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The Top 10 Mistakes Made when Using Topical Retinoids

What are Retinoids?

Retinoids are a category of medications that have powerful effects against acne and skin aging. They come in different topical formulations (topical means "applied to the skin"). Topical retinoids include both prescription medicated creams and gels, as well as over-the-counter (OTC) products. Some examples of retinoids include

  • tretinoin (example: prescription brand name Retin-A)

  • adapalene (example: OTC brand name Differin)

  • tazarotene (prescription only)



Retinoids are very effective in the treatment of certain types of mild to moderate acne. They are especially helpful in preventing the formation of comedones (otherwise known as blackheads and whiteheads).  Retinoids also work to improve the visible signs of skin aging, including fine lines and wrinkles, rough skin, and dark spots.


While they can be very effective, retinoids can also cause a whole lot of skin irritation. That’s why it’s so important to avoid these common mistakes.  Follow your doctor’s instructions closely, and always read the package insert prior to using these products.


While your skin adapts to the treatment, it's common to experience irritation in the form of redness and dryness.  While some mild irritation is considered normal, you should contact your physician if you experience persistent problems.  Your dermatologist may then prescribe a lower strength of the medication. She may also prescribe a different formulation, since that can also make a big difference in how your skin reacts to the medication. Retinoids come in moisturizing creams, lotions, microspheres, and gels. 

Top 10 Mistakes made when using Topical Retinoids

Mistake #1: Using retinoids in the morning

Why? Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, which is why they're prescribed for use at bedtime. 

Mistake #2: Not using sunblock

Why? Even though you're only using retinoids at bedtime, you'll still need sunblock in the morning.  If you are prone to acne, make sure it's labeled "non-comedogenic" so that it doesn’t make acne worse. If you have sensitive skin, make sure you look for sunblocks that only contain physical sunblock ingredients, that are truly fragrance-free, and that are low in allergens. And if you're prone to dark marks, make sure that you're using a broad-spectrum sunblock that contains physical sunblock ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are important to block visible light, which can make hyperpigmentation worse. 


Mistake #3: Using a harsh cleanser

Why? Since retinoids can cause redness and dryness, it’s important to use a gentle cleanser. This might be a gentle foaming cleanser or a hydrating cleanser, depending on your skin type. Most people will have to avoid medicated cleansers at bedtime. That's because the ingredients in certain medicated cleansers, such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, can increase your risk of skin irritation.


Mistake #4: Using the products on top of damp skin

Why? Retinoids are meant to be applied to dry skin, unlike your moisturizer.  After washing your face, gently pat dry. Most people should wait an extra 5-10 minutes before applying their retinoid.


Mistake #5: Using them every night right from the start

Why? Most dermatologists will recommend that during the first two weeks of using a retinoid, you should only apply it every other night. This gives your skin time to adjust.  Assuming your skin adjusts well, then most people can start using it every night.  For some people, though, this is still too irritating. They might only be able to handle the medication every other night. Even though this is a lighter schedule, it will still produce results for most.


Mistake #6: Using too much medication on your face

Why? This is a common mistake, and can really cause problems. A little bit goes a long way when it comes to retinoids. In fact, only a pea-sized amount is used for the entire face.  I like the "Five Dot" method. Dot the medication on your forehead, both cheeks, chin, and then a tiny amount on the nose. Then rub in to provide a very thin and even layer over the whole face. 


Mistake #7: Applying the medication close to the eyes to treat fine lines and wrinkles

Why? This is very tricky. For most people, the skin around the eyes is extra-sensitive, and they won’t be able to use retinoids too close to the eyes or the mouth. Your dermatologist may recommend a different product to use next to the eye area. This product may contain a lower strength of retinoids, or may not contain any retinoids at all. It may also have a more moisturizing base.


Mistake #8: Applying an extra dose of retinoid cream to a pimple

Why? These medications work best to prevent the formation of new pimples.  If used on one individual pimple, they'll only inflame your skin.


Mistake #9: Using during pregnancy

Why? These medications are not recommended for use in pregnancy, since oral retinoids (medications taken by mouth) have been shown to increase the risk of birth defects. 


Mistake #10: Expecting overnight results

Why? It may take as long as 6-8 weeks for the medication to begin working, so you would need to continue using it for at least that long to see results.

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