If you're new to the world of prescription retinoids, welcome! This ingredient is one of the most loved in the skincare world thanks to its ability to transform your skin (when it comes to acne treatments and smoothing skin) — and it has the science to back it up.
Prescription retinoids have a number of names including Retinoic Acid, Retin A and vitamin A. In fact, it is part of the retinoid family and a derivative of vitamin A.
Topical retinoids are an effective medication that increases the rate of skin cell turnover. This medication is regularly recommended for the treatment of acne, photoageing (UV-induced ageing) and irregular pigmentation.
It's often also used as a 'first line' treatment to help manage mild acne and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
In Australia, it's only available via prescription so that doctors can counsel patients on the best way to use and apply it.
How does it work?
Prescription retinoids work in a number of ways — some of the key benefits include:
Stimulating the growth of new skin cells
Retinoids help to increase the growth of new cells while also speeding up the rate at which old skin cells are shed — both of these processes are incredibly helpful when it comes to the treatment of ageing and acne.
Prescription retinoids help to reduce the production of sebum (the oil on your skin) while also reducing keratinization (the production of excess skin cells), which can both lead to the formation of comedones (blackheads).
When it comes to anti-ageing, the increased cell production and turnover help to improve fine wrinkling and reduce irregular pigmentation, roughness and scaly skin to reveal smooth skin.
Promoting collagen production
Collagen is the protein that contributes to your skin's strength and elasticity.
As your body's collagen production reduces with age, it causes your skin to sag — a key sign of ageing. Increased collagen helps to plump the skin and increases epidermal thickness.
For inflamed acne (papules and pustules), prescription retinoid helps by reducing redness and swelling.
How do prescription retinoids compare to everything else on the market?
Retinoids are a prescription medication, which means you have to get a prescription from a doctor.
The strength and potency of retinoids distinguish it from over-the-counter treatments, which are typically weaker and less effective. In fact, it is recognised as a 'silver bullet' by many doctors because of its raft of benefits.
Prescription retinoids come from the same family as retinol — both are a derivative of vitamin A. However, retinoids can be distinguished from retinol as the latter is available in store because it is less potent, and therefore is classified as a cosmetic (as opposed to a medicine).
This is why Software uses prescription retinoids in many of its custom formulas for acne, ageing and pigmentation treatments. Our Australian doctors create formulas based on your individual skin concerns using medical-grade ingredients like retinoids, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide so you can work towards your personal skin goals.
Simply complete our text-based quiz and upload a few selfies of your skin and a local Software doctor will create a customised prescription formula for you. This is compounded and delivered straight to your door and you can access ongoing follow-up support from your doctor as you use your treatment.
What strength should I use?
Everybody's skin is different and some people have more sensitive skin than others. So it is important that you use the strength of prescription retinoids that is best for your skin — this is something your doctor can recommend based on your skin goals.
Prescription retinoids are available in a variety of strengths: 0.018%, 0.025% and 0.05% w/w. Whilst these seem like minuscule amounts, retinoids are quite potent and as a result, it's best to start on a lower strength and increase it if your skin tolerates the concentration.
Side effects can be common for many people when using retinoids and when you first integrate the medication into your skincare routine, you may experience dryness, irritation, redness or peeling skin.
The good news is that there are a number of ways you can manage this transition and we'll dive into these deeper shortly.
If you are using prescription retinoids to treat acne, you may also experience some 'purging'. This refers to a period where you experience acne breakouts before your skin clears up — it generally lasts around 4-6 weeks but can take 12-16 weeks to resolve completely.
This is a product of acne surfacing as the skin cells are regenerated by the retinoids.
How long before I start to see results?
The road to healthy and happy skin takes time and consistency and patience are 2 things needed in abundance when changing your skin. In fact, using retinoids consistently will determine how soon you begin experiencing changes.
Keep in mind that it can take anywhere from 2-4 months to start seeing results and this is where patience comes in. Your skin journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and the longer you stick with your treatment, the better your results will be.
Acne is a chronic condition and it takes time to see results from acne treatments. While you can’t control the formation of breakouts, you can control how often you use retinoids and consistency is key here.
Most patients begin to see improvements in their acne within 8-12 weeks of starting Software but patience is key. Results vary from person to person and while you might feel disheartened that it’s taking a little longer, remember that your skin is a complex structure and these things take time to change.
Fine lines and wrinkles
Some patients experience positive changes to their skin texture and glow within 16 weeks of using their custom ageing formula, it can take 6-12 months of consistent use before you start seeing dramatic changes to wrinkles and fine lines.
This might seem like a prolonged period of time, but it’s important to remember that your skin is also influenced by factors like age, muscle movements and environmental factors.
In fact, UV exposure may account for up to 80% of visible signs of ageing, so be sure to work with your skin and wear sunscreen and protective clothing every day.
How to apply prescription retinoids
In the evening, apply your retinoid formula as follows:
- Step 1: Wash your face with a mild cleanser and pat dry your face gently
- Step 2: Apply a non-comedogenic moisturiser
- Step 3: Apply 1-2 pumps of the Software cream to the face, spreading it thinly
- Step 4: Wash your hands immediately after use
Apply your formula to your face but try to avoid your mouth, nostrils and the contour of your eyes (the area from your eyelashes to your brow). These areas are sensitive and more likely to get irritated.
Prescription retinoids should only be used at night. Why? Well, while retinoids don’t actually cause sun sensitivity, it stimulates skin cell turnover and new skin cells are more sensitive to the sun and prone to burning.
So, this also means it's incredibly important that you use sunscreen daily while using retinoids — preferably an SPF50+ sunscreen like Software's Daily Sun Defence.
Our SPF50+ sunscreen is lightweight, non-greasy, non-comedogenic and formulated with UVA and UVB filters, which may reduce the risk of photoageing, sun spots and some types of skin cancer.
How to transition onto prescription retinoids
A good way to start your treatment is by using prescription retinoids every third night and seeing how your skin reacts.
If your skin is tolerating the treatment, you can increase the frequency of application to every second night. If your skin continues to tolerate the prescription retinoid then you can increase the frequency to every night. Be guided by how your skin feels and responds to the treatment.
If your skin becomes irritated, apply it less often and take a break for a few days. Note that it is normal to feel some irritation but this should reduce as you continue to use the treatment.
If it persists or is severe, stop treatment and contact your doctor. For most people, the skin gradually gets used to prescription retinoids. If you have sensitive skin, you can wash the treatment off after an hour or so.
To reduce irritation, try the following:
Use the ‘Software sandwich’ method
Apply a moisturiser 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after applying the Software formula. Buffering the treatment does not reduce efficacy and can help to hydrate skin.
Take it slow and listen to your skin
We recommend starting with a thin layer, every 3-4 days. If your skin is irritated then drop back to every 7 days to give your skin a break, before slowly increasing again.
Reduce the duration of your treatment
Apply the treatment for one hour at night before cleansing it off and applying a nourishing moisturiser. This is called short contact therapy and helps to reduce irritation.
Nourish your skin barrier
Applying a nourishing and healing cream helps to prevent and improve peeling. Our Ceramide Repair Balm is a great option as it injects moisture into the skin and works to protect the skin barrier with ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and squalane.
Apply to dry skin
Damp skin is more permeable and increases absorption of the formula, which can cause irritation. Ensure that your skin is completely dry before applying the treatment.
Use sunscreen daily
The medical-grade ingredients used in your custom Software formula encourage skin cell turnover and these new skin cells are more sensitive to the sun and prone to burning, so be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (like our Daily Sun Defence SPF50+) to protect your skin from sun damage.
Go without cleanser in the AM
Skip the cleanser and wash your face with lukewarm water only in the morning to avoid overdrying your skin.
Avoid delicate parts of the face
Avoid applying your treatment to the areas around the nose, eyes and mouth as these are delicate and prone to irritation and flaking skin.
We recommend placing a barrier ointment (such as our Ceramide Repair Balm) on those areas before your treatment if you are more prone to peeling in sensitive areas.
Skip other actives
Avoid other active ingredients until your skin is tolerating the treatment — this includes vitamin C, salicylic acid, AHAs and BHAs.
Be sure to avoid any other skin treatments that might further irritate the skin such as waxing or laser.
Now is the time to strip back your skincare routine to only the basics, which is why we developed the Software Essentials — this 3-step system is formulated to enhance your treatment plan and take the guesswork out of your skincare routine.
Our ultra-hydrating cleanser is a gentle formula designed to remove makeup, dirt, and impurities without stripping and drying your skin, while the moisturiser is fortified with ceramides and vitamin E to help build the skin barrier and leave it feeling fresh and rejuvenated.
Rounding out the trio is the Solar Fluid, which is designed to hydrate and soothe potential irritation from the strong actives in your formula while protecting your skin with an SPF50 formulation.
It’s lightweight, non-greasy, and doesn’t leave a white cast — everything you need for all-day protection.
Be careful of hot showers
Avoid hot showers or face washes as these can lead to excessively dry skin.
Try an oil-based cleanser or cloth
Using a non-comedogenic oil-based cleanser can work for many as a way to gently remove excess flaky skin. A microfibre cloth also works, simply dab it over your face immediately after a warm (not hot) shower.
Alternatively, a konjac sponge is a very gentle form of physical exfoliation that can help remove dead skin cells.
Who can use prescription retinoids?
Prescription retinoids are generally safe for most people to use but you should discuss your skin profile and medical history with your doctor to ensure that it is right for you.
For example, it may not be appropriate if you have other skin conditions and it should not be used by women who are breastfeeding, pregnant or trying to conceive.
If you'd like to explore whether retinoids can help you on your skin journey, complete our text-based quiz today and an Australian Software doctor will create a personalised formula just for you.
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