A Retinoid Journey

Everyday, I am inspired and learning from this community of skincare soulmates. Connecting with fellow skintellectuals through my media channels has been a joy and constant inspiration. I found my peeps.

My guest blogger and friend, Beauty_Unplugged and I, bonded over a similar taste in products, mille crepe and trailing a deluge of skincare. Recently, she made an interesting post about her face-off with Tretinoin and how she won. I’ve mentioned that I have been gearing up for my own imminent showdown starting Fall after a traumatic first experience. Ms. Unplugged and I had bonded in the past over shared horror stories of our Tret experience. When she told me she was going to try again, I thought she was mad. Her victory though, is encouraging and am so honoured to have her share her experience on my blog!

My journey with retinoids by @Beauty_Unplugged

Let me start from the beginning. I was born in Seoul and moved to the U.S. with my family when I was 5. My skincare journey started very late and would have been very different if I stayed in Korea–I would have kept out of the sun, been diligent about sun protection, and would have started skincare in my late teens.

Instead I lived for sunbathing, tanning, and swimming all through my youth.

This caused hyperpigmentation, early fine and coarse lines, and in general accelerated the aging process for my skin.

Many dermatologists and skincare professionals would agree sunscreen is the number one antiaging product. After that, it is definitely retinoids. I don’t know why but I used to associate retinoids with “cheating” when it comes to antiaging. I thought youthful skin was only for a lucky few that were genetically endowed rather than something that could be purchased in a tube or bottle. Botox would be a more extreme version of that sense of “cheating.” This does not need to be the case. If I knew what I know now, I would have started on a retinoid in my mid to late 20’s.

Retinoids include retinol (vitamin A) and its derivatives. There are weak retinoids such as retinyl palmitate and the slightly stronger, retinol. Then there are stronger prescription ones like tretinoin (Retin A), tazarotene (Tazorac) and Adapalene (Differin), which recently became OTC in the USA.

Prescription retinoids are a powerhouse for antiaging and acne treatment. Anti-aging because it causes cells to turn over much more quickly than without it which promotes collagen production. It is excellent for acne because it exfoliates deeply due to this rapid cell turnover. However, the side-effect to this power is it can wreak havoc on even tough oily skins. Havoc being redness, swelling, peeling, dryness, and sensitivity.

My initial journey with retinoids started in an attempt to fade very severe hyperpigmentation. Jumping straight to prescription tretinoin was too much for my dry sensitive skin despite my desire to also use it for its antiaging benefits. So I backtracked and started with weaker non prescription forms and made my way up to stronger formulations.

Algenist Retinol Firming and Lifting Serum is a great starter retinol because it is so gentle. It contains no fragrance and is a light watery cream texture that absorbs quickly and works well with the rest of my skincare routine twice a day. The skin improvements were very subtle.

Somme Institute A Bomb contains retinyl palmitate and is a medium weight cream that is great for dry skin at night. It also contains a vitamin C derivative. Skin improvements were also very subtle.

Sunday Riley Luna contains hydroxypinacolone retinoate (also the key ingredient in Pestle and Mortar Superstar Retinol Night Oil) and is a blue colored oil that is medium weight, deeply fragranced, definitely brightening and reduced fine lines around my mouth within 6 weeks of nightly use.

Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Serum contains retinol and mildly helped brighten my complexion. It reduced fine lines but ultimately, after more prolonged use, I felt it slightly thinned my skin when used nightly.

The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% contains 1.9% hydroxypinacolone retinoate and 0.1% retinol. This product is amazing and incredibly affordable. I finished the bottle and noted that my skin had more elasticity, suppleness, bounce, subtle evening of tone and dramatically reduced fine lines. I was also pleasantly surprised that it did not destroy my skin in the process of acclimating to it. It was this product that prompted my sister to ask if I had started Botox due to my skin appearing much smoother and youthful. Despite it being non prescription, I still had to go slow. I started using it twice a week for 2 weeks then 3 times a week for 2 weeks, etcetera until I got used to using it nightly. I had to avoid acid exfoliation for up to 6 weeks during the initial phases. This was a tough wait period because I love to exfoliate with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). I have back ups of this product and recommend it often to friends and family. And did I mention it’s affordable? $9.80 USD for 30ml!

Prescription tretinoin 0.025% cream was my ultimate goal in terms of tolerability in exchange for desired effects. I started this right after finishing a bottle of The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% in order to keep the momentum going. I went even slower with this cream by mixing it in an oil the first 4 weeks. After that period I applied it by itself onto completely dry skin after cleansing, toning and essence steps at night. I would allow the cream to absorb for 20-60 minutes depending on what time I started. It took my skin about 5 months to get accustomed to using it 3-4 nights a week while still using AHA 2 nights a week. Accustomed means no morning redness, swelling, inflammation, sensitivity, severe dryness. I never peeled because I allowed my skin to get used to The Ordinary product first and eased into it with an oil carrier initially. I don’t know if my skin could handle nightly use but I will be resuming this in the fall so I will keep you posted periodically on my instagram account.

Before summer kicked into full gear, I used Zelens Power A which contains hydroxypinacolone retinoate and retinyl palmitate on alternating nights with tretinoin and I loved it. I will test it nightly during the month of August. And in September I will bring tretinoin slowly back into my routines. If possible I may continue the tretinoin year round and not stop in the summer next year. Studies have shown that the benefits of retinoids last about 2 months after discontinuation so not using it for several months feels like lost time.

I have also briefly tested Curology, mainly to verify that the brand contains active ingredients. It is an online dermatology service that prescribes prescription and non prescription strength products based on skin concerns. A bottle usually contains 3 skincare ingredients ranging from tretinoin, azelaic acid, vitamin c, niacinamide, etcetera. You pay a monthly membership/service fee and periodically upload photos for your provider to analyze. Because tretinoin and Curology are prescription based, I do not show these regularly on my Instagram feed. They are prescribed by licensed professionals for a reason. Meaning it’s important to know your skin, do your research, and talk with your dermatologist and aesthetician about what is appropriate for your skin. Retinoids and certain other products are not safe in pregnancy so it’s important to talk with your providers if you are thinking of becoming pregnant, currently pregnant or breastfeeding.

For me the benefits of retinoids have been firmer skin with more bounce, fewer fine lines and wrinkles, smoother skin, and smaller appearing pores. The brightening and evening of skin tone was not as prominent a benefit of retinoids for me. I attribute those changes more to other products in my skincare routine such as AHAs, vitamin C, licorice root extract, niacinamide and alpha arbutin to name a few.

Here are some basic tips for prescription strength tretinoin that worked for me. Keep in mind that my skin type is dry, dehydrated, sensitive and prone to redness. Your experience may be different and always consider consulting a dermatologist to see what your skin needs.

1. Start slow 1-2 times a week for 2 weeks, 2-3 times a week for 2 weeks etc. If you can get to a point of using it at least 3-4 times a week that would be ideal. Nightly is even better but skip the tretinoin if using acid at night because acids can reduce the effectiveness of retinoids. Or alternatively use acids in the morning and retinoids at night.

2. Apply just a pea sized amount to completely dry skin after toner and essence steps at night.

3. Try to wait a minimum of 10-20 minutes after use for absorption. Sometimes I wait up to an hour.

4. When starting, try to avoid AHA and BHA use for 1-2 months–this part was the toughest for me but it helped reduce the dryness and irritation!

5. When starting, consider mixing with an oil or serum or moisturizer your skin already loves for a few weeks, for up to one month.

6. Be prepared to slather your skin in very hydrating and moisturizing layers, as well as multiple layers of these products.

7. Be patient…it can take up to 3 months for skin to get used to tretinoin. It took my super sensitive skin 5-6 months to acclimate to tretinoin 0.025% every other day while still being able to use AHA/BHAs up to twice a week.

8. Get in the habit of wearing broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher everyday.

9. Avoid the sun in general if possible because fresh new skin is more prone to sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and photoaging.

10. If summer is coming and you will be outdoors most days, I would consider stopping retinoid and resume in the fall. If you will be mostly indoors, continue on if possible.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my retinoid journey. Remember everyone’s experience will be different. Please do your research, talk to professionals in your area and most importantly be patient because the pay off is fantastic!


  1. August 7, 2017 / 2:36 pm

    I’ve been not even touching retinoids because we might decide to have a baby in the not-too-distant future and I’d hate to find something I love and then feel the need to stop using it for a year or more. But I’m bookmarking this for when I decide to start my own retinoid journey!

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 1:57 am

      I’ve actually tried to find every excuse NOT to use retinoids. I even convinced myself at some point that acids, peptide treatments are better but yeah, I’ll document the journey. Take your time, have your babies, enjoy your calm skin before your ret journey! 🙂

  2. August 9, 2017 / 4:01 am

    Yay, I love @beauty_unplugged’s skincare wisdom. Putting The Ordinary’s retinoid on my list.

    I rushed into tretinoin way too fast before I knew how to listen to my skin (started out every other day and naively told myself that molting skin meant baby skin). @beauty_unplugged’s experience is encouraging because it shows that results don’t necessarily require the strongest stuff or molting. -Angela

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 1:58 am

      How did you even go to work? I remember my short stint made me want to hide behind a mask. Molting just isn’t professional.

  3. Meryam
    August 9, 2017 / 6:47 am

    I feel so behind because I jumped on the skincare wagon so late. I wish I had paid attention to my skin more in my late teens. I’m in my late 20s and I’ve just ordered my ordinary skincare routine after hearing your review on the brand. I’m glad I read this article or I would have jumped into retinoids way too quickly without acclimating my skin first. I just wanted to say a quick thank you gothamista for all the informative skincare tips you give. I had a horrible experience with my dermatologist when I was younger so I was always hesitant to put anything on my face. But after watching your videos and gaining an understanding for the skin and just so much knowledge about skincare and product ingredients, I’m excited about skincare – sounds so weird but I honestly am. Thanks for always sharing your thoughts and products 🙂

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:01 am

      Thank you, so much for sharing! I completely relate to you. I’ve had such a difficult journey with products myself that it’s amazing to actually be excited about skincare now that I am finding the right ones that actually make a difference! Always keep sharing your journey with me!

  4. August 9, 2017 / 8:54 am

    Thank you for sharing your story 🙂 I have been using a tretinoin cream 0.1% for the last two weeks now. It was my first try and I started by using it every night. Surprinsingly, the irritation and redness started on day 6 and went away around day 11. I am using retinoids as an acne treatment. I use it only at night. Your rules are great, I would also add that you have to wait for around 20-30 minutes after cleansing and before applying retinoids. To minimize side effects, I stopped using any acids, serums and makeup. I use a mild cleanser, toner for sensitive skin, moisturizer and spf cream. That’s it. I hate it, because I can’t use my fav products, but I know my skin will get angry if I add anything more.

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:02 am

      Thank you for sharing your tips! This helps so much!

  5. Lisa
    August 9, 2017 / 11:20 am

    I am forever grateful to you two ladies for so willingly and generously sharing your skin care knowledge and experiences. I have learnt so much from you both and admire the thought and care that you put into all that you do.

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:02 am

      Thank you so much Lisa! That means so much to me!

  6. Angela
    August 11, 2017 / 1:00 am

    Hi Renee, I have a question about Niacinamide. In your video on The Ordinary you said not to use Niacinamide an Vitamin C together is this just with this brand or in general? After watching more of your videos I really want to add niacinamide into my routine in a more concentrated form but am now confused where I can do this. A lot of the essences and toners recommended seem to have niacinamide in them too but if the effectiveness of it may be compromised if used with other products I would like to know the best way in which to implement it into my skincare routine if using a vitamin C. I hope this makes sense and thank you so much. I love your amazing knowledge and you are my go to these days for my skincare needs.

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:08 am

      Hi Angela! I mentioned that because that’s what was suggested by the ordinary. I believe they suggest caution because of the high, high concentrations of the ingredients in their products. There really should be no problem layering a toner or cream with niacinamide after an L-AA product, however some people with very sensitive skin may experience flushing and redness. If that happens then best to separate the 2. The effectiveness of the ingredients will not be compromised! Hope that helps!

    • MAR
      September 15, 2017 / 5:01 am

      It’s because when both are used they cancel each other out. If you use one in the morning and the other at night, it should be fine.

  7. kelly
    August 11, 2017 / 7:20 pm

    I love retionol and am lucky that my skin tolerates it very well. Rx ret works very well for my skin and thanks to my drug plan is the cheapest thing in my skincare arsenal. I even use a bit on my upper arms once or twice a week to combat KP.

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:09 am

      Hey Kelly! What a great idea to use it on your arms as well! since it’s inexpensive, hey, why not!

  8. Isset Flores
    August 11, 2017 / 10:40 pm

    Thanks For Share All This Info.
    I have learn a lot from you girls, and I have notice that as we age, skin transform in super sensitive, super dry, dehydrated and so, even if before we have normal skin.
    I know that retinol is know as the fountain of youth, but dermatologist never give this type of advice, they said begin with the lower dose .0025 and thas the reason why we give up on them, skin never get used to it.
    But now…. this is the really way to do it, it’s like logical, but has never crossed mi mind.
    Thanks again.
    Of course I’ll will try, even if leave AHAs on the side for a while.
    Thanks A lot.

    Renee thanks for this blog!!!
    Thanks for everything.

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:11 am

      Yes Isset! It’s funny because for the longest time, my own dermatologist told me to avoid retinA because she felt my skin wasn’t strong enough yet and it might wreak damage. Things are different now and I think I’m ready!

  9. Faridah
    August 11, 2017 / 10:54 pm

    Hi. I just discovered you on youtube and I love you! The way you focus on the science of products is exactly how I am. I came on to your blog looking for advice on incorporating tretinoin in skincare and lo and behold first post I see is this. Thanks so much.

    I just want to confirm that after I use tretinoin and wait the requisite time. I can begin to layer the other treatments as per your review on The Ordinary products?

    • Renée
      August 12, 2017 / 2:12 am

      Actually I believe you can experiment a bit depending on what your skin can take. You can layer the other treatments after tret or you can put tret on after your moisturizer if your skin is more sensitive!

  10. Ririn
    August 16, 2017 / 8:36 am

    I once experienced burn after using tret but not anymore. I now use Retin-A 0,05% every other day and use acids in between days. I usually apply tret on a dry cleansed face, wait for half an hour or so, and start to apply my essence, toner, serum, oil etc. i know it’s against the thin to thick rules (because retin a is cream) but i find that this is the best way for my skin. My skin is dry and dehydrated, and ever since i do this routine, my skin never flakes instead it’s radiant.

  11. Hillary
    August 25, 2017 / 8:43 pm

    Hi Renee! I`m almost 25 with a oily skintype and am wondering if i should jump on the retinol and acid wagon with the Ordinary`s new Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion! I was thinking that peptides in general and copper peptides can offer the same anti-aging without the sun sensitivity and harshness of retinols? (I`m currently using Hymalide subq) I was also wondering if you think clays and peeling gels are good for my exfoliation needs to avoid the sun sensitivity of acids? Or are acids and retinols just the best anti aging ingredient tools? What do you think? I would really like to know! lol Thank you Renee!

  12. September 3, 2017 / 7:15 am

    I’ve been using Tretinoin 0.025% for about 16 years now ~ I love the stuff. The only problem is there has been a huge price hike in the past year. 🙁

  13. Jocelyn
    September 24, 2017 / 7:27 pm

    Wonderful post! I recently discovered your YouTube Channel and blog!

    Do you mind doing a YouTube video on what you can and cannot mix (e.g. retinoids and Vitamin C/arbutin)? I’ve done some research and the reviews are mixed. I know some products even have retinol with Vitamin C claiming that it works better together.

    Thanks in advance!


  14. Melissa
    October 10, 2017 / 2:34 pm

    Hi Renee,
    I am currently trying out curology too. I am not sure how I feel about it. Did you like it? Are you still using it? If not, why?

  15. Joanne
    October 15, 2017 / 1:26 pm

    I remember using Retin-a with the Obagi skin care line back in the early 00’s and peeling at 6 p.m. like clockwork. Every. Damn. Day.
    I really think all that peeling for so long is responsible for the cuperose on my upper cheeks and it prematurely aged the skin around my eyes.
    I was also translucent. Seriously.
    So be careful!

  16. Suzanne
    November 9, 2017 / 4:33 am

    Hey Renée! Please bear with this lengthy comment because your advice always makes such a difference in my skin, and I need your help desperately!
    I’m currently using prescription tretinoin gel (0.05%) for acne treatment. I’ve been using it for long enough that my acne is gone, with the exception of the area underneath the corners of my mouth, on both sides of my chin. Because I have to use tretinoin there, my confidence is really taking a hit because that area is constantly flakey and red. I also still have prominent PIE (Thanks for your video on that, by the way! So helpful!).
    As a side effect of tretinoin, I still get flakey and dry skin that becomes especially frustrating in the afternoon, when my concealer gets cakey and makes these red, dry, flakey spots even more noticeable, regardless of whether or not I used a moisturizer that morning. I find this to be true despite the fact that I’ve lately been spacing out my uses of tretinoin to only 2 or 3 uses a week because of this dryness.
    Do you have any recommendations for any kind of product that I can use, maybe over tretinoin at night, or in the morning, that could help with these problems without clogging my acne-prone skin? I find that most intensive moisturizers tend to contain comedogenic ingredients, usually pretty high on the ingredients list, which always break me out.

  17. Maxine Banon
    November 26, 2017 / 12:21 am

    Hi. I really enjoy your articles and videos. I was trying to find a video that explains the full routine incorporating the retinol. I’m new to this skin care system but have found that my skin has responded well to the Korean skin routine. I am now going to add retinol but don’t know how and where in the routine.

  18. Tuba
    December 31, 2017 / 2:38 pm

    Hi Renee, I’m a big fan of urs I’m 34 married with three kids and can you believe I started taking seriously my skincare just now I have recently watched ur videos and orderd few things from budget friendly I live in uk and I started the advance retinoid aswell as alpha arbutin and the buffet. I need ur recommendation on best vitamin c and waiting for ur videos on YouTube everyday thanks a lot for ur work . Can u please tell me how many times I should use advance retinoid and also the pixi glow tonic I love anything else you want to guide me plzzz

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