Hurts So Good: I'm Tolerating Retin-A Irritation For The Amazing Results

I had no idea Retin-A could be used for wrinkles until a coworker gave me a sample. Now I have to have more, pain and prescription be damned.
Publish date:
May 16, 2013
aging, prescriptions, retinol, retin a, vitamin a

After a year-long stint of unemployment, I found myself, at age 30, a “matchmaker” for a blind-dating service (think Millionaire Matchmaker meets Office Space).

The service basically amounted to a call center, where employees were given client lists based on geography and instructed to match accordingly. With a few exceptions, my coworkers were comprised mostly of girls in their mid-twenties whose backgrounds ranged wildly.

Leaving the carefully-monitored ladies room one day, I was discussing anti-aging skincare with a 22-year-old coworker. We passed another girl in the hallway, also at least seven years my junior, and she gave me the best piece of skincare advice that I have ever received in my life ever.

“Retin-A,” she said.

“Isn’t that for pimples?”

“Yeah, but it works for wrinkles, too.”

She promised to bring me a sample, which she did, and truthfully, I threw it in my medicine cabinet and forgot about it. She followed up with me a week later, and I was guilted into giving it a try.

I used it for a night or two, and my face was on fire, so I decided to do a little research.


There’s an initiation period with Retin-A. I can fully understand how anyone using it to treat acne would have a hard time endorsing it. The first few months are rotten. Every pore that was thinking about erupting goes for gold.

My skin was dry, peely and... peely. And it hurt. Sunshine felt like I was sticking my face in the oven.

But wow, what a pay-off!

The beautiful thing about Retin-A, is that it changes the way your skin regenerates. Scientists in the 1950s(ish) discovered that a concentrated form of vitamin A, when applied to the skin, increased cell turnover and promoted collagen production (beauty, thy name is increased collagen production). When your skin resurfaces itself more quickly, pimples don’t stand a chance and lines don’t stay.

It’s wonderful. It works. And once you’ve made it through the initiation period, it’s not horrifyingly painful. It’s the only “anti-wrinkle” cream really proven to erase wrinkles and improve the overall quality of your skin.

My stint at the dating service lasted about as long as the sample tube of Retin-A (don’t shed too many tears for me--it was a rough gig) and, thankfully, I soon found myself at a new job, complete with health benefits.

I hightailed it over to an appointment with a carefully researched, in-network, dermatologist and extolled my newfound (black market) love affair with Retin-A.

Fortunately, I got the green light to continue its use and even picked up some valuable information. (Valuable information regarding a prescription from a medical professional? Tell me more!)

Extensive study on Retin-A (or tretinoin) has proven that the treatment is just as effective at lower concentrations. When using it to treat wrinkles, applying too much or using a stronger concentration will irritate your skin, but that’s about it.

Incidentally, I had been using a high concentration which may have had a little (a lot) to do with how much my face hurt. (As a child of the '80s, I equated the pain with effectiveness--if it stings, that means it’s working!)

I’ve been using Retin-A, more or less faithfully, for the last three years, and at this point, its only major down side is logistics. You really need that prescription for Retin-A. And it’s expensive as hell.

I now have a delicious job as an ad copywriter, so the expense isn’t the problem; it’s the damn prescription. The last dermatologist was located blocks from my previous employer and more than thirty miles from my house. I spend enough time every month trotting between my shrink and my pharmacy--the idea of throwing an additional (medically unnecessary) doctor’s visit in there (even one!) is the stuff that procrastination is made of. It’s like being new in town and not knowing where to buy pot.

Last night, I drank a couple glasses of wine and took my destiny in my own hands. After poking around the internet, I threw the dice (die?) and ordered my Retin-A from an online pharmacy located in Australia. No, Canada… wait, Cyprus.

I checked to make sure there were security icons present when I entered my credit card number. (There weren’t. I entered it anyway. What do the kids say? YOLO?) Not that it matters--those jerks want a prescription, too.

As I finish this article, I already have a “get an online retin-a prescription” tab open. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Was I the last person to find out that Retin-A is also for wrinkles? Would you order your prescription skincare cream from a (shady) online pharmacy?