Tretinoin / Retin-A Cheat Sheet

Guidelines for using Tretinion

If you get a prescription for tretinoin or the name brand Retin A , don’t be surprised if your dermatologist does not give you all the information that you need to be successful. If you overdo it in the beginning you can really make your skin look terrible. It is s strong medication and should be used with care. I did a ton of research before I started and I am sharing some basic information that can make use successful. For more information about tretinoin/Retin A see here.

Vitamin A is very sensitive to sunlight and breaks down with exposure. It greatly increases skin’s sensitivity to the sun as well. You have to apply this at night for maximum benefit.

Wait 30 minutes to one hour after washing your face to apply. Your face needs to be totally dry. Otherwise, it absorbs too much product. This can lead to drying, flaking, and redness. This is one of the most common errors that users make and the most easily corrected.

Use only a pea-sized amount (an itty, bitty pea).If you use too much it will make your skin look awful and can even be painful.  Dot it on the outer corners of your face and blend inward. Avoid around your mouth, nose, and eyes in the beginning. These areas dry out really easily and will flake off. The skin absorbs the lotion even in areas where you do not apply it directly.

If your skin is really dry you can apply moisturizer immediately. Otherwise, try to wait an hour or more. Retin A has a half-life of 4 hours so the longer you can leave it on alone the better it will absorb. You can use your normal nighttime products as long as they do not contain alcohol or harsh acids. It is fine to use a serum and your usual moisturizer. Some people do not use anything after tretinoin. They just use a really good moisturizer in the morning. I prefer to use moisturizer at night as well.

Don’t use harsh cleansers or toners because it will dry your skin. If you have a mild alcohol-free toner it should be fine. You may need to use a cream type cleanser and go to a heavier moisturizer to combat the dryness and flaking or peeling. A soap-free cleanser is the best to prevent dryness.

 Start slowly! Once a week for the first 2-4 weeks is the best way to start. If there is no dryness or flaking, go to 2x a week and remain there for another 2-4 weeks. Again, if you have no dryness or flaking move up to 3x per week. The goal is to get to every night but some people can only tolerate it every other night. It is a journey, not a race, so take all the time you need. If flaking continues or gets bad you need to slow down. It is ok to stay at once per week for a month or more if your skin initially has trouble tolerating it. It is also ok to go back. For example, if when you move from once a week to twice go back to one time a week if you have problems with dryness or flaking.

If after a couple of months you are still having bothersome flaking, dryness, or redness you may need to start with a lower concentration. For most people, the .05% concentration is a good starting point but those with dry and/or sensitive skin may need to try the .025% or even the .01%.  The goal is to find the highest strength your skin will tolerate every day or every other day. Once you are able to tolerate the lower strength move up to the next strength and start over.


If you have flaking you can use mild exfoliants like a scrub or a Konjac sponge. Learn more about Konjac sponges here. You need some exfoliation to help get the dead skin off your face. Tretinoin works by accelerating cell turnover and that means there is dead skin on the surface of your face. You must be careful not to over exfoliate though. This can damage your skin. That is why the Konjac is a good choice. It is so gentle on your skin. You can use a Clarisonic but must be careful not to overuse it. One easy way to gently remove all that dead skin is just to massage your face with a dry or damp washcloth.

You cannot have any area of your face waxed while using tretinoin. It will literally peel layers of skin off with it. You need to stop use at least one week before waxing.

YOU MUST USE A HIGH SPF SUNSCREEN EVERY DAY. FOREVER. It goes on after your moisturizer and under your foundation. You need to use a good sized amount for optimum protection. Let it sit for about 10-15 minutes before applying anything over it.This is non-negotiable. Sun exposure will undo all the benefits of using tretinoin and will actually cause even more damage.

I hope that you find this helpful. Stay tuned for more posts on my personal experience with tretinoin.


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