Use Retinoids the Right Way: Part 2

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



...continued from Tips 1-4


This is part 2 of how to use retinoids the right way to minimize irritation and purging. If you missed it, check out part 1 for helpful tips when you are first starting to use retinoids!

Here are tips 5-9 for using retinoids safely and effectively:


5) Wait 1 hour after applying the retinoid to apply moisturizer

Ideally, retinoids work best when they are the only thing on your skin. However, since retinoids also come with their fair share of irritation and dryness, using only retinoids without anything else can be difficult to tolerate. So, it is okay to apply moisturizer after putting on your retinoid.

Just make sure you wait anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour after applying the retinoid to apply your moisturizer so you do not diminish the effects of the retinoid. However, if you are experiencing too much irritation from the retinoid, you could buffer it with moisturizer to reduce some of the redness and dryness.


6) Buffering

Buffering your retinoid makes it less penetrating and therefore less irritating. How to buffer your retinoid is pretty straightforward. You can either:

  1. Put on moisturizer and then apply the retinoid.

  2. Apply the retinoid onto clean skin and then apply moisturizer shortly afterwards (without waiting).

  3. Mix the retinoid with a moisturizer or serum and then apply to clean skin.

All of these methods help reduce the effects of the retinoid (they decrease its penetration), making it slightly more tolerable.

Most people buffer when they first start using retinoids and then use it full-strength after their skin adjusts. Other people can only use retinoids when they are buffered because their skin may be too sensitive to use it un-buffered.

You can buffer all of the different types of retinoids except for Retin-A Micro. Retin-A Micro is a time released formula and buffering will interfere with the way Retin-A Micro is supposed to work.


7) Use short contact therapy (Tazorac only)

If you are using Tazorac, you can consider using short contact therapy to reduce irritation. Dr. Bershad, who came up with the short contact therapy technique, suggests that by decreasing the amount of time the retinoid is in contact with your skin, you will be able to receive the benefits of the retinoid without all the extra irritation.

To do short contact therapy, you basically apply Tazorac to your skin (preferably 20 minutes after cleansing) and let it sit anywhere from 2-5 minutes to 2 hours. After waiting for this period of time, you simply wash off the retinoid (with water or your cleanser) and go about your regular skin care routine.

When you're first starting out with short contact therapy, you may want to start with leaving the retinoid on your skin for just 2 minutes and then gradually increase the time as your skin adjusts to the treatment. You can use short contact therapy every day, but again, when you are first using retinoids, it pays to take things slow. It might be wiser to use short contact therapy every other day for two weeks or so before upping your dosage.

The reason why short contact therapy works with only Tazorac is because Tazorac is a synthetic retinoid and therefore not inactivated by your skin (unlike natural retinoids). Differin is also a synthetic retinoid, but there is no evidence of short contact therapy working with Differin. However, that's not to say that you couldn't use it this way. If you choose to try short contact therapy with Differin, you may want to leave it on your skin for 2-3 hours because Differin is a much milder retinoid compared to Tazorac.



8) Use continuously

You have to use retinoids continuously and consistently in order to receive their benefits. And you have to use them for the rest of your life because once you stop, you stop getting the anti-acne and anti-aging benefits. (Note: retinoids should not be used during pregnancy.)

However, once you get to the point where you've achieved your desired results (i.e. the retinoid cleared your skin or your wrinkles are less pronounced), you can go into maintenance mode. When you maintain your skin with a retinoid, instead of using the retinoid religiously every single night, you can apply the product every other day or every two days and still get the same benefits.


9) Be patient!

Retinoids take time to work, approximately 10 to 12 weeks or 2 to 3 months. Most people don't see any results the first few months, but everyone's skin is different. Some people get good results right away while others have to be more patient. However, benefits from retinoids usually peak after one year of consistent use.

During the first 4 to 6 weeks, it's very common to experience acne breakouts, worsening of symptoms, peeling skin, and other forms of irritation. Even though it can be physically and mentally difficult to stick with a retinoid during the first few weeks of hell-dome, it's worthwhile to stick it out at least until the 12th week mark to see if the retinoid will actually work with your skin. If the retinoid is going to work for you, you should start seeing consistent improvement with your skin by week 12. However, everyone's skin is different so that is just a general guideline.

During the weeks leading up to the 12th week however, if your skin is very red, very itchy, extremely broken out (way, way more so than before you started using retinoids), and irritated, you may want buffer the retinoid or have a talk with your dermatologist about switching to another treatment because that particular retinoid may just not be the right one for you.

When you first start using retinoids, it's hard to know if you should keep going or if you should just give up. The answer to this conundrum is different for everyone, but I tend to think of it in terms of bend-but-not-break. The irritation and initial breakout from retinoid use is like bending your skin, but if you are breaking out with uncharacteristically deep, swollen pimples or if your skin feels red hot all the time, then you've reached the broken threshold and that means it's probably time to stop using the retinoid.

Another way to tell when you should stop using retinoids is how your skin feels once you actually stop usage completely. If your skin turns red hot and bumpy immediately after applying a retinoid, you are probably experiencing an allergic reaction. If your skin is irritated but gets better after 2-3 days of not using a retinoid, then you probably just need to cut back on the frequency of your application. If your skin remains on fire even after you stop using a retinoid for up to a week, then the retinoid is probably something that just doesn't agree with your skin. Irritation from retinoids is normal, but it has to be tolerable irritation for it to be a normal side effect.

Some people have to go through 4 different types of retinoids before finding one that works! Others simply cannot tolerate them and there is no point forcing a retinoid on your skin when it just won't work.


Retinoids are great products, but they may not be for everyone. Knowing how to use retinoids the right way is the best way to get them to work. Use them properly, give them time to work, and think positive thoughts. More often than not, there will be light at the end of the tunnel!


Last updated: October 9, 2012



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