While retinoids (a vitamin A derivative) are mainly known for treating severe acne, they’re also¬†a great anti-aging weapon (google “retin-a for wrinkles before and after pics” and look at the imagesūüėć). They¬†increase cell turnover and connect with cells that have slowed down due to aging and get them functioning¬†like young, healthy cells again. The many benefits include¬†reducing¬†wrinkles and fine lines, tightening¬†pores, eliminating sun damage and¬†dark spots,¬†boosting¬†collagen and even decreasing¬†oil production. The first thing to understand is that retinoids can only be used by your skin if they’re converted into retinoic acid. Over-the-counter retinoids have to go through several conversions before they get to retinoic acid and lose potency during each conversion. Prescription strength retinoids are already pure retinoic acid which is why they’re the most potent.¬†There are several different types of OTC and prescription retinoids so I’ll break each one¬†down so you can find which one will work¬†best for you.


Retinoids can have side effects such as peeling, dryness, and irritation. These are great for someone who¬†is just starting to use retinoids because since they’re weaker they cause little to no irritation. If a OTC retinoid has a strong concentration then it can work just as good as a prescription, it would just take longer to see results.

  • Retinyl Palmitate- The¬†weakest of all retinoids because it has to go through¬†two conversions before becoming retinoic acid. I wouldn’t waste my money on this because it would need to be highly concentrated to be worth it and it’s usually at the bottom of most products’ ingredients list.
  • Retinol- The most popular ingredient used OTC. Retinol is stronger than retinyl palmitate because it has one less conversion to become retinoid acid. Most products I found had this in their ingredient list towards the top so I would assume they had somewhat high concentrations. Some retinols to try


  • Adapalene (synthetic retinoid)
    • Differin 0.1% : When this first came out it was a prescription drug, but last summer the FDA approved it to be OTC!
  • Tretinoic (retinoic acid)
    • Retin-A: There are several different kinds, but this one is the most popular. It comes in concentrations of
      • 0.025% or 0.01% gel
      • 0.1%, 0.05%, and 0.025% cream
      • 0.05% liquid
  • Tazarotene (synethic retinoid)
    • Tazorac: This is even stronger than retinoic acid and is more for severe acne. It comes in concentrations of
      • 0.1% gel or cream

Over the years, I’ve personally used all of these. I’ve mainly used them to treat acne, but more recently have used them just for their anti-aging benefits. I just got 0.025% tretinoic and am¬†going to start trying to¬†build my tolerance and try to move up to 0.1%.

Since retinoids, especially prescription, can cause so much irritation here are some tips on how to apply them so you’ll ¬†get the least possible side effects.

  • Two weeks before you begin stop exfoliating or using any harsh cleansers. ¬†Stick to micellar water if you can. Wear lots of SPF during the day and heavy moisturizing creams at night. This should help prepare your skin by strengthening it.
  • Make sure you start with a low concentration. I know you may really want to start with a high one, but trust me I’ve done that before and my face was peeling like crazy and I definitely regretted it.
  • Wait 15-20 min after you wash your face to apply the retinol because your skin needs to be completely dry to prevent irritation. Only use a small pea-size amount for your entire face. It’s also best to wait anywhere from 20 min to an hour to apply moisturizer afterwards.
  • Begin slowly by using it every 3 or 4 days. Cut the days in between after a couple of weeks¬†as your tolerance rises. You can also use OTC in between your off days with prescription. Just pay attention to your skin and use it however it works for you and consistently.
  • It takes about 3 weeks to start seeing tolerance in your skin so you’ll definitely see a little irritation, but if it starts getting really bad then go to once a week or even lower the concentration. With the exception of Retin-A Micro, you can also buffer your retinoid which means you can apply moisturizer before or immediately after (instead of waiting the 20 min). You can also mix it with your moisturizer to minimize the irritation.
  • If you get a few bad spots you can take two anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, Advil, Aleve. You can also use 1% hydrocortisone cream twice a day for up to three days.
  • Don’t mix retinol with any AHAs and BHAs (glycolic, lactic, salicylic acid) or acne medication that contains benzoyl peroxide. Make sue to use gentle cleansers and alcohol-free toners.

Some other tips and warnings:

  • The sun deactivates retinoids so don’t bother putting it on during the day. Wear at least SPF 30¬†because it does increase your sensitivity to the sun.
  • Wait a week before and after to do any waxing otherwise you’ll rip your hair AND skin off.
  • Your face could possibly “purge”, which means some underlying breakouts could come up so don’t start using this around any major event (I’m starting mine after I get back from the derby) where you’ll need to look your best.
  • DON’T use retinoids if you’re pregnant.
  • It takes 4 to 6 months for your skin to become completely tolerant to a retinoid and can take a year to be able to use it every night, however you can notice the benefits much sooner.¬†For prescription it can take 4 to 8 weeks to notice a difference in your skin and 12 weeks for OTC so don’t give up!

Good luck!




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