My Tretinoin Journey
I have been using Tretinoin, a prescription strength vitamin A product, for six months now and oh boy, what a journey it has been! (Spoiler: it has a happy ending.) If you have read my vitamin A overview post then you will know that it is the gold standard ingredient for anti-ageing and acne treatment and I highly recommend incorporating it into your routine if you have trouble with breakouts or are over 30. I would definitely say it’s better to start with an over the counter retinol product and work your way up in strength before attempting Tretinoin.
My first experience with Tretinoin was ten years ago when I came off the contraceptive pill for the first time and my skin went crazy. I went to the GP and he gave me Retin A (0.025% Tretinoin) and no instruction as to how to use it. I had never used a vitamin A product before but went ahead and slathered it all over my face two nights in a row and two days later my face was extremely sore and peeling so much that I had to call in sick to work. I was too scared to use it again after that, which is a real shame because if I had been given proper instructions on how to use it, it would probably have cleared my skin up and I would also have the skin of a new born right now.
It’s not actually possible to get Retin A (Tretinoin) prescribed from your GP in the UK anymore, I believe you have to see a dermatologist and even then, they will probably prescribe Adapalene (a vitamin A product with the brand name is Differin) first if your concern is acne. If you would like Tretinoin for anti-ageing purposes, it is possible to pay to see a dermatologist and then pay a small fortune for the Tretinoin.
I had been using retinol products from Skinceuticals, Medik8 and Neostrata on and off for about four years but had seen Dr Dray, a dermatologist on YouTube, talking about Tretinoin and how it has the most scientific data behind it and clinical trials showing that it really does work to get rid of fine lines, prevent wrinkles and boost collagen production. I also watched a few of Melissa55’s videos on YouTube, who is nearly 65 but looks about 20 years younger. She has never had any injectables or procedures done, she just started using Tretinoin when she was my age (32)…I was sold!
As a quick recap, Tretinoin is retinoic acid, which doesn’t have to be converted in the skin to be able to work, it goes straight into the skin and increases cell turnover. Retinol however, has to be converted in the skin twice to get to retinoic acid to then be able to stimulate cell turnover. Dr Dray also makes the valid point that over the counter retinols come in so many different vehicles (serums, oils, creams etc) and the retinol is used alongside so many other ingredients in the products that it’s hard to know if the retinol can even be absorbed and converted properly in the skin. Most of the retinol products on the market haven’t been clinically trialled.
So Tretinoin sounds amazing right? Why doesn’t everyone use it? Well, as I mentioned above, the major downside of Tretinoin is that because it dramatically increases cell turnover, it can cause a lot of peeling, irritation and sensitivity while your skin gets used to it. This is why I still think you should definitely start by using over the counter retinols for a few years to build up your skin’s tolerance to vitamin A before trying Tretinoin.
I had heard that you can buy Tretinoin in pharmacies in Spain without a prescription so when I was in Madrid back in July last year, my Spanish speaking friend that I was with very kindly asked the pharmacist for it for me. The brand name is Retirides and it is available in three different strengths. I made the very stupid mistake (I can’t stress this enough) of getting it in the medium strength (0.05%) rather than the weakest strength (0.025%). I honestly don’t know what I was thinking!
I started using it as soon as I got home and wow, it really is so so much stronger than over the counter retinol. I think because I had been using retinol for a while, I was a bit cocky and thought my skin would be able to handle it. Nope! I used it twice a week for the first couple of weeks and I was expecting peeling and redness but I hadn’t anticipated literal sheets of skin to be shedding and hanging off my face (so gross, I know!) I would double cleanse, put on a hydrating serum, then a heavy duty moisturiser as a buffer, wait half an hour and then put a pea size amount of the Tretinoin on and I would still peel. I started piling on a lot of rosehip seed oil and moisturiser on the nights that I wasn’t using the Retirides, which did help but my skin still peeled quite a bit around my mouth two to three days after I applied it. I was never able to use the 0.05% more than twice a week. Because it was drying my skin out so much, it accentuated any lines I had and made them look much worse for the first few months.
For the first three months I also had some big breakouts. I had a lot of clogged pores and blackheads on my forehead and these all came to the surface first, which looked horrible for a week or two but once they cleared that was it, I haven’t had any breakouts or clogged pores on my forehead since. Then the big cysts on my cheeks appeared. This phase lasted about two months but again, now that they have cleared, I have had very few breakouts since. The one area that the Tretinoin still doesn’t seem to have had any effect on after six months is the little hormonal whiteheads I get on my chin every month. I would normally put salicylic acid on my chin and jaw the week leading up to my period but because the Tretinoin already makes that area so dry, I haven’t wanted to make the dryness any worse so I’ve avoided it.
A month ago I got my hands on the lowest strength Retirides (0.025% Tretinoin) and it has been so so much better for my skin. I use it three nights a week and my skin does get a bit dry and I get a flake or two around my mouth but it’s considerably better than what I was experiencing with the 0.05% strength and I think in a month’s time I’ll be able to go up to four nights a week. I also think the cold winter weather has had a big impact on the dryness of my skin over the past couple of months, so come spring/summer I should be fine to use 0.025% five nights a week. Now is probably a good time to mention that I wear a lot of SPF 50 every single day, which is very important if you are using any vitamin A product.
You might think I’m crazy but believe it or not, I actually would go through it all again (obviously starting off with the 0.025% Tretinoin this time if we’re going back in time..) The first 6 months was a real battle with the peeling and breakouts but I think it was worth it to get rid of the congestion, clogged pores and blackheads I had. The overall texture and firmness of my skin has definitely improved. I also really like knowing that I’m using the most clinically proven ingredient for preventing wrinkles and sagging skin in the future. If you are starting on Tretinoin, good luck, I think it’s worth it!
Let me know if you have any questions on anything.