The Beginner’s Guide to Retinoids - Dr. Nikoleta
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The Beginner’s Guide to Retinoids

Hello, tribe! Welcome back to the podcast! It’s my pleasure to give you all reliable information so you can hear the whole truth about skincare. Today, we’ll be talking about something I’m super excited about.

In the past, you may have heard me mention the term “retinoids” and how they are basically magical for your skin. But what exactly are retinoids? How do we use them? What do they do? And which ones are the best?

These are all questions you may have thought before, and today, I’m so excited to give you the answers! Retinoids are one of my favorite things to talk about when it comes to skincare, but truthfully, there’s SO much to be said, which is why I’ll be making a Q&A episode for Friday — stay tuned! 

Until then, I’ll give you the foundational information about retinoids, the main functions of retinoids, and how you can incorporate them into your evening skincare routine. While it may take several weeks to see the effects, retinoids truly work wonders on your skin in every stage of life — let’s dive into the details! 

What Are Topical Retinoids?

Let’s start with topical retinoids, which are pretty much a dermatologist’s secret weapon. In physician’s literature, they’re highly regarded as ingredients to treat photoaging — A.K.A. premature or severe aging caused by sun damage. Retinoids are also known to help with hyperpigmentation and acne

In scientific terms, retinoids are a derivative of Vitamin A, which is an essential vitamin to support body functions and organs, especially the skin. Within that category, there are two retinoid medications that you need to be aware of. 

Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid, is truly the golden standard of retinoids. Tazarotene is also a very popular choice to treat photo-aged skin. Both tretinoin and tazarotene are approved by the FDA to treat photoaged skin, and you can only get them via prescription from your physician. Retinoic acid is a powerful ingredient, which is why you need a doctor’s approval and instruction to use these retinoids. There is one retinoid you can buy over the counter in the U.S., however — adapalene (more on that in the next episode!). 

If you’re prescribed a retinoid, here are some important factors to keep in mind. First of all, retinoids do NOT work instantaneously. You won’t wake up the next morning with no wrinkles or hyperpigmentation after one use. Instead, you have to play the long game. It can take several weeks to see the effects of retinoids, but I promise you — they’ll appear with consistent and careful application. 

Secondly, retinoids can often cause skin irritation and flakiness, usually within the third week of use. If this happens, don’t give up! I’ll talk more about this in the next episode, but flakiness basically means that the retinoid is working properly. 

If you would rather skip the flakiness, I’d recommend trying a retinol instead of a retinoid. I’ll dive into the differences between these two in the next episode as well, but for now, you can think of a retinol as a less powerful version of a retinoid. Yes, they are less irritating, but they do take longer to work. If you suffer from severe acne or photoaging, you may not see much progress with retinols, so I encourage you to ask your dermatologist if a retinoid is right for you!

Here are some other factors to consider when finding a retinoid that is right for you:

  • What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to prevent or lessen acne? Get rid of wrinkles and fine lines? Both? When it comes to skincare, you should always be asking yourself this question — it will align you with your goals and empower you to make skincare decisions that are effective and personalized. If you want to learn more about skincare goal setting, check out Episode #26 or read the blog! 
  • Ask your dermatologist for recommendations! They’ll know what type of retinoid fits your skin type and concerns. If you don’t currently have a dermatologist, you can find one here!
  • Trust the respected brands. By “respected,” I don’t mean “certified by a teenager on TikTok.” I mean dermatologist-recommended brands that have great reviews and real results! These brands can be expensive, but sometimes, the more money you pay for the product, the more stable retinoid you’ll get! 
Hear More About Retinoids

Now that we’ve covered a high-level introduction to retinoids, it’s time to dive into the functions of retinoids on the skin. 

Retinoids work by binding to retinoid receptors and influencing gene expression, which is a fancy way of saying that true changes to the skin take time. Retinoids can take six to eight weeks (two months) in some cases and in other cases can take as many as three months. That’s why it’s so important not to give up in the first few weeks. Keep going!

While you’re waiting, you can encourage yourself with these facts about retinoid functions and how they are helping your skin! 

  • Retinoids inhibit UV radiation-induced breakdown of collagen and elastin, which diminishes wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Retinoids stimulate collagen and hyaluronic acid production in the dermis. 
  • Retinoids can inhibit tyrosinase and increase cellular turnover (refer back to Episode #31 or read the blog to hear more about preventing/treating hyperpigmentation).
  • Retinoids reduce inflammatory cells and cytokine production. 
  • Retinoids normalize the differentiation of cells around the follicles on your skin, which reduces blackhead and whitehead formation. 

In general, retinoids are most commonly used to treat acne and most studied for helping with photoaging. However, if you have really sensitive skin or you’re not looking to treat acne specifically, you may want to consider using a retinol, which you can easily buy over the counter. I’ll give some recommendations in my next episode!  

Evening Retinoid Routine

Now that we’ve talked about the various functions of retinoids, let’s dive into a basic evening routine for those starting to use a retinoid. 

First off, I always recommend using a gentle cleanser to remove the makeup and sunscreen that you put on in the morning. Next, put a small dot of the retinoid product on the tip of your finger — about the size of a green pea. You really don’t need more than that! 

Now, spread that retinoid evenly on the face with your finger  — remember, just one dot for the entire face. I start with my forehead, then move down to my cheeks, then a little bit on the nose, and a little bit on the chin. You want to be careful around the mouth area because that area can be prone to be more dry than your forehead or cheeks. Also, be careful applying the retinoid around the eyes and neck — these areas can be more sensitive and become more irritated than others. After applying the retinoid, I follow it up with a moisturizer to ensure everything stays hydrated! This will also help with the flakiness that usually starts in week three. 

When you start out, I recommend using the retinoid only one to two times a week. It can still be effective! The last thing you want to do is irritate your skin with excessive use, so the best practice is to be patient and methodical in your approach. After you’ve been applying it gradually for six to eight weeks, you can apply it nightly as tolerated.

If you’re experiencing a lot of flakiness and irritation from your retinoid, I recommend trying the sandwich technique! You can layer your retinoid between two applications of moisturizer — that could possibly decrease dryness and irritation. 

My main recommendation is to keep it slow but consistent — whether you’re using a prescription retinoid like tretinoin or an over-the-counter retinoid like adapalene.

Mindful and Consistent Skincare Brings Results

There is SO much more to talk about when it comes to retinoids and retinols, so stay tuned for additional episodes on this subject! This episode mainly serves as a beginner’s guide to retinoids and how you can start using them as part of your evening skincare routine. If you have any questions, feel free to DM me on Instagram, and stay tuned for the Q&A retinoid episode this Friday! 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to let me know on Instagram! You can tag me, @drnikoleta, with a screenshot of the episode and your greatest takeaways. I’d also really appreciate it if you would subscribe and leave a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts — that helps us share the podcast with more people like you who are looking to achieve the skin of their dreams! 

And if you want to get even more plugged in, check out the podcast Facebook Community! This is an exclusive group of like-minded individuals who prioritize skincare, self-care, and healthcare — we’d love to have you join us!

Until next time, Step Out with Confidence®, love your skin, and tell yourself how incredible and amazing you are! 


I am a board-certified dermatologist, CEO and Founder of Healthy Skin Blueprint, an acclaimed podcast host, best-selling author, and nationally recognized skin, hair, and nails expert. Welcome to the Skin Talk with Dr. Nikoleta blog.


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