If there’s a grand taskmaster in skincare, it’s the class of ingredients known as retinoids. These derivatives of vitamin A, often referred to as the brand name Retin-A, do it all. They can clear acne by preventing skin cells from clogging pores, and increase cell turnover rates and stimulate the production of new collagen to improve and even reverse symptoms of aging like wrinkles, age spots and a dull complexion.So why isn’t everyone and their mother using one? Well, as a dermatologist, that’s what I’d like to know! Any woman or man who is aging is a candidate for retinoids, including every skin tone from the fairest to deepest.

The most common complaint is that side effects like drying, flaking and irritation can make the ingredient difficult for many to comfortably incorporate into skincare routines. The good news: how you apply the retinoid makes all the difference. If you follow my tips, you can have both an enjoyable experience and glowing skin results.

What is the difference between retinoids and retinol?

Retinoids require a prescription and have a higher concentration of retinoic acid, while retinols can be purchased over the counter and have a weaker concentration of the active ingredient.

Ask for a well-tolerated option. Today’s retinoids are much better than older ones, since they’re more targeted to produce results in less irritating formulations. Ask your dermatologist for a newer pick. My personal favorite for patients is Tazorac 0.05% for a prescription, and Skin Medica’s Retinol Complex line that comes in various strengths for over the counter use.

Apply retinold after moisturizer. Sure, you can apply retinoid right after cleansing—though this increases your chance of unwanted side effects. Applying retinoid as a final step after moisturizing at night creates a nice buffer between your skin and the active ingredient. Studies show that you will still get the same benefits with a much lower risk of irritation.

Use a pea-size amount for your whole face. This is a prime example where very little goes a long way. Using just a smidge the size of a pea, apply the product to your forehead, both cheeks and chin to ensure even distribution, and then quickly use your fingers to spread as a thin layer over your entire face. Avoid the area directly underneath your eyes, as it’s too thin and sensitive for retinoid use.

Scale back if you’re sensitive. Yes, even sensitive skin can use and benefit from retinoids! If you have skin that is prone to flaking or easily turns red, you can scale back from daily application and use your retinoid on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. Very sensitive skin can downgrade to as infrequently as once a week, and still enjoy cumulative results.

Apply at night and wear SPF 30 daily. Sunrays break retinoids down, so they should only be applied at night. And since retinoids speed up cell turnover, your skin will become more sensitive to the sun. It’s imperative you wear a daily sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day to protect your face, and reapply as needed if you’re out and about. Wear a hat that shades your face if you’re exposed to sunlight for more than about 15 minutes.

Stay consistent and patient. Retinoids aren’t worth your time if you only apply the lotion when you remember. Whether you use it every day or once a week, staying on schedule is key to treating skin on a cellular level that produces visible results on the surface. And keep in mind that big changes don’t happen overnight; they take some time. It’ll take several weeks to see beautiful skin, but I promise that it’s well worth the wait!

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