course, find retinol in drugstore products, but mine is a prescription-strength cream called tretinoin, a retinoic acid.

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Interested in converting to a retinol cream? You should be—it basically eliminates the need for about 75% of my previous skincare regimen. Here’s what you need to know if you make the switch.

Take it slowly. I’ve been on my retinol for a while, but I still apply it only every other night. You need the teeniest amount, too—a pea-size dab is fine. Your skin needs time to get used to it, so don’t go crazy and slather it on each night.

You might purge. Some retinol users report a “purge” of all the bad stuff that’s been sitting under the surface of their skin once they’ve been using the cream for a little while. I did not have to suffer through this, thankfully.

Be gentle. The retinol is working hard to fix your skin, so opt for very gentle, simple cleansers and what have you. I like Clinique’s basic Liquid Facial Soap, even though it smells like cilantro. I also swapped out my hardcore exfoliant for a finer-grain version.

Get a good moisturizer, because you are going to flake. I mostly work from home, but there have been times I’m in the office, go to the bathroom and notice that my chin and nose are on the verge of flaking off. Thanks, retinol. When my skin is feeling extra-flaky and irritated, I use Aveda’s Botanical Kinetics Intense Hydrating Rich Crème. (I work for Aveda, and one of the perks is getting to take home and discover great products like this.) I like to slather it on and let it really absorb into my skin.

If you’re going outside, DO NOT forget sunscreen. Guess who made this mistake during a no-makeup beach day? Me. Guess who paid for it with a red-ass nose and cheeks? Me. Retinol makes your skin very sensitive to sunlight, so always wear sunscreen and/or foundation with sunscreen. I even wear a baseball cap if I’m gonna be out for awhile. 

Your skin will improve, but it won’t be perfect. No product can give you celebrity skin. I had to adjust my expectations for my retinol, because I know it’s not actual magic. However, it has definitely reduced my acne scars, including a nasty dark one on my right cheek. I still have zits, sadly, but the breakouts are fewer and much more quickly healed.

My retinol and I are only six months into our relationship, so like any real relationship, we’re still working on the little things. Sometimes it does things that surprise me; sometimes we’re settled into a comfortable routine. Either way, my retinol is now a mainstay of my skincare routine, and I’m looking forward to our years together.

  • Have you tried a retinol? 
  • How has it worked for you?