Tretinoin: How To Use It Properly And Why You Should

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how to use tretinoin

Tretinoin is a highly effective and widely used skincare staple. Whether you want to treat acne, fade fine lines and wrinkles or just get prettier skin, tretinoin can do it all. However, there’s a right and wrong way to use tretinoin. Unforunately, many people use tretinoin wrong. So, I’m going to teach you all about tretinoin, how to use it and why you need it in your routine!

Tretinoin is a very powerful ingredient, and if it is not used correctly, it can cause some annoying side effects.

Unfortunately, people aren’t always given the right information from their doctors about how to use it.

When I began using tretionin about 10 years ago, I followed my doctors instructions to start off slow. But, that still wasn’t enough.

My face was a dry, flaky, red, irritated mess!

Luckily, the adjustment period is very short and your skin will get used to it after a few weeks.

I’ve put together this guide to help you get through that adjustment period with tretinoin and make sure that you experience as less side effects as possible.

Even though these tips are designed to help with the tretinoin side effects, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience any at all, particularly if you have very sensitive skin. This guide should help you minimize the side effects to where they don’t bother you or aren’t very noticeable.

If you’re not sure what tretinoin is, check out my post on retinol and tretinoin.

Be Prepared

First, let’s get a little disclaimer out of the way.

Even though these tips are designed to help with the tretinoin side effects, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience any at all, particularly if you have very sensitive skin. This guide should help you minimize the side effects to where they don’t bother you or aren’t very noticeable.

You do need to prepare yourself to experience some side effects and don’t go into it thinking your skin won’t need to adjust. Especially if you have never used tretinoin or a retinol before.

With these tips, you should be able to make the adjustment phase as smooth as possible and not look like a flaky mess for a few weeks.

Bottom line: everyone’s skin is different and everyone’s skin will react differently to tretinoin. Use this as a guide to help you.

Prep Your Skincare Routine

skincare routine for tretinoin

The best thing you can do before you start using tretinoin is make sure you are using gentle skincare products.

The absolute worst thing you can do is use products with irritating, drying ingredients that will only make your skin angry.

Tretinoin will make your skin extra sensitive during the adjustment phase. This is why it’s important to stop using certain products. I will talk about ingredients and products to avoid in a little bit.

Simplify your skincare routine by using less products and products that are gentle and designed for sensitive skin.

  • A gentle, sulfate free cleanser
  • A bland moisturizer

Yes, that is really all you need.

You can use other products, but I recommend sticking to a very simple routine for a few weeks. If you do want to use other products, just make sure the ingredients aren’t irritating.

Use The Right Strength

Tretinoin generally comes in 3 strengths, and your doctor will prescribe one that is appropriate for you. Most doctors are good about this and will start you off with a lower strength.

If they don’t for some reason, you can always ask them to switch to a lower strength or just be very careful when starting out.

Apply At The Right Time

After washing your face, you should let your face dry for at least 30 minutes before applying tretinoin.


When your face is wet, it essentially makes the tretinoin stronger and therefore more irritating.

So, wash your face, gently pat it dry and wait about 30 minutes for your skin to dry completely. It’s also important to wait 20-30 minutes after applying tretinoin before applying moisturizer.

Start Slow

Whatever you do, DO NOT start using tretinoin every day. Even if that’s what your doctor told you or if it says use nightly on your prescription.

If you start using it everyday, your skin will become very irritated and it will likely make your acne worse.

Depending on your skin, you can start with using it 1-2x a week. Then, after a couple weeks try 3x a week, then every other day, etc.

If at any point your skin becomes too irritated or dry, simply reduce how often you’re using it.

You may not ever be able to use it every single day and that’s okay! I’ve been using tretinoin for 10 years and still can’t use it every day. Just because you aren’t, doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

Many people see great results with only using it a few times a week.

Just find what works for your skin and stick with it!

Use A Buffer If Needed

If your skin is still becoming irritated and dry, try applying your moisturizer before applying the tretinoin. This will essentially decrease it’s strength so that it’s less irritating.

Still use the 30 minute rule after washing your face if you do this.

This is a great way to help get your skin used to the tretinoin and really help with the side effects. Especially if your skin is dry.

Eventually you will be able to skip this step and just apply the tretinoin cream to bare skin. Or, if it works better for you to buffer it, then by all means keep doing it!

This will not decrease the efficacy, I promise! You’re simply making it more tolerable for your skin, and your skin will be happier for it.

Get A Better Moisturizer

moisturizer for tretinoin

Moisturizing well is one of the most important things to do if you use tretinoin. Most people don’t moisturize enough as it is. And throw tretinoin in the mix? Then it’s even more important!

Make sure you are moisturzing twice a day, morning and night, with a gentle, bland moisturizer.

Avoid any irritating ingredients in your moisturizer like alcohol, essential oils, benzoyl peroxide, etc.

If you use a light cream or gel moisturizer, you may need to get a heavier one.

Look for ingredients like centella (or cica), ceramides and fatty acids.

Niacinamide is also a great ingredient to use with tretinoin as it helps to reduce irritation and strengthen the skin barrier. You can also try using Vaseline or Aquaphor with tretinoin to help prevent dryness and irritation.

Related post: Can you use niacinamide and tretinoin together?

Related Post: Aveeno Vs Cetaphil: Which Drugstore Staple Is Best?

Only Apply At Night

Tretinoin can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which is why it should only be used at night.

If you use it during the day and then go outside, you are more at risk for getting a sunburn (and skin damage!). Which, you guessed it, causes more irritation.

See a theme here?

Proper tretinoin use is all about being gentle and kind to your skin.

Spending a few minutes out side a day is fine, the key here is to avoid long exposure to the sun. If you’ll be outside for more than 30 minutes, be sure to use sunscreen, a hat and stay in the shade as much as possible!

Only Use A Pea Sized Amount

Tretinoin is very potent and you only need a tiny amount for it to be effective. Don’t slather this stuff all over your face, please!

I was guilty of this when I first started using it. The more the better, right?


My skin was angry.

Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since then and my skin is the best it’s ever been.

Only use as much as you need. I use a pea sized amount, but you may need more or less. So, just experiment and find the right amount.

All you need is a thin layer.

Using it sparingly will also help the tube last longer, which is another bonus.

Avoid Irritating Ingredients

Using irritating ingredients in your skincare will only make the side effects from tretinoin worse. That’s why it’s important research your products to make sure they are a good choice.

The biggest thing is avoiding any sort of product for acne. They will usually have ingredients like retinol, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid etc. which are irritating when combined with tretinoin.

Ingredients and Products To Avoid:

  • Cleanser with sulfates or other active ingredients like salicylic acid
  • Alcohol
  • Essential Oils
  • Chemical exfoliations (retinol, bha, aha, vitamin c, etc)
  • Scrubs or any type of physical exfoliation (washcloth, clarisonic, etc)

Those are the major and most common ingredients to avoid while your skin is adjusting. Many people will be able to introduce scrubs and chemical exfoliants back in their routine after their skin is adjusted.

From treating acne, to it’s powerful anti-aging properties, tretinoin has many potential benefits for your skin. While it does come with potential side effects, those side effects can be easily managed as long as you are using it correctly.

Your skin will eventually get used to tretinoin and you won’t have to worry about the dry, flaky skin forever.

Hopefully this post taught you more about how to use tretinoin the right way so that the irritation and side effects are minimized.

Let me know down below if you have any tretinoin questions for me and be on the look out for my next post in the tretinoin series.

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