How to adjust to a powerful retinoid and avoid the 'uglies'

Back to blog

How to adjust to a powerful retinoid and avoid the 'uglies'
How to adjust to a powerful retinoid and avoid the 'uglies'

by Kathleen Morrison, Lead Writer

November 6th, 2019

Let’s face it – the journey to glowing skin isn’t always pretty. Tretinoin can be the most powerful tool in your skincare arsenal, but using it often involves enduring a phase retinoid devotees sometimes call the “retinoid uglies,” or the “tretinoin purge.” What are the retinoid uglies and can you avoid them? We consulted with our dermatologists to see what they had to say.

What are the retinoid uglies?

This name describes an adjustment period after first starting tretinoin that lasts a few days to a few weeks. Your skin may look dry, flaky, and red, and products that used to be gentle on your face suddenly sting when you apply them. Thankfully, the retinoid uglies typically resolve on their own as your skin gets used to tretinoin and your dry, flaky skin is replaced with smooth, glowing skin.

Can I avoid them?

A little bit of irritation is almost impossible to avoid, but our dermatologists have a few different tips and tricks for surviving the worst of this phase.

  • Apply moisturizer before tretinoin. This allows the moisturizer to act as a buffer and mitigate some of the more irritating effects of the medication. Dr. Lauren Kyle adds, “You could also try mixing the moisturizer and tretinoin together. You may need to invest in a thicker moisturizer like a Dermal Repair Cream for more moisture.” Tretinoin can be very drying, so even those with oily skins shouldn’t shy away from a little extra hydration!
  • Stay gentle and go slow. Dr. George Skandamis has a whole routine worked out when it comes to avoiding the worst of tretinoin’s peeling. He recommends starting with a gentle skin cleanser like Cetaphil, CeraVe, or Neutrogena and waiting five minutes to ensure your face is completely dry before applying tretinoin. He goes on, “Next, use a small amount of retinoid for the entire face. Follow with a light lotion or a heavier cream, or both if the skin is still too dry.” Listening to your body and going slow will help smooth the transition to glowing skin.
  • Seriously, go slow. Dr. Maggie Kober agrees that applying moisturizer before tretinoin can be beneficial and adds, “If tretinoin causes too much dryness, use it every other night until your skin builds up a tolerance.” There’s no reason to rush! You can let your skin adjust at its own pace. You’ll still be glowing in the end.

“It pays off in the long run”

We consulted with one of our software developers who has been using Apostrophe’s Tretinoin Formula consistently and asked about her experience with the treatment. She had this to say: “On a day to day basis, sometimes it can be really frustrating, actually. But I've seen pictures of women who have been using tret for decades and it’s clear it pays off in the long run, so that's why I'm committed to putting in the work to make it part of my routine.” We can’t wait to see your radiant skin!

Ultimately, there’s no need to worry about tretinoin irritation if the temporary side effects don’t bother you. But if you do want to avoid irritation, there are a few steps you can take that will help. You’ll be feeling the long-term benefits of smooth, clear skin for years to come!

Did you beat the “retinoid uglies?” What are your tips and tricks? Tweet at us @hi_apostrophe or send an email to

Welcome to the fine print! Just so you know, this article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. It’s always best to talk to a doctor for that stuff.

Prescription medication should only be used according to doctor's instructions. Do not use Tretinoin Formula if you are allergic to one of its ingredients. Common side effects include redness and peeling. Full list of safety information can be found at:

Recommended Posts

Over-the-counter vs. prescription strength: which retinoid is right for you?


The ultimate guide to: Ingredients


A winning combination: oral + topical treatment


Still thinking about it? 💭

Sign up for our newsletter to get $10 off your Apostrophe medication. 🤑