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Clear skin often takes dedication and a knowledgeable esthetician. But sometimes you need an added boost in the form of high-performing ingredients available in prescription medicine and topicals. When it comes to clearing up blemishes, acne, or smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles, the top performing ingredient estheticians and dermatologists recommend is Vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important antioxidant that’s not just essential to achieving clear, glowing skin but also helps our immune system and vision. Dr. Des Fernandes, leading plastic surgeon and founder of Environ Skin Care, notes that Vitamin A is the only known molecule that keeps the skin healthy and helps to provide anti-aging benefits. While that is all well and good, retinol and tretinoin can make for a scary sight if it isn’t administered properly.


The everyday skin care enthusiast might be familiar with one of the many Vitamin A derivatives most commonly known as tretinoin (retinol), Retin-A, Accutane, and Differin. Vitamin A is distributed through the body via retinoids (absorbed through animal-based foods) and carotenoids (absorbed through plant-based foods). Skin care products utilize Vitamin A derivatives in special formulations and some can be more potent than others.


In order to achieve the skin-clearing, wrinkle-reducing benefits of Vitamin A, a chemical conversion must take place within the body, which ultimately converts a Vitamin A derivative into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is the only form of retinol your body will accept into your cells via cell receptors. You need to absorb retinol at the cellular level in order to see improvements in your skin because your skin is made up of a bunch of cells.

Retinoids work to exfoliate the skin, even skin tone, reduce oiliness, control acne, build collagen, restore elasticity, and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Topical prescriptions like Retin-A are extremely effective because the retinoids are immediately accepted into the skin. The down side? They can be extremely irritating causing redness and even peeling. If you are using topical retinoids it is important to note that they should be used alone, no entourage needed. You definitely do not want to layer products on top of a retinoid as those other products will likely cause more irritation.

With all of this exfoliation and increased sensitivity happening, broad spectrum sunscreen will be your BFF! Without it, you are far more likely to experience sunburn.


If you are using any form of retinoid or tretinoin there is a good chance that you can’t do anything else with your skin (gasp!). Even simple things like waxing your brows. Nearly everything is basically a no-go when using retinoids. Here is a complete list of services that can’t be performed if you have been using retinoids in the last 4-6 weeks.

Waxing*–If you’re using a strong derivative like Retinaldahyde 0.05% or higher, it can cause your skin to be really thin. During a waxing treatment, this means your skin might be removed with the hair–no matter what type of wax you use or the derivative of Vitamin A you are taking. This is why estheticians have all clients sign a release form stating that they are not currently taking any form of retinol.

* This type of thinning can happen with any retinoid but is more likely to happen when using Retinaldahyde.

Chemical Peels–You’ll be peeling more than superficial layers of the skin when you mix chemical peels with retinol. So unless you’re going for the decayed, exposed tissue look, it is best to wait 6-8 weeks after stopping use of retinol to start a chemical peel series.

Microdermabrasion–Two words: permanent scarring. Even though you may barely feel the suction (or the crystals) as the microdermabrasion is taking place, it can be too rough for skin that has been sensitized by retinoids. While scars may first appear as simple “redness”, you will later begin to see more pronounced scarring leaving traces of hyperpigmentation behind.

Microneedling— Similarly to microdermabrasion, microneedling can leave some visible scarring. But it can also lead to fissures in the skin.

Facials–Okay, so you can still get facials but disclosing your use of retinoids will be crucial before starting the facial appointment. Many facial products contain Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). You don’t want to mix AHAs and retinoids. Ever.

Laser treatments–You’ll definitely be feeling the burn (literally!) if you do this.

In addition to nixing these services, you also want to avoid any products containing AHAs, Salicylic Acid, Benzoyl Peroxide, or highly concentrated serums such as Niacinamide, Vitamin C, and polyphenols. Ignoring this advice and getting one of the listed treatments above or using any of the aforementioned products can result in you looking like the Crypt Keeper.


  • The best way to avoid the side effects of retinoids and tretinoin is to follow the directions for use verbatim. Of course, that is easier said than done. Another area of importance is in knowing your dose. Retinoids can range in efficacy based on the percentage of the Vitamin A derivative included in the product. Retinols are largely prescribed anywhere between 0.17% and 0.7% the lower the percentage is the more effective (and expensive) it will be.
  • Retinoids should only be used at night. Remember earlier when I preached for a bit about wearing sunscreen? Yeah, I wasn’t joking. You’re definitely going to need it. But, as you may also remember from a few hundred words ago, you should never layer products when using a retinoid. Using your retinol product at night allows you to increase effectiveness and see results quicker.
  • Try limiting retinol use to every other day when you’re first starting out to help build your tolerance. Vitamin A derivatives are really strong and something you should be careful with.
  • Last but definitely not least, do not use retinoids if you are pregnant.


What is your experience with using retinoids? Share with me in the comments below. If you’ve got questions about retinoids, connect with me (I’m @FairyGlowMother on Twitter) and we’ll talk all about it.


Skincerely Yours,

Fairy Glow Mother