Quick Summary

Believe the hype but not all the gossip. Before you dismiss Tretinoin, a retinoid that was FDA-approved to treat photoaging, for the myths you’ve heard or a one-time experience gone wrong (but easily preventable), you must know that 50 years of research have proven that with proper care retinoids are extremely effective at treating fine lines and wrinkles, acne, skin tone/texture, and pigmentation.

To date, they are one of the most well-researched and effective topicals for preventative and regenerative measures relating to photoaging. In short, despite their peculiar name, retinoids are incredibly powerful.

They’ve changed the lives of millions of people by helping them achieve their optimal skin goals. Let’s walk through how that is, and what it takes to get started.

What are retinoids?

Retinoids are the umbrella term for vitamin A and its derivatives. They include dermatologist-grade retinoids (what doctors prescribe), often referred to as simply “retinoids,” and over-the-counter retinoids (what you can get at beauty stores or Amazon), often in the form of “retinol”. If you’re curious about the differences between the terms “retinoid” vs. “retinol” vs. “retin A” vs. “Tretinoin”, read here.

Dermatologist-grade retinoid cream

This means it’s used for preventative and regenerative care — to address fine lines and wrinkles, skin texture and roughness, acne, and hyperpigmentation. Doctors know it works and recommend using one as early as your 20s for preventative measures.

Over-the-counter retinol cream

Retinol, found in over-the-counter products, is the precursor of retinoic acid. For your skin to make use of this retinol, it needs to first convert it multiple times before it becomes usable retinoic acid. At that point, not much of it gets absorbed by your skin.

Although retinol is said to be more “gentle” than retinoic acid, it’s not nearly as potent as dermatologist-grade retinoids like Tretinoin. Irritation from dermatologist-grade retinoids can also be greatly minimized (and prevented). How? If they’re used properly and if you’re given an appropriate strength level for your skin type (which is what we do at DearBrightly — that’s what makes us different).

The benefits

Retinoids increase collagen production and regulate skin cell turnover to help with the prevention and treatment of the following skin concerns:

Wrinkles

As you age, collagen matters. Your skin naturally produces less collagen (the structural protein of the skin). With less collagen, your skin becomes less elastic and dryer. Lines and creases appear and your skin becomes thinner and looser. Retinoids prevent and treat wrinkles though by directly stimulating collagen formation and inhibiting collagen breakdown.

Pigmentation

Freckles, melasma, and dark spots occur because of the overproduction of pigment on our skin. This is often caused by sun exposure, age, hormonal influences, skin injuries, or inflammation. Retinoids to the rescue again. They can improve these forms of pigmentation on the skin by dispersing and exfoliating melanin granules, which protect skin from sun damage—in the deepest layer of our skin.

Pores

Enlarged facial pores are caused by sebum production, photodamage, and hair follicle sizes. Retinoids can help reduce the appearance of enlarged pores by clearing the cellular debris around the pores making their appearance seem smaller.

Uneven skin tone (rough skin)

Rough skin is caused when there’s a buildup of dead skin cells and lack of glycosoaminoglycan (GAG) content in the the outermost layer of the epidermis. What happens is collagen and elastin fibers retain moisture, giving you a rough and uneven skin tone you don’t want. Retinoids can improve rough skin by reducing the outer layer of dead skin cells and increasing the presence of GAG.

Acne

Acne can be classified into 2 types: noninflammatory—which is characterized by comedones, and inflammatory—which predominantly consists of papules and pustules. Microcomedones are the precursors of both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne. Retinoids work by decreasing microcomedones and comedones, thereby primarily decreasing noninflammatory acne and causing some reduction of inflammatory acne.

How to use your retinoid cream

Add retinoids to your nighttime routine

Note: Only apply retinoids at night. If you’re new to retinoids or starting on a higher strength, apply retinoids once a week and gradually increase to nightly as tolerated.

  1. Wash your face and dry it completely.
  2. Apply a pea-sized amount of your retinoid onto your finger.
  3. Dab your retinoid onto your forehead, cheeks, and chin before smoothing it around.
  4. Moisturize with an oil-free moisturizer to prevent dryness, ideally one that’s designed to work with your retinoids.  
  5. Voila. Sleep tight and let the retinoids get to work.

Pretty simple. Just another cream for your face. But retinoids actually do something.

Products to avoid when using retinoids

Benzoyl peroxide is known to decrease the stability of your retinoid. If you use it, benzoyl peroxide and other topical antibiotics should be applied in the AM and your retinoid applied in the PM.

Avoid unnecessarily abrasive cleansers (e.g., face wash with glycolic or AHA/BHA acids). They can make the skin more sensitive by damaging the epidermal barrier.

Who should and shouldn’t use retinoids

Should

Dermatologists say you can start using retinoids as early as your 20’s for preventative and regenerative photoaging measures. To put it simply, if you don’t see wrinkles, pigmentation, etc. just yet, then it’s not a bad idea to start now. And even if you already do see these skin concerns, getting started on a retinoid regimen will help you achieve and maintain optimal, healthy skin.

Shouldn’t

There is no age restriction for using retinoids, but they are not recommended for children under the age of 13.

You may have seen warning labels such as “Do not use if pregnant or nursing” on dermatologist-grade or over-the-counter product labels. There actually is no research that proves topical retinoids are unsafe but it’s also not proven that they are 100% safe for pregnant or nursing women. No one wants to risk testing on this group. So if you’re pregnant or nursing, to be on the safe side, discontinue use of your retinoid.

Side effects and how to prevent them.

Good news! Side effects can be prevented or greatly minimized with great instructions and proper use, which is why we provide our customers with detailed instructions when they order from DearBrightly. Here are some common side effects associated with retinoid use:

  • Redness and irritation
  • If you’re using a strength that is too high for your skin type, redness or irritation can occur. Make sure to use a strength that makes sense for your skin type. (DearBrightly does this for you.) And of course, moisturize!
  • Sensitivity to the sun. But note, it’s still important to use a retinoid, even during the summer!
  • Retinoids can initially make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but after a few months of use, your skin’s response to UV rays returns to normal. To avoid sensitivity, use sunscreen (but you should already be using one anyway…)
  • Acne “purging” period
  • For those prone to acne, there may be a two to four week “purging” period where you experience acne breakouts before your skin clears up. That’s because you have hidden acne underneath the surface. This acne was going to appear sooner or later, and retinoids force them to come out whether they like it or not. Patience is key. The results are worth it. There’s a reason millions of people use retinoids.

Important note: Over the past 40+ years, no systemic side-effects or risks on the long-term treatment of topical retinoids have been observed. It’s why they’re widely prescribed.

Here’s the point: Use an appropriate strength level

There’s this misconception that the higher the strength, the more effective. Wrong. Everyone’s skin is different. Depending on your skin type and retinoid history (whether you’re a newbie or veteran user), you want a strength level that is best suited for your skin. This will help you get the best results and experience over time. 

It’s always best to have a medical provider evaluate your skin to determine an appropriate strength level that could change over time. At DearBrightly, we do this through a detailed questionnaire you complete online, from the comfort of your home.

2. Do not use more than a pea-sized amount. Using more than a pea-sized will increase your risk of dryness, irritation, and redness. It does not increase efficacy. Retinoids diffuse upon application (meaning a pea-sized amount is all you need).

3. Start off with once a week applications. If your skin is new to retinoids or you’re starting on a higher strength, start off by applying your retinoid once a week. Then gradually increase to nightly as your skin learns to tolerate.

4. Moisturize. Use an oil-free moisturizer right after applying your retinoid to prevent dryness. If that doesn’t do the trick, try applying an oil-free moisturizer before your retinoid.

5. Use sunscreen. At first retinoids can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but after a few months your skin’s response to UV rays will return to normal. Always make sure to apply SPF daily (important regardless to prevent photoaging).

Retinoid myths

You may have heard of some myths about retinoids. If not, you eventually will. With the help of our dermatologists, we’ve demystified the most common retinoid rumors once and for all.

Retinoids thin your skin

No, they do the opposite. They thicken your skin. While they decrease the layer of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, they have been proven to increase collagen production to actually thicken your skin.

Retinoids increase sunburn and thereby cause skin cancer

No. Studies have shown that retinoids do not make you more prone to sunburn and do not cause skin cancer. But as a side note, always wear your sunscreen.

The myths don’t stop there. Read more from the healthline on 13 more retinoid myths.

Enjoy your beautiful, healthy skin. Skip over-the-counter products that lack the scientific backing and test of time that retinoids like Tretinoin uniquely boast.

With DearBrightly, you skip having to go to the dermatologist. Order online and get a consultation by a provider  — within minutes. No catch.

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