Curious about prescription retinoids? Here's absolutely everything you need to know first.

*V. serious newsreader voice*

"There is an epidemic sweeping the beauty community.

"A highly addictive, potent and potentially damaging substance, often casually referred to amongst users by its street name 'tret', is taking over the bathroom cabinets of regular suburban homes.

"Chances are if you haven’t tried it, *dramatic music/pause*, you know someone who has.

"While a legally prescribed medication, it’s open to misuse, and many addicts have taken to getting their fix from online dealers and in the process....”

*back to my voice*

... seriously f***ing up their face!

Watch: Here are some of the products and ingredients you need to know about. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Hi, my name’s Carly, and I’m a prescription retinoid addict.

You could probably say that my story started the same way many addiction stories do. 

I joined a gang, and it wasn’t long before they introduced me to what is now my product of choice. Same lines they all use - “you won’t believe how amazing it is,” “it really is the gold-standard” - and what can I say? I was young (shut up, just let me have it) and naïve. Before long I was searching the internet desperately trying to score, and soon after that, I was hooked.


The gang went by the name of the You Beauty Group, and their hit of choice was synthetic vitamin A.

Throwing signs and hustlin’ in the streets. Image: Supplied 


Seriously though. If you haven’t heard people discussing “prescription skincare” you may have been living under a rock. Particularly if you’re “no Bo” like me and looking for a less invasive alternative to staving off old age. Prior to having children, I was all for injectables and boob jobs (though never got around to doing either) but now I have a daughter... I just can’t.

So it's SPF50+ over face injections, and no more complaining about my shrivelled ex-breastfeeding titties.

Listen: The anti-ageing ingredients you can use when you're pregnant. Post continues below.

I’m in full support of whatever makes people happy, but for me, too much of the female aesthetic has been forged in the fires of the patriarchy, and a recent Mamamia article about women choosing to dissolve their fillers has left me wondering how fleeting this happiness may turn out to be. 

I side-eye Instagram, reality TV and celebrity culture, wondering how much they are to blame. Is it just a trend? I think back to the over-plucked eyebrows of the 90s vs. the big, bushy, brushed-up babies of today. The times they are a-changin' and who’s to say that later down the track my ‘WTF lines’ won’t be farshun?

So, no needles. I’m going to age naturally, and with a tube of topical retinoid cream tucked behind my back.

You may at this point be wondering where this article’s going. So I’ll get to the point. 


As a self-proclaimed addict, with no desire to rehabilitate, this article is for anyone who is thinking about starting, has already started, or has burnt their goddamn face off using prescribed retinoic acid.

Come over to the dark side. Lemme recruit you into my gang...

What is prescription retinoid? 

You’ve heard of retinol, yeah? Well retinol is a naturally occurring derivative of vitamin A. It speeds up cell turnover, smoothing the skin, tackling pigmentation and minimising fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol is a common ingredient in many lines of over-the-counter skin care.

It’s safe to use, but because it penetrates transdermally, it isn’t suitable whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. Retinol yields great results when used long term, and when used correctly has minimal irritation and side effects.

Prescription retinoids, on the other hand, are a synthetic form of vitamin A - a concentration of pure retinoic acid. It’s referenced as being 100 times stronger than retinol, and begins to work immediately since no conversion by your body is required. 

It does the same things as retinol, but harder, better, and faster - basically giving you epic results, quickly, but with some pretty nasty side effects if you don’t know what you’re doing. Goes without saying but gonna say it anyway - no to this if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Where do I get my fix?

First, baby girl, you’re going to need to get yourself a dealer. Since this is the hard stuff we’re talking about, I strongly suggest speaking with your GP or dermatologist first. There are prescription skincare companies that may be able to prescribe it to you, however do your research first. 


Too many people get their cream in the mail, don’t read the instructions and think they can use it like a moisturiser. No! Bad! Retinoids can be really impressive when used sensibly, but use too much, or too often and you’re gonna regret it.

How do I acid? 

Well, there are two ways! The right way, and the really, really stupid way. I have done both! So come in, sit down! 

After seeing my doctor where I said, "Hey, vanity request: can I please have a prescription for retinoids so I can try to cheat my way out of being a wrinkly old b**ch?” he said “The wrinkles we might cure, but the b**ch part probs not."

(Just kidding! He said yes!). 

After checking his computer, he told me it’s normally introduced at a strength of .25 per cent, but me (d**khead) insisted on .50 per cent because I’d been using The Ordinary Retinol in Squalene for six months prior and thought that made me ready.

I walked out of there with a prescription and not a single clue, and proceeded to practice stupid.

First night I used it: What was all the fuss about? Doesn’t even sting. What’s everyone talking about? Feels fine! 

Second night I used it: Cocky! Imma put this on my lips and my eyes too! I mean, they’ll be the first to wrinkle won’t they? Just do it! Yassss.


Third night I used it: Ha! I am the acid queen! Still no side effects - not a peel or a purge in sight! This is so amazing - I’m going to post a pic in that special retinoids group and crap on about how resilient and tolerant my face skin is! Yay me!

Fourth night. Did not use it: Sat in the bath, crying for mum and rolling a cold can of beer over my stupid, stingy face.

Ashamed and embarrassed. Image: Supplied 


See, the aftereffects of retinoids aren’t typically felt until a few days later. So I went hard, then harder and when I should have already stopped EVEN HARDER STILL. 

I royally f***ed my skin barrier, and not only did that mean I had to go cold turkey and stop using it completely, I couldn’t use anything else, either! 

It took me nearly two weeks to repair the damage I had done to my skin, by which point I had accepted I’d acted a fool, gone away and done my research, and vowed this time to be a better user. I started using my retinoid cream again, but this time I did it responsibly. 

Now, before I go ahead and tell you the right way to use “tret”, I’m first going to get on my high horse about the fact that there is basically NO education from professionals at the point of exchange about how to use it. I walked out of that doctor's office with some hardcore sh*t in my hand and no idea what to do with it. 

I surveyed an online community solely dedicated to prescription retinoid use about who their dealer was and whether they felt that during their consultation they had been adequately informed and supported. 

These were the results:

- 40 per cent got their fix at the GP.

- 15 per cent went to a dermatologist.

- 32 per cent use a virtual prescription skincare company.

- 13 per cent were importing it from Portugal or India!


- And a whopping 44 per cent said they were given their prescription with zero instruction - GPs and virtual medical grade skincare companies being the worst offenders!

So now that I’ve called them out, I’ll do their jobs for them, too, shall I? 

Let’s all learn how to safely do retinoic acid.

  1. Start at the lowest percentage. Messing about with The Ordinary for a bit doesn’t make you cool, ok? Retinoids are heavy hitters and despite how tough you think all your peels and microdermabrasion and little vials of OTC retinol have made you… they haven’t. Go low and slow, angels. Prescription retinoid is a marathon, not a sprint, and the aim is to acclimatise your skin  - get it used to running! - before you sign it up for its first 5k. Smash the 2.5k first (get the .25 per cent) and remember to warm up!

  1. Gradually introduce it. Don’t behave like a d**khead! Do it for one night, then give yourself two to three nights break. Listen to your face. Become one with your skin. Check in with it, ask it how it's doing - if it’s all good in the hood, please, by all means, continue. But give it a couple of days first. Because old burny face is just around the corner and it WILL get you.

  1. Cut out all other actives. Don’t even *think* about doing something as silly as using an AHA, or a BHA, an astringent toner, a face scrub, a vibrating silicone face-washer thing or even so much as a rough old towel. Imagine your face is a brand new, tiny baby (it basically is! yay!) and handle it accordingly. You might not have shopped for products specifically for sensitive skin before… but you will now, trust me.

  1. Don’t mix your A with your C. Like, you can still use it, just not at the same time. Imagine that your vitamin C serum is Biggie and your retinoids are Tupac. They got beef. They’re both still sick rappers, but they cannot perform at the same event. Someone’s gonna get hurt. Take your vitamin C in the morning and do your prescription at night.

  1. WEAR SUNSCREEN. Every now and then someone pops up and says that they saw some video on YouTube, and that this Canadian dermatologist doesn’t think that using topical retinoids makes you more sensitive to the sun. I’m not a dermatologist, and I don’t want to start any east coast / west coast beef of my own… but I call BS. I dare you to use your cream one night and then take your kids to a sunny playground the next day. Do it. See how it feels. Report back. (Don’t do it. Just take my word for it and wear sunscreen. Which shouldn’t be a problem because you should already be doing it anyway!).

  1. Get the right advice. Knowledge is power. Do your research (cause we all know your doc ain’t doing it for you) and get some good advice. Get in touch with other retinoids users for help and support.

  1. Go shopping. Like you need any encouragement! Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve ever bought as many products in such a short period of time before. Retinoids took everything I knew about skincare, routines, my own damn FACE and threw it out of a moving vehicle. I went overnight from being pretty greasy to SO DAMN DRY, like… multiple applications of moisturiser per day kinda dry. I started ‘slugging’ at night. And not even to “lock the goodness in” - oh no! - literally just to stop myself from crumbling into my pillow while I slept.
    Sensitive areas, like lips and eyes... holy moly. You’re gonna wanna up your game for those. And aftercare - for when the burn / peel comes. I’ve obliterated my barrier a few times now. And let’s be honest, I’ll probably do it again. 

Here are some of the homies that have had my back while I’ve been using. 

Amperna Ultra Gentle Soothing Cleanser, $42.00.

Did you know that your foamy face wash is probs drying you out? The ones that lather are typically heavy on soap and harsh chemicals that can strip your skin. I’ve been using this one while introducing heavyweights into my routine.

It’s tested on eczema, perioral dermatitis and rosacea prone skin so you just know it can handle your retinoids bullsh*t. It’s a light, clean feeling gel that emulsifies with water, and uses cucumber and sage to balance and maintain healthy pH. Whenever my face throws a fit, this is my guy. Always manages to calm things down.

COSRX Advanced Mucin Snail Power Essence, $19.50.

“Oh look, it’s Carly with the snail jizz again, what a surprise.” I know I talk about this a lot but I’ve just ordered my third bottle. If you know you know, and if you don’t, get some so you do. I genuinely don’t think I’d have been able to keep doing retinoids if it wasn’t for snails. 

Their ooey, gooey excretions are so gross but soooo hydrating and a layer of snail slime is the ideal first slice of the sandwich method - which is where you pop your retinoid cream between two very moisturising layers, to sneakily avoiding peeling. The advanced all-in-one cream is texturally EXTRA disgusting, but also amazing, so if you’re unsure where an essence will fit into your routine I highly, highly recommend that.


Aurae Skin Bright Eyes Balm, $69.00.

This right here is my holy grail product. If I had it my way, there would be a pot handed out with every prescription. Confession time - I actually used to think eye cream was a hoax. I never used it, figuring whatever I was putting on the rest of my face would work its magic around my eyes, too. But I got a free sample of this just as I was starting retinoids and it must have been divine intervention or something. 

The skin under my lower lash line was so dry it actually CRACKED and this stuff saved me. It’s unlike any other eye cream I’ve tried. It’s thick, solid - almost like a lip balm but softens on touch. I put a decent layer on before using retinoids, to buffer the eye area which is thinner and more sensitive, and I apply it again first thing when I wake up the next day. I’ve smashed a full size pot in about a month, it’s a goodun’.

Aesthetics Rx H20 Hydrating Balm $99.00. 

So, remember before I spoke about the sandwich method? THIS is my final layer. I appreciate that it’s on the more expensive side, but the big thicc tube will last you FOREVER. Don’t even think about starting retinoids without it! Contained within is *literal* face first-aid. 

Recommended for use post-laser, it contains aloe vera, arnica and vitamin B5. It’s basically cosmeceutical grade pawpaw and feels like wrapping dry, flaky skin in a soothing, nourishing hug. I wouldn’t use it during the day but you bet I’m basting myself with this every night. Pleased as punch to have come across this at this point in my skincare journey because it was desperately, desperately needed. 



Image: Supplied 

Synth Labs Intl Chill! Neo-cryo Jelly Serum / Mask, $89.95, (30 applications).

I saw a beauty blogger using this on Instagram and I instantly had to have it! When you damage your skin barrier, it feels like bad sunburn. It’s super tight, hot, feels scorched and stingy… so damn uncomfortable and while you’ll try anything to alleviate it, most things end up making it worse. 


But this… this ticked all my stupid boxes.

It’s basically an icy pole for your skin, and it comes with a pouch of jelly, a vial of powder, a silicone mould and a stirrer. You follow the instructions to mix it all up, before popping it into the freezer to set. It contains algae, aloe vera juice, hyaluronic acid, cica grass and snow mushroom, and gliding it over ouchy skin is a bloody orgasmic experience. After each use you just pop it into the freezer until the next time you get a bit heavy-handed and f**k yourself up. 


Image: Supplied 


Aceology Unicorn Pink Ice Globes, $64.00. 

I affectionately call them my unicorn balls and they are a main feature of both my skincare routine and my fridge. Prior to these I was a devotee of the jade roller but now that I have these tiny, pink glitter filled glass maracas in my life there is no going back! 

Rolling these chilly boys over a sheet mask is one of life’s little pleasures and don’t even get me started on the magic they work upon your eye area the morning after a night out. If you’ve been a bit silly and given yourself a touch of the old chemical burn, there is nothing more soothing than getting some cold balls all up in it. I use them to massage my serums in, and also, (not their purpose but very effective) - as “first aid” whenever my kids get an "ouchy". Fun for the whole family!

If you have any questions about routines, I’m happy to help where I can, send us a dm @_carly_sophia_ but remember - prescription retinoid is hardcore, and you should always speak to your dermatologist or doctor first.

Peace out.

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Have you tried prescription retinoid before? What was your experience like? Share with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Supplied / @_carly_sophia_

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