How To Correctly Use Retin A Tretinoin For Anti Aging and Acne Skin Care

Cynthia Bailey, MD|June 4, 2010


Do you know that tretinoin, the active ingredient in Retin A, breaks down in sunlight?

And, do you know that if you apply it to moist skin, it's more likely to cause peeling and skin irritation?

Lastly, do you know that some of the common and really good ingredients in other skin care products aren't compatible with tretinoin?  

Used correctly, tretinoin does amazing things for skin!

"I love tretinoin and have personally used it for over 25 years. My skin looks better now than it did then. I've also written thousands of prescriptions for it in that same period of time and I've helped the same number of patients integrate it into their skin care treatments." Dr. Cynthia Bailey

Just this last month I had interesting conversations with two of these patients, both of whom expressed gratitude for my recommending tretinoin and attributed the healthy condition of their skin to their years of tretinoin skin therapy:

The first patient is a woman in her early 60s with rosacea and a history of skin cancer who said that she had more wrinkles 15 years ago when she started using tretinoin than she does today. Her pores appear smaller and her skin texture is better, and she feels it's the tretinoin that's helped.

The second patient just turned 39 and looks like she is in her mid-twenties. She started using tretinoin at 27 and says she, too, looks better now than she did then. While getting a pedicure to celebrate her birthday, the woman giving her the pedicure was astonished when she found out that my patient was over 30.

Tretinoin therapy is well worth the effort in my opinion, but there are tricks to doing it right.

The three key tricks I tell my patients for using Retin A (tretinoin for anti aging) correctly:

  1. Always apply it to your skin at bedtime, never use it during the day.
  2. Never apply it at the same time you also have products on your skin that contain glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
  3. Always wait at least 15 to 30 minutes after washing your skin and applying any other skin care products before you apply tretinoin. I personally keep my tube of tretinoin on my bedside table and read a little to pass the time before I apply it.

tretinoin for anti aging Dr. Bailey's tube

My tube of tretinoin sitting on my bedside table

Additional treatment tips to help skin tolerate tretinoin for anti wrinkle therapy:

  • Start tretinoin therapy by using the product twice a week (every third night) and slowly increase to every night over a month or two as your skin adjusts. A little scaliness and irritation is normal at first, but if the treated skin becomes really sensitive, back off and wait. Let the skin return to normal then begin treatment again. Slowly try to increase to every night as your skin adjusts.
  • Apply a 'pearl-sized' portion to the face. Use the same amount for the neck and/or chest.
  • If your skin continues to become irritated and just won't adjust to tretinoin treatment, then switch to entirely non-irritating cleansers like Toleriane Cleanser or my Calming Zinc ® Soap. Many cleansers are too irritating for tretinoin treated skin. 

calming zinc soap tretinoin for anti aging toleriane cleanser

  • If your skin becomes red and irritated for any reason (eg. wind burn, sun burned, harsh skin care products, surgical or cosmetic procedures etc.), don't apply tretinoin until your skin has entirely returned to normal. This is because tretinoin irritates irritated skin!
  • Replenix CF CreamAnother trick is to also use an anti-inflammatory and soothing product like Replenix CF Cream.  I've found that the high concentration green tea antioxidants combined with caffeine in this product help my patients adjust to and tolerate tretinoin better.  Sometimes just adding Replenix CF Cream creates all the difference between a positive and a troublesome experience with this great medicine. Apply it twice a day after washing and apply your other skin care products on top.                                        

"My face is so much less red than it used to be. Plus, when I used to get out of the shower my face would be scaly, now it's soft! The Clarisonic (Clarisonic Smart Profile and Clarisonic Mia 2) is great and it helps the Replenix work even better than before." Sheila W

  Important things to know about tretinoin for anti aging treatment:

  • Tretinoin-treated skin is very exfoliated and should not be waxed for hair removal.
  • Any doctor or skin care specialist performing a procedure such as a chemical peel, microdermabrasion, laser or light treatments etc. needs to know you are on tretinoin. They may ask you to stop it for a period of time before and after your treatment.
  • Anyone who is or may be pregnant should not use tretinoin.
  • dermatologist recommended sunscreenAnyone using tretinoin must sun protect their skin or they will have more skin sun damage than if they never used tretinoin, again because tretinoin skin is very exfoliated.  That means that if you use tretinoin, you should wear a really good sunscreen everyday on your treated skin.  I think the mineral zinc oxide sunscreens give the best sun protection.  My favorite is Citrix and I've worn it everyday for all these years that I've used tretinoin.  It's oil free, is invisible on the skin and has served me well. 

Lastly, why bother with this tricky and sometimes inconvenient skin care treatment? 

Scientific studies and my medical experience give me so many reasons to be a big fan of tretinoin:

  • It has proven itself to reduce, reverse, and prevent wrinkles. The younger a person starts (teens and twenties), the more benefit they receive, but it's never too late!
  • It helps lighten and prevent age spots.
  • It builds collagen to thicken and increase the structural strength of treated skin.
  • It helps to decrease a person's risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Skin just looks better and younger when they use tretinoin.

I've used tretinoin for anti aging for over 20 years and will continue to do so. I see the benefits every day in the mirror and for me these benefits outweigh the inconveniences. How about you? What are your stories?

If you found this tretinoin and Retinol Anti Wrinkle information helpful, you may want to read:

Photo Copyright © Dr. Bailey Skin Care LLC.

Hi Dr. Bailey!

I took your advice and purchased the Toleraine cleanser and the Replenex serum to lessen the irritation from Retin A. I love both products and will repurchase them in the future. I am using the Toleraine cleanser after work then following with the Replenix and a bit of a neutral moisturizer around my nose/mouth for the dryness.  I wait a couple hours and use the Retin A just before bed. Is this routine affective? Is it ok that I’m using the Replenix before the Retin A?
Thanks for your response!

By Jen on 2016 09 22

Does tretinoin come in different strengths? What is the correct concentration to use? Thanks smile

By Narelle on 2016 09 25

Is anything for hands ? like loose skin ?


Seema Sarwar

By Seema Sarwar on 2016 10 03

Hello Jen, Narelle and Seema,
Tretinoin (Retin A) comes in 3 strengths and I start my patients on lowest and move up. I also have them apply products such as Green Tea or Replenix before tretinoin. Use of moisturizers is also common in my practice and results are good. This routine can be used on hands too though sun protection must be carefully used all day and it is more difficult on hands than the face. Warm Regards

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 10 06

Hello,  I wanted to know if I can apply my facial oil before the tretinoin or should I apply afterwards.  Thank you.

By Vivian Alfonso on 2016 10 13

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