Skincare enthusiasts are often big fans of retinoids, but sometimes using these powerful active ingredients can irritate your skin if you aren’t careful. Here we’ll share pro tips on how to get one of the best retinoids available (spoiler alert: it’s tretinoin), plus some of the best OTC retinol products to try.
Retinol is a kind of retinoid, which is a derivative of vitamin A, and some retinoids work better than others. All the medical jargon can be confusing, so here’s what you need to know. First of all, there’s a difference between retinol and prescription retinoids.
A prescription-only topical retinoid is one of the most effective anti-aging and acne-clearing skincare ingredients. To get one, you’ll need a prescription from a licensed dermatologist or dermatology provider, like a Curology provider. Tretinoin is one of the most researched and effective topical retinoids available with a prescription. It’s different because tretinoin is FDA-approved to treat acne and the signs of aging, while OTC retinol is only proven to treat signs of aging.
Also, it’s important to know your skin may need time to adjust to these ingredients. Your skin can experience certain side effects—like “purging” or irritation—as it gets used to OTC retinol or prescription-strength retinoids.
Retinol and other retinoids are well-proven to be safe and effective for lightening dark spots and smoothing wrinkles in aging and sun-damaged skin. Prescription retinoids can also treat and help prevent breakouts. But daily use of retinoids may be too harsh for some people’s skin—especially if they aren’t wearing sunscreen every day. These vitamin A derivatives can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight (so you may sunburn more easily).¹ The sun can also make retinoids less effective. That’s why skincare products with retinol or prescription retinoids should only be used at night.
We can’t stress the importance of wearing sunscreen enough, especially if you’re using a retinoid product at night. More sun damage on your skin will only defeat the use of retinol or prescription retinoids.
Here’s a list of face sunscreens for every skin type that passes the test for non-comedogenic and non-irritating ingredients.
Both retinol and prescription retinoids work by promoting skin cell turnover—that’s your old skin cells making way for fresh new ones. Over time, they will help fade spots, even skin tone, and reduce acne breakouts (in the case of certain retinoids).
The problem is that if you go overboard with retinol or prescription retinoids or forget to wear sunscreen (ouch!), this increased turnover of your skin cells can sometimes lead to skin peeling. Other retinol side effects can include redness and flakiness. Learn how much is a safe amount for your unique skin, and you’ll have an easier time balancing any side effects.
Start low and go slow. After gently cleansing your skin, wait at least 10 minutes for your skin to dry completely before applying (skin that’s still slightly damp will absorb this active ingredient more quickly, which could be the culprit behind your skin’s irritation). Try introducing a retinoid into your nighttime skincare routine once every two to three nights at first. Do this for a few weeks until your skin adjusts. You might also try applying moisturizer first, then your retinoid.
The best way to take advantage of the benefits of retinoids is with a custom formula made for your skin type so that you can decrease or increase its strength, depending on how your skin does. Over-the-counter retinol isn’t as potent as its prescription-strength cousin. Studies have shown that tretinoin maybe 20 times stronger than retinol!²
And don’t forget to treat your skin gently. While it may be tempting to exfoliate when your skin is dry and peeling, that will only make matters worse (not to mention it might hurt). Instead of scrubbing, picking, or peeling off the dead skin, moisturize it well and let nature take its course. Try a gentle moisturizer that’s rich in ceramides to help repair your skin’s protective barrier.
Tretinoin is the gold standard of prescription retinoids, which is why it’s in so many of our prescription formulas. The benefits of tretinoin have been proven for more than 40 years.³ It’s effective in treating acne and signs of aging, and most people can adjust to using it quite well.
And being able to adjust the strength is just another benefit of tretinoin. That’s exactly what we do at Curology—tailor the strength of each active ingredient in our prescription formulas to suit each individual’s skin needs. Everyone’s skin is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Here is where the big difference lies between retinol and retinoids. Retinol is an OTC ingredient used to combat the signs of aging. For it to obtain superstar status, it should be paired with an acne-fighting ingredient. Retinol and salicylic acid can pair well to deliver great results for the skin.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). BHAs are oil-soluble, and thanks to their exfoliating properties, they penetrate deeper into your skin’s pores to remove the buildup of dead skin cells and oil (sebum). This makes them effective in treating acne.⁴,⁵ AHAs, by comparison, are water-soluble and work on the surface to help exfoliate dull skin while promoting collagen production.⁶ Here’s more info on AHAs versus BHAs.
Using salicylic acid with retinol (which improves signs of aging, like fine lines, firmness, and dark spots) can give results similar to its prescription-strength cousin, tretinoin. But this combo can also cause irritation. That’s why it’s important to ease into it to give your skin time to adjust.
We suggest starting with one product (a retinol or BHA product), and then slowly adding the other once you’ve adjusted to the first.
The best OTC retinol for you depends on your skin type. If you’d like to try OTC retinol, here’s a list of products recommended by Curology’s skin experts:
Oily skin: Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment. For those looking to avoid overly rich products, this lightweight, oil-free serum absorbs quickly into your skin without leaving behind a residue. Retinol helps promote collagen production to minimize the look of pores, while vitamin C acts as a shield against photoaging.
Combination skin: Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment. If you have combination skin, pay attention to which part of your face is oily, dry, or normal. Oilier areas may be more likely to tolerate retinol better, so you can apply a higher concentration to those spots. Aside from retinol, this serum also has vitamin C to help with fine lines and uneven skin tones.
Sensitive skin: Derma Sensitive Skin Moisturizer. This is an excellent option for people with sensitive skin. It’s a fragrance-free, gel-type moisturizer formulated with aloe to soothe inflammation.
Acne-prone skin: Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil. This serum pairs the acne-fighting power of retinol with salicylic acid and tea tree oil. The exfoliation from the salicylic acid may trigger the skin’s natural renewal process, revealing new and younger skin cells that help your skin look healthier, with a more even skin tone and perhaps even some smoothing of texture. However, if your skin is peeling from retinol, this combination may also cause irritation. Use it less often if you start to experience any dryness or irritation—even just once a week would be fine.
We’ve got you covered when it comes to treating acne. Curology’s mission is to offer accessible dermatology services for skin concerns like rosacea, acne, and signs of aging. Our licensed dermatology providers work with you to help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine by examining your skin, assessing your goals, and providing custom treatment options.
Getting started is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our licensed dermatology providers, who will create a personalized prescription formula designed just for you. While we can’t guarantee you’ll be prescribed tretinoin—it depends on your skin and medical history— you will receive professional recommendations, including other recommended products that may help, like the Curology acne body wash. And should you have any questions, they’ll be there to accompany you along your skincare journey (because that’s exactly what skincare is—a journey!). Best of all, it’s free for the first 30 days. Just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.**
Skin purging can happen as a result of your skin responding to certain active ingredients, like tretinoin or azelaic acid. Dead skin cells shed faster than normal when you use retinoids, which can clog pores, resulting in a temporary acne flare that typically clears after a few weeks.
Everyone’s skin is unique, but we’ve found through our own research that 95% of our members notice significant improvements in their skin within 8-12 weeks.* Clinical studies seem to support this, too.
Common side effects include burning, redness, and peeling. While most side effects are temporary and will subside as your skin adjusts, consult a licensed dermatologist or dermatology provider if you notice things are getting worse or you’re unable to adjust.
Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety.Clinical Interventions in Aging. (December 2006).
Mukherjee, S., et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety.Clinical Interventions in Aging. (Ibid).
Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review.Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2013 June 1).
Arif, T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: A comprehensive review.Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. (2015).
MedlinePlus. Salicylic acid topical. (n.d.).
Moghimipour E. Hydroxy acids, the most widely used anti-aging agents.Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products. (Winter 2012).
Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.
*In a clinical trial of 150 Curology patients. 95% saw improvement after 12 weeks. Self-reported.
** Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
This article was originally published on April 09, 2019, and updated on November 28, 2022.
Kristen Jokela, NP-C