How to adjust to tretinoin

Managing early side effects of tretinoin

5 minute read

We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

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Tretinoin might be the ultimate hattrick in skincare: pore-cleansing, acne-busting, and anti-aging. It’s a prescription-strength retinoid that works double-time to bring out your inner glow. That said, we’ll be honest: the first few weeks of tretinoin can present some skin challenges. With so much power packed into one ingredient, your skin may need some time to catch-up. As frustrating as they may be, some side effects (like an uptick in breakouts) can actually be a sign your tretinoin is working. But don’t worry—stick with it! A few routine tweaks can help you get through it so you can finally enjoy your glow. 

How tretinoin works 

Tretinoin has 3 key benefits: power-cleaning pores, helping improve skin texture, and helping reduce the appearance of fine lines and unwanted pigmentation. Tretinoin increases your skin’s cell turnover rate. That means that it speeds up the skin regeneration process, stimulating cell growth and collagen production. In this way, tretinoin helps to support the normal structure of our skin. It also clears away dead skin cells faster, which helps to keep pores clear. Because skin cells are being shed more rapidly, though, your skin can become a little more sensitive during use—especially around the lips, eyes, and creases of the nose. 

Starting on tretinoin

Because we know there can be an adjustment period when starting tretinoin, it makes sense to go slow. You might want to only use your medication a few nights a week to start. Here’s one schedule you can try:

  • Weeks 1-2: Apply Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights. 

  • Weeks 3-4: Apply every other night.

  • Weeks 5-6: Apply every night. 

This is just one possible timeline, but you should stick to the frequency that works best for you for as long as you need to. And reach out to your Curology provider to see what they recommend! They can give you routine advice that makes sense for your unique skin. 

How to apply tretinoin

Applying tretinoin with the right technique can make it a little easier when you’re first starting out.

1. Cleanse with a gentle, hydrating cleanser. Massage using your fingertips—scrubbing with harsh washcloths or rotating brushes can lead to irritation. We recommend:

2. Apply your tretinoin cream to a fully dry face. Pat your skin with a clean towel, then wait 10-20 minutes for any remaining water to evaporate. Damp skin is more permeable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be intense while your skin is still adjusting. 

3. Moisturize. Wait a few minutes for your cream to absorb, then apply a layer of moisturizer on top. If you want a moisturizer that calls in reinforcements, look for one with occlusive ingredients (like petrolatum, dimethicone, and allantoin). These form a protective barrier around your skin that helps to seal in moisture. 

If you’re still experiencing skin sensitivity after following this routine, there are other options! We recommend using your moisturizer to dilute your tretinoin cream. There are two ways you can do this: 1) mix your moisturizer with your cream (use equal parts of each), or, 2) apply your moisturizer before your cream. 

Products we recommend

What’s skin purging? 

When you first start on tretinoin, you might experience something called "purging"—it’s like giving your skin a kickstart. Your cell turnover rate increases, meaning the way your skin regenerates is changing on a microscopic level. And as this process starts clearing out your pores, you might see some new pimples.

This is actually a sign that the tretinoin is working! These temporary breakouts, sometimes called “purging,” can range from smaller to deeper pimples. We know there’s no sugar-coating it: breakouts are never fun. The idea of using a product that can actually cause breakouts might seem totally counterintuitive. No matter what treatment you choose, remember that acne won’t disappear overnight. The short-term effects of tretinoin can lead to long-term payoff if you decide to stick to it. 

An acne spot patch (like the one by Curology!) can also help to shrink a pimple. Curology’s Emergency Spot Patch contains no harsh active ingredients, so it can help heal and conceal angry blemishes in a pinch. Soaps with zinc pyrithione (like the one by Noble Formula) can also help. 

Protect Your Skin with SPF

If you take one thing away from this post... remember to wear sunscreen while using tretinoin!  As your tret speeds up the cell turnover process, you’ll shed dead skin cells faster. But with fewer dead skin cells to act as a buffer between your skin and the sun’s rays, some people experience a mild increase in sun sensitivity. Using a moisturizer with at least SPF 30 is an easy way to help protect your skin against the sun and quench dry skin.

We recommend

Remember to reapply sunscreen once for every 2 hours of sun exposure. Also, most facial moisturizers with SPF are chemical sunscreens—so wait at least 20 minutes after application for it to take full effect. For more info, read our handy guide to sunscreen.

Lip care with tretinoin

The skin on and around your lips is sensitive, so if you accidentally apply tretinoin in this area, you might get dry, chapped lips. If you do start to experience lip irritation and dryness, we can help! 

  1. Don’t lick! Licking your lips makes them dryer, which can make scaling, redness, and chapping worse.

  2. Lip balm. A lip balm with hydration-sealing occlusive ingredients (like Aquaphor Lip Repair, which has petrolatum) will help seal moisture into the skin.  

  3. Sun protection. A lip balm with sunscreen, like EltaMD UV Lip Balm Broad-Spectrum SPF 31, will protect your skin from sun damage (which can make dryness worse). 

In rare instances, extremely dry lips can be a sign of underlying skin issues. If your lips are still dry after trying all these tips, you may want to see an in-person dermatologist.

Patience and persistence 

We’ll be honest—better skin doesn’t happen overnight. Think of your skincare routine like an exercise: every day, you’re building your skin’s strength. Some days will be easier than others, and there’s no quick fix. But if something isn’t working for you, you can always reach out to your Curology provider for product recommendations or formula tweaks. We’re here for you! No matter what, Curology’s got your back. 

Product Links: Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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