Use Retinoids the Right Way

How to use retinoids the right way to prevent irritation and purging |

The WRONG way to use retinoids - using too much too soon

When I was prescribed Differin for acne by my dermatologist, I got really excited because I finally sought professional help and was confident that my skin would start clearing up right away. So when I got home, I washed my face and slathered a big glob of Differin all over, thinking that using more would make it work faster.

In fact, I didn't know how to use Differin at all. My dermatologist (not a very good one I now realize) shooed me out of his office before giving me proper instructions and I assumed that the packet insert was insignificant. It was just acne cream right? Who wouldn't know how to put on acne cream?

But, lo and behold, a few days later (3 exactly), my skin turned red and started peel. It became so sensitive that everything stung - cleanser, moisturizer, even water! I had made the mistake that most people make when they first start using retinoids: not knowing how to use them the right way.

I can't stress enough how important it is to know how to properly use retinoids. Lots of people I know either stay away from retinoids or give up on them after a few weeks because they couldn't stand the irritation and/or purging side effects that come with the initial use of the treatment. However, if you know how to use retinoids the right way, you can minimize most, if not all, of these bad things and make them much more tolerable.

Following these steps and tips when you first start using retinoids will make them easier on you and your skin (and you might even be able to avoid irritation or an initial breakout altogether!):

1) Start off slow

When you are introducing retinoids to your skin, you want to start off slow. Most people just slap on the product every night and wake up to lots of irritation. However, the best way to use retinoids is to use them sparingly for the first few weeks and then slowly increase application thereafter. It doesn't matter if you are using gels or creams. It only matters that you start slow.

To first start using retinoids, apply them once every three days for the first one or two weeks. After your skin adjusts to the product (or if you experience no irritation at all), bump it up to once every two nights for another few weeks. Then, use it every other night for another week and gradually graduate to using it nightly.

Starting off this way helps your skin slowly adjust to the product and when you give your skin time to adjust, it reduces irritation from the retinoid and can even help you avoid the initial breakout associated with most retinoids. (This initial breakout is more common for those who are using retinoids to treat acne. If your skin is clear when you start using retinoids, you will probably have nothing to "purge.")

Generally when you are using retinoids, you want to choose the strongest one your skin can tolerate. But when you are first starting out, a weaker retinoid will suffice. You can first condition your skin to the retinoid and then work your way up if you feel you need something stronger. Or you could even buffer it (more on this on the next section).

However, if a particular retinoid is too irritating for your skin, it is perfectly okay to opt for a less potent version. You don't need to use the strongest retinoid out there for it to be effective. Weaker retinoids also work, but may just take a bit longer.

2) Use only a pea-sized amount

Don't be like me. Using more product will not help it work any faster. It will only help it irritate your skin even more. Therefore, only use a pea-sized amount for your entire face.

Now, something the size of a pea may not seem like a lot, but it's exactly the right amount you need for your skin. What I like to do is squeeze a pea-sized amount onto my index finger and start lightly dotting the product evenly over my face. Then, I smear all these dots together and spread the product into my skin. You actually have to do this rather quickly or else the product will dry up and you won't have anything to spread.

Applying the retinoid in this fashion ensures that all parts of your face get a light coating of the product. Sometimes when you start spreading with just one big glob, you may run out of it by the time you reach the other parts of your face.

If you still feel like you don't cover your entire face with a pea-sized amount, then it is okay to use a bit more. The thing is to just use the smallest amount possible to cover your whole face in order to minimize irritation.

While your eyes are more sensitive, it is okay to use retinoids under your eye area to diminish fine wrinkles there (don't put it on your eyelids though). When you first start using retinoids under your eye, it is common for any fine lines to look crepey and be even more pronounced. But, it should get better after awhile. If your eye is too sensitive to the retinoid, you can try buffering the product or just not using any near your eyes.

Retinoids can also be applied on your neck or hands. If you do use retinoids in these areas, be sure to wear good sunscreen as well, since retinoids make you more sensitive to the sun.

3) Use only once a day at night

Retinoids will make your skin more sensitive to the sun, therefore it is best to apply them at night. There is also some evidence that natural retinoids turn toxic when exposed to sunlight, so that's even more of a reason to avoid using them during the day! (It's okay to apply synthetic retinoids, such as Differin and Tazorac, during the day though, but it's probably not a good idea since they make you more sensitive to sunlight too.)

Besides using retinoids at night to minimize sun sensitivity, you should also be using a good sunscreen in the morning to protect your skin even more. Retinoid use and sunscreen (or sun avoidance if sunscreen does not agree with your skin) go hand in hand. You don't want to reverse all the good stuff the retinoid is doing for your skin (since the sun causes photoaging) or cause even more damage to your skin with overexposure to harmful UV rays.

You also want to apply the retinoid only once a day to minimize irritation. If you use other treatment products for acne or anti-aging, hold off on using them until you know for sure your skin can tolerate the retinoid. If you can't handle the irritation from a retinoid by itself, then you most likely won't be able to handle the irritation in conjunction with other products. Treatments, such as BHAs and AHAs, make retinoids more potent and more likely to irritate your skin.

If, however, you are at the point where you feel comfortable with your retinoid and want to add an extra boost, you can continue using the retinoid at night and add in a BHA or AHA in the morning. Alternatively, you can increase the penetration of your retinoid by using an AHA before applying the retinoid and following up with a moisturizer.

As with all retinoid use, take things slowly and add new products one at a time.

4) Wait 20 minutes after washing your face to apply the retinoid product

You want to wait 20 minutes after washing your face before applying a retinoid in order to reduce irritation. When you wash your skin, you disturb your skin's natural barrier and waiting a bit before applying a harsh product will give your skin more time to recover.

Also, applying a retinoid onto damp skin will cause it to absorb faster, increasing the chances of irritation.

I was going to put all nine tips here, but the page was getting pretty long so I had to split it into two. The next section on tips for using retinoids covers how to buffer retinoids, short contact therapy with retinoids, and more!

Last updated: October 9, 2012

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How to Use Retinoids the Right Way: Part 2