Best Tretinoin Skincare Routine — How To Use Tretinoin (The Beginners Guide)

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If you’ve been an old-timer in skincare-world you should be conversant with skincare actives called retinoids. Retinoids is an umbrella term of all vitamin A derivatives. They are known for diminishing wrinkles, fine lines, and dull skin for a healthier-looking skin. But for the sake of this article, we shall be focusing on Tretinoin — the most potent form of vitamin A derivatives. So, if you’re seeking to incorporate tretinoin into your skincare routine, but don’t know how to go about it, or you need a guide on the best tretinoin skincare routine, then you’re definitely on the right place. But before we dive into that, lets briefly know what tretinoin is, and what it does to the skin. 

What Is Tretinoin?

Tretinoin also known as (Retin-a) is a vitamin A derivative and also a medicine, topically used to treat acnemelasma and minimize skin aging-signs such as wrinkles and fine lines by stimulating collagen production and encouraging cell turnover and regeneration process, which in turn boost skin cell renewal for a healthier and brighter-looking skin. Tretinoin either comes in gels or cream formula.

Tretinoin usually comes in 3 strengths – 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%. 

0.025% is the mildest strength and is usually used for general skin improvements or mild acne. 0.05% is a medium-strength, it’s used most often for anti-aging purpose to reduce the appearance of fine lines. 0.1% is the strongest-strength, it’s used to tackle severe acne, melasma and anti-aging signs such as deep wrinkles and fine lines — It’s advised to be used only on skin not new to tretinoin (or retinoids). 

Unlike retinol which can easily be accessed from drug stores or over-the-counter, tretinoin is a prescription strength of vitamin A which can only be issued by a medical practitioner (dermatologists or esthetician). So it’s highly recommended to consult your dermatologist on your intended approach before using tretinoin. 

So if you must use tretinoin (or retinoids), limit usage at night-time only and don’t forget to wear your sunscreen during the day, to protect your skin from UV rays exposure. 

Benefits of Retin-A for Skin.

Retin-A promotes cell turn-over in the skin leading to these benefits:

  • Reduced fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Reduced inflammation related to acne.
  • Decreased hyperpigmentation.
  • Improved texture of the skin.
  • Increased collagen synthesis.

Having said that, below is a detailed guide on how to use tretinoin properly, using the best tretinoin skincare routine. 

The Best Tretinoin Skincare Routine. 

Step 1. Cleanse.

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser. 

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While using tretinoin, you must invest in a mild or gentle cleanser, you shouldn’t use overly-stripping cleansers, as this could cause skin inflammatory irritation and limit you from enjoying the skin benefits of tretinoin. Therefore, you should ensure to use gentle or skin hydrating cleansers. We recommend CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser due to the fact it gently cleanses the skin without disrupting the skin’s natural protective barrier or stripping the skin of its natural moisture. All thanks to its content in skin hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides that work to restore the skin’s natural barrier to help the skin lock in moisture.

How To Cleanse.

Squeeze out a reasonable amount (careful not to squeeze out too much) a little goes along way.

Gently massage it on your face for 60 seconds (1 minutes), then rinse-off.

Step 2. Hydrate.

Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion.

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After cleansing, comes hydrating. While cleansing, your skin tends to lose some moisture, therefore by hydrating the skin, you tend to replenish the skin of its lost moisture. That’s where applying a hyaluronic acid serum comes in. 

Hyaluronic acid helps replenish skin of lost moisture, as it’s a humectant which pulls moisture from the atmosphere to hydrate skin surface. Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion contains 5 different types of hyaluronic acid for optimum skin surface hydration effect. Read full review here

How To Apply.

While your skin is damp, apply 4-5 drops of hyaluronic acid serum, massage until fully absorbed.

Step 3. Treat.

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%.

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Niacinamide is a type of vitamin B3 and a water-soluble vitamin that helps control excessive oil production, minimize large pores, Improve skin barrier function and improve overall skin tone which is very beneficial for all skin types. But not only that, niacinamide also helps reduces inflammation and improve skin barrier function which makes the skin receptive to tretinoin (or retinoids) by stimulating the skin’s natural production of beneficial fatty acids and ceramides, which reinforces tretinoin’s ability to improve the look and feel of skin’s surface. 

Many dermatologists recommend the combined use of niacinamide and tretinoin due to the way niacinamide keeps skin calm (as it enhance and repair skin barrier function) while tretinoin works its anti-aging-fighting job. 

Due to niacinamide’s anti-inflammatory potentials, it helps calms and improve skin barrier function, therefore making the skin accept tretinoin while calming redness and retinization associated with tretinoin (or retinoids) use, which helps tretinoin work on the skin effectively for efficient and impressive results. 

The Ordinary niacinamide serum combines 10% niacinamide with 1% zinc to help minimize excess oil production, purify the pores, thereby getting rid of blemishes and pore congestion which in turn enhance skin barrier function, shrink large pores and improve overall skin texture and complexion. Zinc helps treat skin lesions as it offers anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. Read full review here

Although many users have complained that the inclusion of zinc in The Ordinary niacinamide formula drys out their skin, (especially those with dry skin type), therefore if you’re concerned that you may experience the same thing, there are other wonderful niacinamide serums you can try out. You can try the one from Inkey List brand or the one from the Good Molecules brand

Also some people’s skin don’t tolerate high concentration of niacinamide, if you feel 10% niacinamide concentration will be too much for your skin, you can cut down to serums with lesser concentration of Niacinamide, probably 3-5%. We recommend. ALPHA-H Vitamin B Serum with Niacinamide. It contains 5% niacinamide.

How To Apply.

Apply 3-4 drops on your face, gently massage till fully absorbed. 

Step 4: Apply Tretinoin.

Best Tretinoin Skincare Routine

Before you apply your tretinoin gel or cream, ensure your face is completely dry. Applying tretinoin on a moist or damp skin increases penetration which increases the occurrence of irritations. Therefore, ensure your previously applied skincare products have completely absorbed into your skin and your skin completely dry, before plunging ahead to applying your tretinoin gel or cream. 

Keep in mind that while using niacinamide and tretinoin, this combination works great for a lot of people, but if you find that your skin becomes red, flaky or feels uncomfortable, you may need to decrease the frequency of application or move down to lower concentrations of the bio-active ingredients. For example, 0.1% tretinoin is considered high strength, so if you’re new to using it, begin with a lower strength 0.025%, or a more moderate strength, that’s a 0.05% concentration. 

How To Apply.

Apply a pea-size amount of your tretinoin gel or cream, using your finger-tip, dot the topical treatment all-over your face, while you blend and gently massage them to your face till fully absorbed. 

The picture below is an example of dot-technique application of tretinoin. The essence of this application method is to ensure an even-application on the whole face without skipping some skin area. This application must be done using only a pea-size amount of tretinoin.

Best Tretinoin Skincare Routine
The dot-technique application of tretinoin. Picture Credit: Sarah Saleen.

Step 5. Moisturize.

CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion.

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At this point, you need to apply your moisture-rich moisturizer to seal in all topical in the skin, adequately keep the skin moisturized and also avoid moisture-loss. CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion contains the combination of 3 essential ceramides along side hyaluronic acid to deliver intense moisture and hydration to the skin. 

You can as well try the moisturizer from The Ordinary brand, as it contains humectants emollients and occlusives to help enhance moisture retention in the skin by trapping in moisture which prevents moisture-loss thereby keeping the skin hydrated, plump and supple. Read comparison review between CeraVe & Cetaphil moisturizing lotion.

How To Apply. 

Pump out and apply a generous amount, massage till fully absorbs.

Step 6. Nourish & Hydrate.

The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane.

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For added layer of hydration and skin nourishment, you can apply a lightweight facial oil, and we recommend The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane. Although this step is optional, but is very recommendable to keep the skin optimally hydrated, moisturized and nourished all night. 

Squalane is a plant derived or hydrogenated oil which is used in its pure form or in cosmetic formulations for moisturizing, hydrating and soothing the skin.

Traditionally, squalene (with an “e“) is derived from shark liver oil — yes, the shark you know (the ocean animal), it is also present in human skin, it is a lipid fat, that is naturally produced by the oil glands in our skin to hydrate and maintain the barrier of our skin. But because sourcing began endangering the shark species, plant derived version of squalene was discovered, which is squalane (with an “a“).

Squalane oil mimicks our natural skin oil, which means when it’s applied on the skin, the skin recognizes it and takes it as its own, our skin understands and compliments it. So, if you’re scared or worried that squalane is going to break you out, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about, because that is never going to happen. Squalane oil is non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores) and is suitable for use on all skin types. It has excellent emollient properties, meaning it can keep your skin hydrated and moisturized.

How To Apply.

Apply 3-4 (or more) drops on your skin and neck, gently massage till fully absorbed. 

In Conclusion. 

To enjoy the benefits of tretinoin, you must apply the best tretinoin skincare routine approach, so as not to incur severe irritations or retinization. Personally I’ve been a long-term tretinoin user. And I have been using this tretinoin application-method, and everything is going just fine. 

Keep in mind while using tretinoin, sunscreen usage is a must!!. Therefore don’t forget to apply your sunscreen during the day. You wouldn’t want to ruin your skincare-efforts. Also it’s highly recommended to limit tretinoin usage at night-time only. 

Possible Question & Answers.

Q: Can I skip applying niacinamide if my skin doesn’t agree with it?

A: If your skin doesn’t agreed with niacinamide, then you can skip the step, and go ahead to applying your tretinoin. But ensure you adequately hydrate your skin and allowing it to dry before applying your tretinoin. This is to protect your skin moisture-barrier and also to reduce tretinoin penetration in order not to incur irritation.  

You can apply a moisturizer in place of niacinamide, (if your skin hates niacinamide), then allow your skin to dry, before applying tretinoin. This is to protect skin barrier function and also limit tretinoin’s penetration to avoid irritation. 

Example: 

  • Step 1. Cleanse.
  • Step 2. hydrate.
  • Step 3. Moisturize (in place of niacinamide).
  • Step 4. Apply tretinoin.
  • Step 5. Moisturize again.
  • Step 6. Then apply facial oil. 

This method will not reduce the efficacy of tretinoin to the skin, but reduce its potency as the moisturizer acts as an extra layer or barrier on the skin, this is to reduce the chances of getting irritation or sustaining severe retinization as it prevents tretinoin from hitting the skin directly. 

Q: Can individuals with senstive skin use this tretinoin skincare routine guide?

A: If you have a sensitive skin, we strongly advice you should ease your way into using tretinoin (or retinoids). 

Start-off from a lower concentration 0.025% or 0.05%, you can move up to 0.1% when your skin must have built tolerance to tretinoin (if need be). 

Also to minimize your chances of getting irritation while using tretinoin (or retinoids), we advice you should use the buffer technique. This is by applying a moisturizer first, before applying tretinoin or making a mix of a small amount of your moisturizer and a pea-size amount of tretinoin in the palm of your hands prior to application. 

This is to reduce the intensity at which tretinoin hits the skin, which will go along way to avoid the occurrence of retinoids irritations. 

Also to belittle your chances of getting irritation while using tretinoin, you can also reduce your days of tretinoin-application or frequency of application. That’s to say, instead of applying tretinoin everyday, cut-down to applying it every-other-day (example; apply on Monday night, skip Tuesday night and apply on Wednesday night) or apply every two days. (Example; apply tretinoin on Monday night, skip Tuesday and Wednesday, and apply on Thursday). Continue with that approach while your skin builds tolerance for tretinoin.

You can move up to applying every-other-day or everyday when you skin must have been acclimated to tretinoin.

On the days you’re off tretinoin-treatment, pamper your skin with skin nourishing and hydrating ingredients. 

Q: Can I use tretinoin and AHA or BHA Together?

A: No. Tretinoin accelerates cell turnover and regeneration which in turn increases skin’s sensitivity, adding an acid (be it alpha or beta hydroxy acid) into the same routine can lead to severe inflammatory-irritation as acids exfoliates the skin, which will lead to over-exfoliation. Therefore while using tretinoin, stay clear off alpha or beta hydroxy acids for the sake of your skin moisture-barrier. Only use AHAs or BHA on the days you won’t be using tretinoin (or on weekends). 

Q: Where can I shop for tretinoin (retin-a) online?

A: Unfortunately tretinoin is issued by a dermatologist, it isn’t like the over-the-counter retinol products you can easily source in drug stores or online. Therefore visit a reputable board-certified dermatologist for prescription and issuing of the product. You can as well get an online consultation and a prescription for tretinoin from reputable online pharmaceutical stores like Dermatica in UK, and Curology In US

Q: Can I use hyaluronic acid serums from other brands, instead of Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion?

A: Of course you can use other brand hyaluronic acid serums, but considering the fact that Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion contains 5 different types of hyaluronic acid serum which makes it a good choice as it ensures more intense skin hydration. You can check out our list of best hyaluronic acid serums.  

As a reminder, the term “Lotion” used for this product doesn’t mean it’s a lotion, it’s actually a serum. In Japanese-skincare the term “lotion” is called or marketed as toners. 

Q: Does applying a moisturizer before applying tretinoin reduces the efficacy of tretinoin?

A:  The short answer is “No“. 

Applying a moisturizer before applying tretinoin doesn’t in anyway reduce tretinoin efficacy or its potentials to the skin, however this method helps protect your moisture-barrier from being compromised or damaged. 

The method of applying a moisturizer before tretinoin and applying a moisturizer again (moisturize, tretinoin, moisturize again), is called the “Sandwich or buffer method“, it goes a long way to help protect your skin barrier by serving as a buffer or an extra barrier between your skin and tretinoin. This is to reduce tretinoin’s potency and intensity at which it hits the skin to avoid severe inflammatory-irritation. 

This method is highly recommended if you’re new to tretinoin (retinoids) and if you have a sensitive skin. 

Q: Is tretinoin also known as retin-a?

A: Tretinoin is also known as retin-a. Retin-A is the brand name for tretinoin or all-trans retinoic acid.

Q: How often should I use tretinoin daily?

A: Tretinoin (or retinoids) should be used once a daily, at night-time only, prior to bed.

Q: Between tretinoin cream and gel which is best to use?

A: Both gel and cream formulas delivers the same potentials to the skin at any concentration used. The only difference is the vehicle used (which impacts the texture). 

The cream is mostly recommended for people with dry skin – considering their skin type being dry and needs hydration. Tretinoin is combined with emollients, emulsifyers and thickeners like, stearic acid,  isopropyl myristate, polyoxyl 40 stearate, stearyl alcohol, xanthan gum and butylated hydroxytoluene to formulate the cream. 

While the gel is recommended for people with oily skin – considering their skin type being oily and needs something light-weight. It’s formulated in a gel base format for easier penetration using ingredient like glycerin. 

Disclaimer: This content is strictly based on informational purpose on how to properly use tretinoin. You should keep in mind that Tretinoin is issued on prescription, therefore, it’s highly recommended to consult with your board-certified dermatologist for appropriate tretinoin prescription and further professional guidance. 

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