I shared that I stopped using OTC retinol products after learning how they lose potency fast. I switched to a prescription retinoid, Tretinoin, which has extensive research and time in the market behind it. It works, and it remains stable over its shelf life – which is more than can be said by cosmetic OTC retinols.
I expected to see improved results over, say, Paula’s Choice, Inkey List, or InnBeauty. But retinoids changed my skin routine in ways I didn’t expect, too.
Retinoids Changed my Skin Routine – Fewer Steps, Fewer Products
When you’re incorporating a serious retinoid into your routine, best practice is to discontinue all other treatments to give your skin time to adjust. I pared back to the basics: cleanse, moisturize, retinoid, sunscreen. No acids, no toners, no treatments or whatsoever else. I did reincorporate Vitamin C in the morning, which I previously used, once I had adjusted.
A typical skincare day looks like this:
- Massage face with a washcloth dampened with cold water (no cleanser).
- Emulsify a few drops of Vitamin C serum with argan oil and moisturize. Not having the Vitamin C wouldn’t be a crisis, but I like having it.
- Apply SPF 50 sunscreen (NOT OPTIONAL anyway, but ESPECIALLY NOT NOW) – here’s my favorites.
- Cleanse, then wait at least 20 minutes for skin pH to normalize. Do other things in the meantime.
- Apply tretinoin.
- Moisturize, sometimes 2-step with a layer of argan oil locked in with CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, but more often just one or the other. I’ll probably 2-step it in winter when I’m dealing with more dryness.
No alternating in an acid, no peels, no sticky nonsense, no masks. No spot treatments, serums, etc. My skin looks great; better than it has in years. When I first started, I, “sandwiched,” the tretinoin between two layers of moisturizer to help me acclimate to the prescription strength product, but now it’s just as you read above.
Even when I need to be on camera, I only reach for concealer for very dark under-eye days. I get occasional hormonal blemishes along my jawline, but they are dramatically diminished (number, size, and severity). They clear up in a couple days, darkness and all.
When I first decided to explore prescription options to manage my skin, I expected it to be an expensive endeavor. Fortunately, my insurance covers my tretinoin prescription because of the acne aspect and I only have a $10 copay. It is filled every 3 months, though a tube lasts longer than 3 months.
Your mileage will vary depending on whether you have (or choose to use) your insurance and whether acne is a factor (most plans will not cover it purely for anti-aging). With the service I’m using, if I didn’t have insurance coverage on it, it would be $35 every three months. Still cheaper than Sephora.
Using a telehealth option, my total cost for an entire year of tretinoin, is $75 out-of-pocket (with my coverage) which includes the doctor’s consult (which wasn’t covered by insurance – other providers may be). I can pay for it with FSA funds.
For context, a bottle of Paula’s Choice 1% Retinol (which degrades, and you shouldn’t use) retails for $62 for 1oz (I never paid more than $48, and only bought one bottle – but STILL). Even Inkey List’s Retinol Serum goes for $12.99 for 1oz – and you get way less product in each, and they degrade rapidly.
My tubes of tretinoin are 45g/1.58oz. More of the product inside the tube is the retinoid; it isn’t diluted with as much stuff as the OTC. So, I’m getting more product, the product is more effective, and I’m being overseen by a medical professional. Ounce-for-ounce, this is way cheaper, not to mention more effective.
Since I cut so many elements from what I was doing, I have saved money. My argan oil and CeraVe cream are multitaskers that I use elsewhere on my body, and are highly cost effective. I’m not spending $25-40 1-2x year on acids. I don’t need spot treatments. My skin recovers from blemishes (when they occur) faster and with less telltale darkness.
I’m also saving time – which also has a value. I don’t need to carve out a ton of time for my routine now. It has next to no impact on my day – no more than brushing my teeth does. That is significant to me.
The Bottom Line
I’m about four months in to my switch to prescription Tretinoin, and you can easily see how retinoids changed my skin routine. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong about a multi-step routine, or one that has more costly components (if you can responsibly afford it, that is – accumulating debt for luxury skincare is, and I will not pull punches here, stupid and short-sighted). But I think fewer steps is better from a waste perspective; think packaging, money, and time-wise.
In my case it works out well that my retinoid use cut a lot of other things I was using. Obviously, everyone’s skin is different – it might not be advantageous for you to simplify quite this much, but I’m far from an outlier either! It is worth a shot.