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Retinoids for Anti-Aging Skin

What prescription or nonprescription retinoids can do and what to know before you use them.

How Do You Use Retinoids?

You only need a pea-sized amount each day of prescription retinoids or non-prescription retinol-based products, Jacob says. More than that could irritate the skin.

Farris recommends starting slowly by using a retinoid every other night until the skin can tolerate it. "Not everyone gets irritation, but most do at first," she says. "That goes away in a couple of weeks."

If you're using prescription tretinoin, use it exactly as your doctor prescribed. Ask your doctor if you should avoid using other medications on your skin at the same time.

Avoid sun exposure, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and cover exposed skin with protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat, when you're outside. "You still have to wear sunscreens when you're on prescription retinoids," Farris says. "You can't be treating sun damage and then not protect yourself from the sun.''

Clean and dry your skin before applying the retinoid. Don't use it with other skin care products made with benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, resorcinol, or salicylic acid. The combination can cause severe skin irritation.

Using tretinoin with certain medications -- diuretics, antibiotics such as tetracycline and ciprofloxacin, and sulfa drugs -- may also make your skin more light-sensitive.

Are Retinoids Safe?

Yes, say Jacob and Farris.

But pregnant or nursing women should check with their doctor about using these products. "If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, I like the ob-gyn to say it's OK," Jacobs says.

The most common side effects from using tretinoin include burning, warmth, stinging, tingling, itching, redness, swelling, dryness, peeling, irritation, and discoloration of the skin. Rarer side effects include hives, swelling, and breathing difficulty.

"If your skin becomes very irritated, you can moisturize and back off using the retinoids. It'll clear up in a few days,'' Jacobs says. "You can use tretinoin or [over-the-counter] retinols forever."

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