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The Retinoid Uglies: What They Are, and How to Get Rid of Them

You, too, can avoid the flaky, gross shiz that appears on your face when you first start using a retinoid product. Just follow Dr. Fredric Brandt's super-simple steps.

Something happens when you turn 30. At least, something happened to me when I turned 30, and it was that I suddenly cared more about my skin. I've always been pretty cautious about the sun—as in, I tend to stay out of it. But other than that, the only thing I did after I washed my face every night was put spot medicine on my zits.

Then, a couple of years ago, I started noticing some wrinkles. Not on my face, really—I've chosen the "face" in the "your face or your ass" conundrum—but on my neck. Maybe I watched too many episodes of Ally McBeal as a teenager, but ew--a wattle? I figured, if I was developing a wattle, it was only a matter of time until it caught up to my face. I had read more than enough about retinoids to know that it's the best acne AND wrinkle fighter. (Also, every woman I've met over the age of 60 whose skin looks great uses Retin-A.) My derm wrote me a prescription for the stuff, and while it definitely helped with the cystic acne I occasionally get around my jawline, it made the rest of my skin look CRAZY. As in peeling, crackly, gray—just, well, yuck. So I stopped using it after about three weeks and started on an over-the-counter retinol product that a beauty editor friend recommended. (Retinols are a much, much milder form of retinoids.)

The product was great—smelled good, made my skin glow—but it didn't help with acne. So I was back to square one. When I visited doctor yet again, I asked for another round of Retin-A—this time just for my cysts. Instead, he prescribed Differin, which is a lotion, and promised that if I just stuck it out I could use it all over my face as an anti-aging mechanism, too. "And you won't have to spend tons of money on the over-the-counter stuff," he said. Okay, fine.

This time around, I was determined to avoid the "retinoid uglies," as they're so aptly called. Dr. Fredric Brandt, whose products I've personally used—and paid for, don't go thinking they were freebies—sums up all the advice I got from beauty editors and doctors pretty succinctly. "You can definitely prevent [the retinoid uglies]," he says. "First, make sure it's applied to dry skin. Apply every third night for the first two weeks, then every second night for the next week, and so on so that your skin can get acclimated to it. And apply a moisturizer with ceramides every time you use retinoids or retinol." (Ceramides are a family of molecules that give your skin moisture. Cetaphil is an example of an affordable lotion that helps add those ceramides back in.)

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My skin routine is still pretty simple. I use an SPF lotion in the morning (this one by Restorsea) with a bit of Olio Lusso. At night, I do Differin alongside Restorsea night cream. And lately, if I am a little flakey, I also use Nuxe Creme Fraiche soothing cream, which smells amazing and is so comforting.

That's what works for me. But whatever steps you take, know that the "retinoid uglies" don't have to be a part of them. What I believe—and what most doctors and beauty experts will tell you—is that there are very few things that actually, legitimately help with wrinkles. And adult acne. So if you're dealing with both, and want a solution, it might be worth checking out a product with retinoids or retinols. If you'd rather stay away from prescriptions, try Dr. Brandt's line, Glow. It's great.