POSTED: 18 Jul 2023

How To Use Tretinoin Properly

Tretinoin is a prescription only retinoid (Vitamin A derivative) that’s been around for decades. It is one of the most versatile and powerful topical skincare ingredients available. For this reason, Tretinoin is a keystone in many skincare routines thanks to its excellent safety profile and proven effects for treating acne, hyperpigmentation, scarring and skin ageing. However, to properly harness its potential, you really need to know how to use Tretinoin correctly. In this blog post we’re sharing our top tips for how to start using Tretinoin and the common mistakes to avoid in order to reduce irritation or purging and get the best results!

The Best Way to Start Using Tretinoin

Before we start, its important to stress that Tretinoin is a prescription only medicine in most countries including the UK and USA. As such, you will need to get it from a doctor or similar medical provider who will advise you on the best protocol for you to use. They will also advise if a cream or gel is best. Usually Tretinoin creams are better at reducing irritation and dryness. Tretinoin gels on the other hand, may be more suitable for those who have allergies to ingredients in the cream or who have extremely oily skin.

The most important thing you can do is to start using Tretinoin gradually. This is because Tretinoin is very potent which is why it gives great results. However, its strength means that it can also initially irritate the skin and even cause breakouts, also known as purging, initially. As such you should introduce it slowly and gradually to give your skin time to adapt to its effects. This is especially true for patients with sensitive skin, Rosacea or skin of colour.

In general, its best to start low and slow. This means starting on the lowest dose of Tretinoin that your doctor can offer (in our case that is 0.025 Tretinoin cream) and using once or twice a week initially. The trick is to then slowly increase the frequency as your skin builds tolerance until you can use it mostly every night without any problems. After that your doctor will help you decide if you can then increase the dose to the next strength up once you’ve finished your first course.

If you experience excessive dryness, peeling, or redness, consider dialling back the frequency or amount you’re using and let your doctor know. A slower introduction reduces the risk of any side effects and helps you get to nightly use more quickly. This can actually lead to better long-term results.

Using Tretinoin Correctly

The best time to use Tretinoin is at night. This is because light can degrade Tretinoin and make it less effective. Even more importantly, your skin regenerates the most at night and so your skills will get the maximum benefits from Tretinoin when it is applied during this period.

The order of your skincare routine also matter. To get the most out of Tretinoin, always apply it to clean and dry skin straight after cleansing. Never use it on damp skin because this increases penetration and cause irritation. Also, remember that a little goes along way! most people only need a pea-sized amount for their entire face and less than that for their neck.

Once you’ve massaged the Tretinoin onto your skin, you can apply your serums and/or moisturiser if you use these at night. There isn’t a golden rule about how long to wait before applying these as different formulations of Tretinoin take different times to absorb. If in doubt, wait for 15-20 minutes.

Another important tip is to apply an occlusive cream or vaseline around the corners of the mouth and the eyes to avoid irritating the skin there. If despite starting very slow and on a low dose, you still experience excessive dryness, irritation or purging, then consider applying a thin layer of your moisturiser first before the Tretinoin to reduce its activity. In any case, always let your doctor know as they can advise you on how to alter your skincare protocol to manage this.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

The above are the best tips that in our experience help most people to start using Tretinoin correctly and reduce skin irritation. In addition, there are a few common mistakes that you should avoid to improve your experience of using Tretinoin.


More is not necessarily better when it comes to Tretinoin. In fact, using too much, too soon can lead to increased skin irritation without enhancing the benefits. It can even set you back as you will likely need to stop using it for a while or reduce the frequency.

Neglecting Sun Protection

Tretinoin can make your skin more sensitive to the sun which increases your risk of sunburn. Daily sun protection is absolutely non-negotiable. You need to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30.

Mixing with Incompatible Products

Certain skincare products don’t play nice with Tretinoin. For instance, don’t use Benzoyl peroxide at the same time as it can inactivate Tretinoin. Also, avoid using Tretinoin at the same time as active products like salicylic or glycolic acid, as this can increase skin irritation. Instead use exfoliating acids and Vitamin C in the morning and leave the Tretinoin for the evening.

Giving up Too Soon

It really is a marathon and not a sprint! Tretinoin takes time to work and usually you need to use it for at least 6-8 weeks to start seeing noticeable results. These improve as you use it consistently. A lot of people make the mistake of giving up because they didn’t see results quickly.

Quitting Due to Expected Side Effects

Dryness, irritation and purging suck but they are only transient. You can generally avoid them by starting gradually on a low dose. However even if you get them, let your doctor know. They will help you adjust the protocol until you get over this patch and then you’ll start to see results.

Tretinoin can do wonders for your skin but only if used correctly. These are the top tips that have helped our patients to start using Tretinoin properly. There are also a number of common mistakes that Tretinoin newbies make which limit the benefit they can get. Remember, the key to successfully starting Tretinoin is patience and consistency. Speak with a doctor or healthcare professional if you’re considering starting Tretinoin.

We passionately believe that skincare is personal and the only way to get great results is through bespoke protocols. Tretinoin is a safe and effective treatment for acne, scarringhyperpigmentationmelasma and skin ageing if used correctly. We are an online skin clinic where patients can access prescription-strength treatments like Tretinoin and Hydroquinone under the care of a doctor. Book your virtual consultation today and take your first step towards better skin.


Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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