my tretinoin skincare routine for acne and PIH

How I Used Retinoid to Get Rid of Acne and Acne Spots (Sensitive Skin)

December 2019 was when I turned 23 and was introduced to painful cystic acne that would refuse to leave. I was also gifted some whiteheads and pustules with them, redness became my best friend and my cheeks – the area that was affected the worst – hurt with the slightest touch.

What went wrong you might ask? I don’t know. There was so much going on in my personal life that I really don’t remember anything. Or should I say everything that could go wrong did go wrong?

Maybe it was a poor lifestyle, lack of sleep, stress and almost not eating anything.

Initially, I thought it’s a phase and my skin will be fine so I switched to the basics just like anyone with irritated skin would/ should do.

My Initial Skincare Routine for Acne:

Cleanse (AM & PM) By Wishtrend Acid Duo 2% Cleanser
Hydrate (AM & PM) By Wishtrend 15% Propolis Ampoule
(So nourishing that I didn’t need another layer of moisturiser)
Protect Purito Centella Unscented Sunscreen (AM)
Cleansing Balm – Whenever I went out/ wore makeup (PM)

I also went ahead and used pimple patches as a spot treatment for the whiteheads and pustules and they worked in getting rid of the existing acne. But these are good for a few random and rare breakouts, I needed something that would stop them from coming back.

I’ve always had acne-prone skin but with proper skincare, I managed to curb them and would only get a few during periods. But this was all new to me.

Introducing a New Product

How to use The Ordinary Azelaic Acid in Your Routine
Skincare Routine

After 2-ish weeks, I introduced The Ordinary Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension and trust me when I say this, it took care of the redness and whiteheads like a dream! I kept using it daily at night without fail. My cheeks hurt less by now and I was pretty satisfied with it.

After following the basic routine with this azelaic acid, my skin improved a lot. The acne also slowed down.

Cystic Acne & Dealing With Self-Confidence

The frequency reduced but I was still getting them. The spots some of them left shattered my confidence.

If you have medium, tanned or dark skin, you are aware of the effect PIH (Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation) has on us. The spots these acne leave are so prominent and stubborn that it shakes your confidence when it comes to getting out in public or taking pictures without makeup.

Even if you start accepting it, the people around you won’t. They’ll always point out the obvious by completely forgetting the fact that we have a mirror in our homes and know about the acne and PIH on our faces.

And god bless if you’re a beauty blogger with problematic skin – people smirk and say “You’re a skincare blogger, how did you get it?”, “Don’t experiment with too many products na!”, “Apply aloe vera gel at night”, “OMG, what happened to your face?”, “I know the perfect cream that will remove this”…the unsolicited advice never ends.

Decision To Use Retinol for Acne and PIH

So being consistent with a basic skincare routine + azelaic acid for almost 4 weeks, I decided I am going to jump in and give retinol a try. I will not lie and say I did it only for myself, the unsolicited advices did push me further to take control of the situation. But I tried to keep it all aside and focused on what I love – Skincare! Learning, trying and experimenting with skincare! Also, getting my previous skin back LOL.

All the skincare brands with good retinol products like Murad, Medik8, Drunk Elephant, Paula’s Choice weren’t available in India and I couldn’t place an international order to wait another 20 days.

So I went ahead and bought a prescription retinoid – Tretinoin 0.025% from a medical store. You can’t buy this without a prescription in many countries so please check with your doctor.

Should We Start With Prescription Retinoid?

It’s not the best thing to do, you should always start with weaker over-the-counter retinol but ya girl was desperate and lives in a third world country. Before I started this routine, my skin had recovered a lot so my before retinol pictures might not look THAT bad. Or should I say I’ve seen worse?

If you want to know about retinol – what is it, how it works, different types – you can read this post on different skincare acids and what they do.

Even though it’s a “miracle” ingredient, it comes with its fair share of demerits.

Possible side effects of using retinoid/retinol:

  • Redness
  • Raw skin
  • Peeling
  • Dryness
  • Purging

I brought out all the hydrating and soothing serums, moisturisers from the deepest corners of my skincare drawer to minimise the side effects. And I kind of succeeded.

Skincare Tips to Start Retinol for Acne

1. Take Ideas but Don’t Copy

Just because I used Tretinoin doesn’t mean you have to! I know my skin very well and if you’re a beginner start with a weaker over-the-counter retinol.

Also, your acne might not be AS BAD as you think and you can benefit from OTC products too, especially if they’re easily available around you.

Some brands to explore:

  • The Ordinary
  • The Inkey List
  • Paula’s Choice
  • Drunk Elephant
  • Medik8
  • Murad
  • RoC
  • Dr Dennis Gross

You can still follow my retinoid skincare routine as a guide with these products!

2. Go Slow!

You’ll see great results and that will tempt you to increase the quantity or frequency but don’t do that. Last time I checked, there’s no race to who gets the best flawless skin first. Go slow and let your skin take some time to adjust.

3. Sunscreen

Your skin is more sensitive to the sun and is likely to get damaged further with unprotected sun exposure. Don’t use retinoid/ retinol if you can’t commit to sunscreen. Apply. Reapply.

4. Be Patient

No matter what the fancy charts on Instagram say about how long a product takes to show results, you have to be patient. You’re not going to get the exact same results within the same time frame as someone else.

5. It’s Not a Necessity

Unless you have severe acne or scarring and nothing seems to stop them, don’t jump into this immediately. At least not prescription retinoid.

You can still incorporate this amazing ingredient in your routine with OTC products for other skin benefits like anti-ageing, skin brightening, elasticity, etc.

6. Hydrate & Titrate

Buffering is so important when it comes to potent skincare. Use lots of hydrating and skin nourishing serums/ toners/ essences/ moisturisers to minimize irritation. 

But wait a few minutes (20-ish) for them to get absorbed and then apply retinol on dry skin. This will again help to avoid irritation.

Different ways to titrate retinol:

a) Retinol mixed with moisturiser

b) Retinol after moisturiser

c) Moisturiser – Retinol – Moisturiser

7. Keep It Simple

Don’t use Vitamin C or AHA or BHA in the same routine as retinol because it might be a lot for your skin to handle. It can also result in irritated, broken skin.

Unless you’re sure of what you’re doing and the combination has already worked for you, go ahead as it’s not wrong to use them.

It highly depends on your skin!

8. Don’t Use When You’re Pregnant

Using retinol during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects in the child. Even though the chances are slim, it’s not something you’d want to take. Avoid retinol completely if you’re pregnant!

My Retinoid Skincare Routine for Acne and PIH

Doesn’t matter whether you’re using a prescription retinoid or an over-the-counter one, this routine will give you a direction. But always tweak things depending on how your skin reacts.

As I mentioned, my skin had improved a lot even before I started this. Check this random Instagram video I made for fun while I was on azelaic acid in case you want to see my skin condition.

Week 1-4 Routine:

Tretinoin Night (once a week)

1. Drunk Elephant Beste Jelly Cleanser

2. Drunk Elephant B Hydra

3. By Wishtrend Propolis Ampoule

4. Tretinoin gel (very small quantity) mixed with Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Cream

I would cleanse with a cleansing balm/oil first if I stepped out and/or wore makeup. But I work from home so I’m mostly indoors.

Tretinoin skincare routine
Tretinoin Skincare Routine

Precautions & Experience

  • Always waited for the serum to completely absorb (15-20 minutes) before applying the tretinoin gel.
  • During the application, it tingled a lot for the first 10 minutes and I’d sometimes apply another layer of moisturiser. But that reduced after some uses.
  • I eliminated any exfoliating acid from the routine and witnessed drastic results with just 2 uses.
  • I stopped getting any new acne and my complexion improved – firmer, even-toned and glowy skin.
  • The next few days were all about my skin feeling raw, some dryness and it started peeling on some areas too. But it was expected and the routine for the rest of the week helped me cope with it.

The results and side effects will vary for everyone. Use a pea-sized amount, don’t go overboard.

You can download a quick cheatsheet by filling your detail below. I’ve mentioned the steps, different ways to use retinoid to reduce irritation and some product recommendations – cleansers, toners, serums, essences, and moisturisers.


Non-Tretinoin Days

You can continue following your regular skincare routine for the rest of the week. My focus was to keep nourishing my skin and minimise dryness and peeling.

Morning Skincare Routine:

  • By Wishtrend Acid Duo Cleanser
  • By Wishtrend Propolis Ampoule
  • Pixi pHenomenal gel (if needed)
  • Purito Centella Unscented Sunscreen

Please don’t skip sunscreen at any cost and try to avoid being in the sun whenever you can. It’s also important that you apply it generously, the video below would give you a rough idea:

Nighttime Skincare Routine:

  • The Earth Rhythm Cleansing Balm (if needed)
  • By Wishtrend Acid Duo Cleanser
  • Drunk Elephant B Hydra
  • By Wishtrend Propolis Ampoule
  • Pixi phenomenal gel  (Has ascorbic acid & Retinyl Palmitate so didn’t use on tretinoin nights to be on a safer side)

I had more than one cleanser and moisturizer so I was rotating them, it’s not necessary for you to have different products for each day. Also, I was trying to save the precious and expensive Drunk Elephant products so I could savour them a little more.

You can read my review on Drunk Elephant The Littles Kit where I’ve reviewed a bunch of their skincare products.

Skincare routine for non retinoid days
Skincare Routine for Non-Retinoid Days

Week 4-6 Routine:

B Hydra was over so skipped it and it also didn’t make a difference. The rest of the products in my skincare routine stayed the same but I followed the tretinoin night routine twice a week.

The only difference was the second use was mainly focused on the cheeks.

Experience & Results

  • The twice a week routine was a lot for my skin to handle, it was so difficult to yawn or laugh without feeling raw throughout the week.
  • So I decided I needed to tone down and go back to the once a week routine. My skin still feels raw the next two days of using tretinoin but it’s bearable and I’ve made peace with it.
    Honestly, anything in exchange for the no acne skin that I have now!
  • By this time I had completely stopped getting any cystic acne, the old ones were healed and the PIH also lightened to an extent. I did get one or two acne during my periods as usual but that was it!

Routine From Week 6:

Everything remained the same as Week 1 to 4 but I introduced an AHA serum/ toner once a week during PM and Vitamin C in the AM (because I needed to use it up before it oxidized).

Products I Used:

  • Drunk Elephant C-Firma
  • Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos

Feel free to use whichever Vitamin C serum or AHA that works for you. I tried to use up what I had.

And once these are over, I’ll probably introduce new products (more affordable). The idea remains the same – a nourishing serum, a no-nonsense rich moisturiser and avoiding daily use of potent exfoliating acids.

Before and After Retinol
Retinol Before and After for Acne
Before and After Retinol

These are my before and after retinoid shots. I can’t believe how the pigmentation reduced in just 6 weeks!

Here’s a Quick Recap of How I Used Tretinoin (Retinoid) for Acne & PIH:

Week 1-4: Once a week mixed with moisturiser.

Week 5-6: Twice a week – first same as earlier & the second was mainly on the cheek area.

Week 6 to Now: Once a week before moisturiser.

I’ve realised that the current routine works the best for my skin and that’s why I’d recommend you to test things out and see how YOUR skin will react to it.

My routine can certainly help as a guide if you’re feeling completely lost and need a direction. I am so happy with retinoid that I don’t think I’ll ever stop using it, it literally changed my skin!

I hope this helped you a little in deciding how to combat acne, PIH and introduce retinol in your skincare routine. My skin had healed a little when I decided to get tretinoin for acne. The only thing I regret is not starting it earlier.

My Retinoid Skincare Routine

The products will change but the basic layout of my routine, the steps, the frequency will be the same. And if there are any big changes, I’ll update this post and until then you can follow me on Instagram to see how I’m working around this routine and including new products.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section.

Oh yes, I still can’t yawn without feeling raw.


  1. Harsifat Arora says:

    I was waiting for this for so long! My dermat had recommended taking Accutane but I have read really mixed reviews on it with bad side effects. So I wanted to try Tretinoin for my acne. Used it for the first time last night, haven’t experienced any side effects because I hydrate myself and my skin toooo much cause dry skin 😂 but I LOVE the effect of it on my skin. I have a cystic acne currently on my jaw and really painful one which reduced in size overnight. Thank you for recommending this, I am never going off this cream now 😂

    1. Haha that sounds awesome!!! I understand how terrible cystic acne can get and I share the same feeling, never going to stop using this. xx

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