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Dr. Alpana Mohta Ranka, MD, DNB, IFAAD, is a dual-board-certified dermatologist with over 90 research publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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How to Use Retinoids: Dr. Alpana Explains

Updated: May 14

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that act by stimulating the cells in the skin to increase their turnover so that they can replace dead cells with new ones. Retinoids can be either natural or synthetic and are prescribed for acne, psoriasis, ichthyosis, sun-damaged skin, and wrinkles.


Retinoids, such as tretinoin and retinol, are believed to be effective against aging. Tretinoin is a retinoid available by prescription, while retinol is available over the counter. While tretinoin is used for treating acne and its pesky marks, retinol is one of the milder retinoids used for its anti-aging benefits.


How Do They Work?

Retinoids are a mainstay in the anti-aging industry because of their ability to act on a number of problems that can cause premature aging. These compounds work by causing superficial skin exfoliation and boosting collagen production at the same time.


Retinoids are also powerful antioxidants and get rid of wrinkles.

More potent agents like Tretinoin and Adapalene also reduce sebum production and fight acne-forming bacteria.


What are the Benefits of using Retinoids?

Retinoids are known to be one of the most effective treatments for wrinkles and fine lines. In fact, they can even help you with other cosmetic issues, such as hyperpigmentation or acne marks. They help protect the skin from sun damage and give it a healthy glow.


I also have a video dedicated to tretinoin. You can check it out below:




Are There Any Side Effects to Consider when using Retinoids?

The usage of retinoids can make your skin sensitive to the sun and cause dryness. It is, therefore, advised to use retinol only at night. After cleansing your face, wait for at least 20 minutes before applying retinol.


But if your instant-gratification-seeking before-bed self chooses not to wait 20 minutes and ends up applying retinol prematurely, there are so many ways it can go wrong! First of all, any moisture left behind may interact with your retinol and turn your skin fiery red the next morning.


Moisture can make retinoids super active leading to side effects like redness, inflammation, and skin peeling.


Also, if you have dry or sensitive skin, you will do well by using a moisturizer before applying retinol.


You should always wear SPF50 or higher sunscreen while stepping outside or doing any activity in the daylight for as long as you are on retinoids as part of your nighttime regimen.


After starting the usage of retinoids, your skin might purge for the first few weeks, but this problem goes away with time.


Product Recommendation

There are many different retinoids on the market, so it is important to be sure to find one that is right for you. No7 Advanced Retinol 0.3% Complex Night Concentrate is my all-time favorite retinol product.


Some Frequently Asked Questions on Retinoids


Can Retinoids Make Your Skin Thin?

Tretinoin and other retinoids are often mistakenly thought to thin the skin. This misconception stems from the initial side effect of skin peeling when you start using tretinoin during the first few weeks of use.


However, this peeling is temporary and occurs on the outer layer. In the deeper dermal layers, the actual effect is contrary to common belief. Retinoids actually strengthen skin by promoting collagen production, increasing glycosaminoglycan content, and raising hyaluronic acid levels.


As retinoids stimulate the generation of collagen, they effectively contribute to thickening the skin and reducing translucency. This outcome is advantageous, as one of the natural signs of aging involves a decrease in skin thickness.


Can You Use Niacinamide and Retinol Together?

Yes, they can be used together.


There has been research suggesting an enhanced response of a specific retinoid (Retinyl Propionate) when used in combination with niacinamide. Keep in mind that this is not the same as retinol.



While they are safe to be used together, you can also use them separately in your skincare routines.


Can Hyaluronic Acid Be Used With Retinol?


Yes, you can use Hyaluronic Acid with Retinol. If you want to dilute your retinol to make it more tolerable for your skin, you can combine them.


As a dermatologist, let me provide you with some insights into why you should not mix them together but should layer them instead.


Hyaluronic acid works best on damp skin. Therefore, I would suggest that you apply hyaluronic acid first when your face is moist or damp. Then, wait for a good 20-30 minutes and apply retinol. This way, you can make the best of both ingredients and reduce the risk of irritation with retinol. Alternatively, you can use hyaluronic acid during the daytime under your sunscreen and retinol at night (always at night!). Here's why you shouldn't use retinol during the daytime.


Can AHAs (Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Malic Acid, Mandelic Acid, etc.) be Used With Retinol?


No.


Here are the reasons:

  • The main concern is that both of them cause skin exfoliation. Therefore, if you use them together, you are at risk of developing an irritant reaction on your skin.

  • Individually, AHAs and retinol can cause sun sensitivity. Imagine what would happen if you used them together!

If you still want to incorporate them together into your skincare routine, opt for the skin-cycling approach. Apply AHAs and retinol on alternate days, and then give your skin some time to recover. You can read all about exactly how it works in my article on skin cycling.


Glycolic acid rejuvenates the upper layers of the skin (epidermis), while retinol works deeper in the skin by increasing the thickness of collagen. With skin cycling, you get the best of both worlds.


Can Salicylic Acid Be Used With Retinol?

No. Similar to AHAs, salicylic acid causes exfoliation. Retinol also causes exfoliation. Together, they might lead to an irritant reaction.


Can Azelaic Acid Be Used With Retinol?

Yes, they can be combined. This combination is not very popular; however, in the treatment of acne, hyperpigmentation and melasma, the efficacy of azelaic acid is enhanced when used in combination with retinol or other retinoids like tretinoin. Here's a study that discusses this.


How to use Azelaic Acid with Retinol?

Unlike most actives, there is no specific order of application for these two products. Instead of mixing them together, you should apply them in layers. The sequence of application would depend on the consistency of your products (thin to thick). For examples, if you are using retinol serum and azelaic acid suspension/lotion/cream, first apply the serum and them the suspension. However, if you are using both retinol and azelaic acid as serums, I would first recommend you to use azelaic acid and then retinol.


Can Vitamin C Be Used With Retinol?

No. Here are some reasons:

  • They have a significant difference in their pH, which makes them incompatible for simultaneous use.

  • Vitamin C is water-soluble, while Retinol is oil-soluble. This may prevent the penetration of vitamin C if used after retinol.

  • Vitamin C is unstable and oxidizes quite quickly. Retinol can inactivate vitamin C when used together.

However, you can use them at different times of the day.


Can Adapalene be used for Anti Aging?

Yes, there is enough scientific evidence for the use of adapalene as an effective anti-aging modality, but the usage instructions of adapalene for acne treatment tend to differ from its usage for anti-aging. This is a prescription-grade medication, and the proper instructions will be provided by a dermatologist who is treating you.


Does Tretinoin Help Reduce Acne Scars? How Much Time Does it Take?

Tretinoin works by increasing cell turnover, promoting the growth of new skin cells, and stimulating collagen production. This could, in turn, help with reducing scars. However, it's not possible to remove deep atrophic scars. If you want to get rid of such scars, you may need to opt for some cosmetic procedures like laser scar removal.

Some retinoids are better for treating wrinkles than others, and some are better suited for specific areas of the skin. Speaking with your doctor about which retinoid is best for you is important.

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