Tretinoin for Beginners: What to Do and What to Avoid

Planning to start using tretinoin? Here's what to do and what not to do to avoid irritation.

October 17, 2022 5 minutes read
Woman using a tretinoin cream

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Having come a long way in your search for a tested and trusted solution for your skin problem, the discovery of the wonder-working power of tretinoin can be a breath of fresh air. Deciding to try out tretinoin is an excellent choice to improve your skin and self-confidence. It has worked for many, and your case wouldn't be an exception.

However, it doesn't come without any downsides, as starting tretinoin is often accompanied by purging, skin irritation, and other discomforts.

So, before you begin your tretinoin journey, equip yourself with our tips and tricks to get the desired outcome from the treatment. This article will detail how tretinoin works, how best to use it, and what mistakes you need to avoid to see effective results.

What Is Tretinoin and How Does It Work?

Tretinoin is a synthetic Vitamin A derivative, or retinoid, topically applied to treat acne and clear spots, stimulate a better production of collagen, and reduce wrinkles. Due to the strength of all the percentages of tretinoin, it needs to be prescribed by a doctor.

Most commonly, tretinoin, sold as Retin-A, comes in the form of cream. It achieves its feat by seeping into the depth of the epidermis and interacting with the dermis, causing the stimulation of the skin's metabolism.

Tretinoin accelerates skin cell turnover, the rate your skin sheds old skin cells from its surface and produces new and healthy cells. This process removes the material that plugs your pores, healing acne and preventing the formation of new ones. It also interacts with retinoic acid receptors (RARs) inside the skin, preventing inflammation and boosting collagen production, especially collagen type I and type III [source].

The effect of these activities on the skin would lead to rapid but short-lived skin purging at the very beginning of its usage, the so-called retinization process, or the process in which your skin is getting adjusted to tretinoin. Nevertheless, in the end, skin purging only means that tretinoin is working and will pass quickly.

Can Everyone Use Tretinoin?

No, tretinoin is not for everyone. It's a no-no for individuals allergic to tretinoin, and you might not even be aware that you have an allergy until you see a doctor. In addition, children shouldn't use this topical medication unless their doctor approves it; also, pregnant women or women who have plans to get pregnant in the forthcoming months.

Finally, if you have overly sensitive skin, your skin might wildly react against it. Still, with the dermatologist's help, you can receive the recommended percentage of tretinoin suitable for your skin.

What to Do When Starting Tretinoin?

woman applying a face cream

Tretinoin, most commonly sold under the name Retin-A, is the most potent retinoid – it's a pure retinoic acid. Unfortunately, this means that it can cause irritation and dryness, among other side effects. So, try following these tips to avoid or minimize the side effects when starting tretinoin:

Speak with a dermatologist:

A dermatologist visit would determine your skin type and sensitivity as well as the percentage of tretinoin your skin can handle. Based on that knowledge and the nature of your skin problem, you'll receive the prescribed percentage of tretinoin your skin needs to nip the underlying skin issues in the bud. The starting strength of tretinoin cream is usually very low, about 0,01%.

Prepare your skin for the tretinoin journey beforehand:

Because your skin hasn't been exposed to tretinoin, starting it out for the first time can be difficult for it to withstand. To avoid wild reactions and steady your skin for this new phase, you can include a retinoid (like retinol or retinaldehyde) with a lower percentage in your daily skincare routine for about three months. By doing this, your skin is gradually getting adjusted. Once you begin the usage of tretinoin, the past skincare routine would have helped minimize the level of tretinoin irritation on your skin.

Minimize your exposure to sunlight:

One of the expected effects of tretinoin, especially at the outset of its usage, is that it elevates your skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Tretinoin's exfoliating properties will leave your skin vulnerable, so you need to protect it. Increased exposure to sunlight can damage skin cells and cause sunburns and irritation. To protect yourself, do well to minimize how much time you spend under the sun, and before you do step out, apply sunscreen with a high SPF above 30.

Things You Shouldn't Do When Starting Tretinoin

The two things you should be aware of when starting your tretinoin routine are combining it with other strong actives as well as the application frequency:

Don't use any exfoliating products:

Including any exfoliating product like scrubs or AHAs, in addition to tretinoin usage, would only lead to over-exfoliation and trigger your skin to be highly irritated. The consequences would show up in the form of burning and itchy skin, redness of the skin, breakouts, and skin peeling.

Don't use it every day:

When it comes to tretinoin treatment, slow and steady wins the race. Aside from the fact that it takes at least six months for this medication to have a deep-rooted fix in your skin cells, the process of its application requires patience. It would help if you used tretinoin as often as recommended by your dermatologist. Nevertheless, once a week is a safe dosage for a beginner.

Tips On How to Use Tretinoin as a Beginner

woman applying a pea-sized amount of a skincare product to her face

Follow these additional tips when starting tretinoin to avoid any discomforts associated with tretinoin use:

#1: Use a mild cleanser

As mentioned above, tretinoin can be pretty aggressive on your skin if you're just starting to use it. It can cause drying and peeling. To minimize this effect, make sure to use gentle cleansers without any harsh sulfates, as sulfates will strip your skin of any natural oils. Then follow with a rich moisturizer and tretinoin on top. Once your skin adjusts to tretinoin, you can apply it before the moisturizer.

#2: Apply tretinoin to dry skin

Often, applying tretinoin, as well as other skincare products, on wet skin can boost their effect. So, if tretinoin is applied to wet or damp skin, its potency will be increased, and so will the chance of skin irritation.

#3: Use a pea-sized amount

When it comes to tretinoin usage, less is more. A pea-sized amount is enough to cover your whole face. Apply just a tiny amount on the planes of your face, like your cheeks, chin, and forehead. Then gently spread it all over but avoid applying it close to your mouth and nose as well as around your eyes.

#4: Avoid dabbing tretinoin around sensitive spots

Your lip line, nose, and eyes area are highly irritable whenever they come in contact with tretinoin. So, avoid applying tretinoin to these areas. Instead, it would help if you applied a rich moisturizer or even Vaseline around your eyes, lips, and nose beforehand to prevent tretinoin from seeping into the sensitive areas.

#5: Use only in the evenings

As we already mentioned, tretinoin increases your skin's sun sensitivity. For this reason, use it only as a part of your nighttime skincare routine. Then, wash your face thoroughly the next morning and always follow up with sunscreen with a high SPF.


Tretinoin as a topical treatment has been a game-changer in the skincare world. However, if you're just starting with the tretinoin routine, remember that the correct application, doing things that will prevent irritation, and avoiding things that can cause irritation, is the key. Plus, consistency and patience are also essential, as it will take some time for tretinoin to work its magic.

So talk to your dermatologist and follow our tretinoin tips for beginners, and healthy and smooth skin will be all yours soon enough.


How do I start tretinoin for the first time?

To start using tretinoin, the most potent retinoid form, you'll have to speak with your dermatologist first to prescribe you an adequate percentage of the product. To avoid irritation, purging, and peeling, you should apply tretinoin only once a week in the evening. And during the day, wear sunscreen with a high SPF.

What happens when you first use tretinoin?

If you've never used tretinoin, or any other kind of retinoid before, your skin will go through the retinization period or the period of adjustment. During this time frame, you may experience skin peeling, dryness, tightness, and purging.

How often should I use tretinoin when I first start?

It would be best to follow your doctor's advice on the frequency of application. However, beginners are usually advised to use tretinoin only once a week for several months. Then, when your skin gets used to it a bit, you can increase it to twice a week, and so on.

What should I know before starting tretinoin?

You should know that tretinoin won't do miracles overnight. It might take six months to a year to see any results. So, taking baby steps and being patient is the key; and the results are surely worth the wait.

Can I apply moisturizer after tretinoin?

Yes, it's even recommended always to use tretinoin with a moisturizer to minimize dryness and peeling. In the beginning, you can even apply the moisturizer first and then your tretinoin cream.

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