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Retinoid FAQs About Retin-A, Differin, Tretinoin, and Adalapene

10 Important Things to Know Before You Use Retinoids

Retinoids have been used for decades, but oddly, they don't get much buzz. These underpraised and often overlooked topical treatments could help your skin in more ways than one, though. Not only do they effectively treat acne by unclogging pores, they can also slow signs of aging while keeping your complexion healthier. Retinoids — including drugs like tretinoin, isotretinoin, adapalene — are topical forms of vitamin A, and they're available only by prescription.

The good news is that retinoid medications can work wonders for your complexion. Unlike over-the-counter treatments, though, they require a little more attention. To find out what you need to know before considering retinoids like Retin-A, Tazorac, and Differin, just keep reading.


  1. That cream could be cheaper than you think. You do need to see a dermatologist to get a prescription for retinoids. But if you have health insurance, your copay could be less expensive than the cost of a fancy (or not-so-fancy) over-the-counter skin cream.
  2. You should ease into them. Follow your doctor's instructions for application. More likely than not, you'll want to begin using your prescription once every two or three days to allow your skin to adjust.
  3. A little goes a long way. This is powerful medicine, so don't smear a ton of the stuff on three times a day. Just a tiny pearl-sized amount is all you need for your whole face.
  4. Things will get worse before they get better. Even if your skin doesn't peel or get red, you could see a surge of whiteheads a few weeks into your treatment. Don't freak out; this is actually a good thing, as it means the retinoid is working. Withstand it for a couple of months and your skin will reward you.
  5. Keep it away from your mouth. And your eyes. And your nostrils. Why? Read on.
  6. Your skin will peel. Here is what will happen: You'll apply the cream or gel, la-di-da, and all will go well until a few days pass. Then, bam! Tiny, tissue-paper-thin bits of skin will begin to peel off. It is a little weird, to say the least. Make things easier on yourself by waiting 30 minutes after washing before applying your prescription, and use a gentle moisturizer.
  7. Say adios to waxing. Learn to love tweezers, as your days of eyebrow waxing are over (if they ever began). If you wax while using a retinoid, a layer of skin is likely to come off with the wax. Not fun.
  8. Go easy with your skin care. It's best to ditch the harsh exfoliants, glycolic acid, and vigorous scrubbing. Your skin not only won't respond well to it, it also doesn't need it. Go gentle into that good nighttime skin care routine.
  9. SPF is a must. Seriously. Because retinoids make your skin photosensitive, wearing sunblock every day is imperative. Look for at least SPF 30; I go with SPF 50 and don't leave the house without proper sunglasses and a hat.
  10. They really work. There's a reason retinoids continue to be prescribed even decades after their debut. Here's more about it, but the bottom line is that retinoids' effectiveness has been measured time and time again in double-blind studies.

Image Source: Shutterstock
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Annie-Tomlin Annie-Tomlin 5 years
Hey anon, I think it's just a phase. In my experience, it's around the six-month mark that I've seen more drastic results from tretinoin -- so you are on track. If you stick with it, the acne marks will probably start to fade. You can also talk with your dermatologist to see if an OTC spot treatment product would help with those marks. (Kiehl's makes a nice one, very gentle.) The tough thing is that these things take TIME -- I'm still dealing with the ghost of one acne mark from almost two years ago! Before you consider something like microdermabrasion, I'd give tretinoin another six months to see if the scars fade. At that point, your derm can probably suggest a treatment route.
jocupcake jocupcake 6 years
Ok... I'm actually really confused about how retin-a and the like could be safe in the long run. It causes you skin to become more prone to sun damage, so wouldn't this cause you to age FASTER? Just wearing sunscreen isn't going to block out all UVA rays (the UV light that causes age related damage). One of my friends wanted to try this because she was convinced she was getting lines under her eyes and her doc said it was safe for use under them. This seems especially dangerous since the skin under eyes is thinnest and inherently more prone to sun damage on its own.
Rouge-Noir Rouge-Noir 6 years
It all sounds pretty horrible. I'll just stick to plain old, probably-has-no-effect moisturizer. It may not stop the first signs of aging, but at least my skin will stay put.
daisykat daisykat 6 years
I've been using Retin-A for about 8 months and I did have constant breakouts for about 2 months but after they cleared up I rarely break out at all. I experienced no peeling or redness at all. If I don't wear sunscreen or stay out too long I still get some stinging on my face. Also, waxing is no problem for me. I read that the best anti-aging benefits come only after a year of use so I'm still waiting. My derm prescribes it for me to treat acne so my insurance covers it for $6.00 per tube!! For me it has definitely worth the initial discomfort.
johanna89 johanna89 6 years
you dont just have to tweeze...you can also get your brows "threaded" (which i find is much less painful) and don't make the same mistake i did....don't forget about it..my skin was soo clear i was getting compliments..then i got busier and didnt bother to put the cream on anymore...big mistake... i'm going through the "gets worse before better stage" now...and it sucks, especially after going through it once before.
oni1 oni1 6 years
i didn't know it was so cheap with insurance! before i had insurance i ended up spending 80 just for the doctor's appointment to get the prescription, then paid over 30 for the retin-a. luckly a coworker that commutes across the border would get them for me at $7 a tube. now that he no longer works there i've been milking my last drop. i'm excited to see how much it'll be with my insurance.
soapybub soapybub 6 years
Yeah, Warning to everyone that wants to be prescribed this for aging... It does work, but if you do have even small acne issues (but especially if you have cysts around your mouth area) your acne will get considerably worse. I was prescribed tretinoin in high school and broke out reallllll bad. Then I stopped taking it after a couple of years because my skin was better. BAD IDEA. I had to re-start the treatment at the beginning of last school year and my skin was unbearable. I knew it would work so I stuck with it, but let me tell you I spent all of my weekends first semester at college watching TV instead of going out (peeling and redness are real bad, too. Some days makeup makes things look 5X worse). I'm not trying to scare people away, because it has worked WONDERS for many, and Bella was right about all of the positives. But, I'd say unless you really are ready for a major breakout that takes two months to really heal, you may want reconsider retinoids. They will make you break out hardcore for awhile. There are many reviews on this website called acne.org. You can read the logs of people with all different kinds of acne who loved and hated retinoid treatments. There are also some names of good OTC creams that contain retinol. I've heard that Green Cream works really well. Also, if you're more into acids, check out MAMA lotion (malic and mandelic lotion). This supposedly works really well, too.
Beauty Beauty 6 years
Anonymous — I peeled but like Ellenora says, some people don't. I'd guess that if you were to peel, that would have started by now. So nothing to worry about!
Ellenora Ellenora 6 years
Anonymous--It's normal. I didn't peel either when I first started using Differin at 14 years old. I had a huge breakout but no peeling. I've been using it close to 5 years (I took a year off it and regret it immensely) and I don't exactly have breakouts anymore. You still have a few zits now and then but no big major breakouts.
brookrene brookrene 6 years
I have insurance and i use a generic version of Retin-A for acne. Since i'm over 24 insurance wont cover it, but it's only $45 bucks a tube and lasts me about 3-4 months. It's worked wonders in fading acne scars. I didn't have the initial breakout a lot of people experience, but I'm also on other acne meds too. Also, it will dry your face, mix a small dollop with cetaphil SPF 15 facial moisturizer, this will combat any dryness you'll experience. I also learned #7 the hard way, your best bet is threading. It's cheap and much faster than tweezing everything!
runimina runimina 6 years
Hello, I am 20 years old and have mild acne. How would I be able to get the prescription/have insurance cover it if I don't have very bad acne? Do I just tell the derm honestly that I want to use it to prevent wrinkles? :| How much does it cost if I don't have insurance? If I did use OTC products, would it be helpful at all? I understand it wouldn't work as well as prescription, but which OTC product is the best on the market right now? I really want to jump on this. Thanks so much!
dancinlaughin01 dancinlaughin01 6 years
this is the best for acne and cost about ten bucks with a prescription!
blondie829 blondie829 6 years
what about the OTC retinol creams? do those work the same way?
Ellenora Ellenora 6 years
I can only use the lowest dose of my retinoid as my skin is that reactive to the stuff. Yogaforlife, you have to have a skin condition on your face to get prescription retinoids like Differin. It's prescribed for moderate to severe acne and as soapybub said, it's normally a last resort when nothing else works.
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