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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Keep it away from your mouth. And your eyes. And your nostrils. Why? Read on.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.