We’re often asked if waxing while using tretinoin is a good idea, and it’s a great question that we’ll tackle here. We’re big fans of tretinoin for its ability to treat both acne and signs of aging. We also know how frustrating it is to deal with unwanted facial hair. The good news is that there are a few options for hair removal if you’ve got sensitive skin. But unfortunately, waxing facial hair while using tretinoin on your face is not one of them. That’s not to say you can’t wax other areas of your body (like your legs and underarms) while using tretinoin on your face; you can. Just remember that you should avoid waxing any areas where you are using tretinoin.
Tretinoin is a potent vitamin A derivative or retinoid.¹ Recommended by dermatologists, it’s the gold standard for topically treating acne and photoaging. Tretinoin is the big sister to over-the-counter topical retinoids like retinol or products that contain benzoyl peroxide. But adjusting to tretinoin can take a bit of time.
Tretinoin stimulates skin cell turnover and helps boost the production of collagen.² In other words, tretinoin helps expose a new layer of skin. That’s partially why it works so well as an anti-aging agent. Your skin looks fresh and glowy, but these new skin cells can be sensitive and easily irritated.
The thing about waxing is that it not only removes hair but also takes dead skin cells along with it. If you’re using tretinoin, you likely won’t have as thick a layer of dead skin cells, only the fresh new ones. This means that waxing can result in skin that is irritated, red, and painful, potentially giving a “rug-burn” appearance. Waxing on retinoids can also lead to temporary hyperpigmentation.
Need an alternative to waxing? We got you! First things first, we recommend staying away from wax-like alternatives like sugaring. Even though it’s thought to be a bit gentler than waxing, it can still be too harsh on fresh skin.
Thankfully, there are a few gentler hair removal techniques. We've previously written about at-home dermaplaning on the blog, which can be a good option once your skin has fully adjusted to tretinoin.
Here are a handful of other alternatives that can work just as well, including:
Tweezing. Often the first line of defense against a rogue hair, tweezing removes the entire hair shaft and bulb. However, tweezing requires you to remove one strand at a time, so it can be pretty inefficient when you want to remove hair from large areas of skin.
Threading. Like tweezing (but with more hairs removed at once), threading involves pulling a cotton thread along unwanted hair using a twisting motion to lift and remove it. It’s perfect for small areas like your eyebrows or upper lip but generally not well suited for larger areas.
Laser. Laser hair removal destroys hair follicles with heat. The pigment (melanin) in the hair absorbs light from the laser, the light energy is converted to heat, and the damage caused to the hair follicles stops or delays future hair growth.
Shaving. Despite common myths about increased thickness and growth rate, shaving just removes hair. It does leave a blunt edge that can make hair appear thicker when it grows back. The downside to shaving is that it must be done every one to three days.
Electrolysis. Electrolysis uses an electric current sent through a fine-gauge needle or probe inserted into the skin to destroy the hair follicle. Electrolysis can permanently remove hair,³ and is currently the only form of hair removal considered permanent by the FDA.
Epilator. An epilator is an electronic device that removes hair by the roots, plucking hair as you move the device over your skin. For best results, exfoliate before using an epilator to remove dead skin cells.
If you must wax and are currently using tretinoin, here are a few tips to improve your outcome:
Ask an expert. Always talk to the professional performing the waxing service to get their recommendations. Talk to them about your skincare routine. Your reaction will likely depend on your skin type and the strength of your skincare products.
Stop using tretinoin for at least a week before waxing, especially around the area that will be waxed. Note that the recommended timeframe to wait for a waxing treatment after using tretinoin can vary, so talk to your medical provider prescribing the tretinoin or the professional performing the wax if you have any questions!
Wait to resume. After waxing, you’ll likely hold off on resuming tretinoin for at least one to two days. Talk to the professional performing the service to get specific instructions. Waxing can leave your skin inflamed or red, which takes a couple of days to heal. If you have sensitive skin, it can take longer. Using a gentle moisturizer and sunscreen can help your skin heal more quickly.
Continue to cleanse. Don’t forget that tretinoin is used to treat and help prevent acne. While taking a break, use a gentle cleanser to help prevent breakouts.
If you experience irritation and redness, you can protect your skin by covering the area with an occlusive ointment like Aquaphor during the day and hydrocolloid dressings overnight. If the irritation persists, talk to your medical provider.
Following hair removal, use quality skin care products, including hydrating lotions and moisturizers. Also, always apply sunscreen, as it’s the best thing you can do for your skin to protect against UV radiation and premature aging (second only to staying out of the sun). Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 (like the sunscreen by Curology), and apply 15 minutes before going into the sun and reapply every two hours if you are spending time outdoors.
Remember, if your tretinoin cream ever gives you unsavory side effects, your Curology medical provider is available to help. And if you’re not a Curology member yet, you can sign up for a 30-day trial of custom skincare (+ $4.95 shipping and handling).
Tretinoin is a potent vitamin A derivative or retinoid. Recommended by dermatologists, it’s the gold standard for topically treating acne and photoaging.
The thing about waxing is that it not only removes hair but also takes dead skin cells along with it. If you’re using tretinoin, you likely won’t have as thick a layer of dead skin cells, only the fresh new ones.
Szymański, K., at al. Retinoic Acid and Its Derivatives in Skin. Cells. (December 2022).
Baldwin, H. E., et al. 40 years of topical tretinoin use in review. Journal of drugs in dermatology. (2013).
Sheneberger, DW., et al. Removal of Unwanted Facial Hair. American Family Physician. (November 2002).
This article was originally published on January 8, 2020, and updated on July 13, 2022
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Allison Buckley, NP-C
Meredith Hartle, DO