Skin Diaries: Meet Catherine, The Girl Who Started Using Retinoids In The ’70s (This Is How Her Skin Looks Now!)

by Gio
catherine retinoids experience

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a time machine and could see how we’d look 20 years from now if we used all the right stuff? Like retinol.

Well, I’ve got something like that.

I want to introduce you to Catherine, one of my lovely readers. She started using vitamin A in a form or another since the ’70s, when it was first discovered it could treat acne and wrinkles. No wonder her skin looks amazing now!

In this interview, I chat to Catherine about her experience with vitamin A, how retinoids changed throughout the years, how she makes them work for her sensitive skin and much more:

1. How did you first learn about retinoids?

In 1974, when I was 23, I visited a dermatologist at a medical research foundation affiliated with a medical school where I was working part-time while attending college. I was able to see him free of charge, as he was part of a team of researchers searching for a treatment for acne and the search was on for research subjects.

I had always been interested in skincare and cosmetics and had recently started using a new line called “Clinique.” We were all enthralled with the idea of scientific skincare based on skin type, but I was disappointed that it didn’t get rid of the blackheads/clogged pores on my nose.

2. What was the first retinoid you used and what did it do for you?

I went to see the dermatologist even though I did not have acne and became one of his research subjects. He explained that a vitamin A derivative had been developed that seemed to really help clear acne so he told me to put just a drop on my palm, rub my palms together, then apply it very thinly to the areas where I have breakouts. The bottle he gave me to use was your standard 70s-era glass medicine bottle – the kind that used to contain prescription cough liquids. This one, though, was filled with a thick, clear, bright yellow liquid that had the consistency of syrup. I was to use it only at night and was not to use anything else with it.

catherine retinoids interview 01

3. Did you experience any side effects and, if so, how did you deal with them?

The Vitamin A syrup promptly dried and reddened the areas where I applied it, including my nose. I was really disappointed by the results and even though I kept the bottle and used it on breakouts from time to time, I didn’t give the dermatologist a glowing report on my results…His explanation: The Vitamin A was too strong for my skin which even then tended to be thin and delicate…

4. What forms of retinoids did you try over the years? Did any of them work better or were gentler than others?

About ten years later, I started getting regular facials to clear my clogged pores. The esthetician told me I had many closed comedones all over my face and encouraged me to go to a dermatologist for a prescription of Retin A, which would clear them.

So, I began using it a few times a week – – but no more than that, as it irritated my skin. The Retin A caused my complexion to purge for about two months off and on, and at the end of it, my skin was clear, but reddish. So, I began using sunblock and a better quality of cleanser, toner and moisturizer, as well as an eye cream.

I used it twice-weekly for the next 15 years or so, switching from Retin A to Renova. I quit using the prescription Retin A abut 10 years ago because the irritation worsened and because I was in my 50’s by then, I didn’t have breakouts of clogged pores anymore. Besides, regular facials took care of whatever clogs I did have, so I have been happy without it up until recently…

5. Have you tried any of the new generation of OTC retinoids? How do they compare to prescription retinoids?

I was never interested in OTC retinoids, as I figured they couldn’t compare to a prescription formula, and since prescriptions were too strong, I stopped using anything. Then, about two years ago, I heard about Avibon Vitamin A ointment; French women use it. I liked its moisturizing properties a lot, but again, irritation is a problem!

Then, about three months ago, I got The Ordinary Advanced Retinol 2% after reading about how mild it was. I have found it a fairly good product; non-irritating, which is a big plus, and I use it 2-3 nights a week to address the rough skin texture on my neck and chest…

It’s helping a lot with those! I don’t use it on my face more than once a week, though, as my skin is very thin and dry now, and when I have a skin reaction, it takes at least a week to recover from it, so I am very careful!

catherine retinol interview 02

6. What is, in your opinion, the best form of retinoid on the market? Can you recommend any products?

The best form in my view is the prescription version. No OTC can really beat it when it comes to acne or clogged pores. For people with sensitive skin, though, I think The Ordinary Advanced Retinol 2% does a fairly good job.

7. What’s your current skincare regime and how do retinoids fit into it?

I use Sisley Paris cleansing milk, Biologic Recherché P50 exfoliating toner for sensitive skin, and several different moisturizing balms in rotation. I like the Sisley eye balm and the Joelle Ciocco Eyelisse eye cream.

I like to make my own oil blends; experimenting has taught me which ones work best for my skin. And I use sunblock – the non-chemical kind – because it isn’t irritating. My favorite brand has been discontinued so I’m using the LaRoche Posay at the moment.

These are OTC retinol products I have used over the past few years:

  • Avibon A313: I love the A313 by Avibon the best as it is the most moisturizing but also the most irritating…I think, though, that I will purchase it again and use it once a week or so when I’m not using The Ordinary as it might give me better results on my neck and chest than The Ordinary does because in my view A313 is the closest thing to retain A available OTC without a prescription.
  • The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2%: The only reason I use a retinol now is because this new OTC version isn’t irritating.

Retin A in all its forms is to me the gold standard – the best option – especially if the user has thick skin and moderate acne, wrinkles, age spots, etc…I don’t have those thanks to my early and consistent use of Retin A throughout my 30’s and 40’s so this would be my recommendation for most people. I see there are other versions for people with dry and sensitive skin, so a dermatologist could prescribe the best strength and type.

8. What advice would you give to someone interested in starting to use retinoids for the first time?

Visit a dermatologist for advice, then follow it. Be consistent in your use and make sure to use a sunblock every day without fail. If drying and irritation results, back off from how much and how often you use it but don’t stop using it altogether. Respect what your skin can handle and proceed slowly. And – be consistent with skincare. There’s no point in having a prescription for Retin A if you’re going to go to bed with your makeup on!

Thank you, Catherine!

What’s your experience with retinoids? Share yours in the comments below.

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Ana September 11, 2017 - 3:32 pm

I started using it last spring and kept it up until January, I think, this year.

I had okay results for a while with 0,025% Trenova, even though the ointment was pretty greasy, which irked because it made both my hair and my pillowcases greasy, too.
Then in January my skin started peeling and itching even though I was using them less, and without AHAs, so I stopped and went back to AHAs. They’re cheaper, give me better results, aren’t as greasy and don’t irritate my skin.

I might go back to it at some point, though. I wonder if I had done something wrong the first time around.

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:38 am

Ana, sorry to hear they didn’t work so well for you. Prescription retinoids are very powerful and can be pretty harsh at first, especially if your skin is sensitive. That’s why it’s best to start using them only once or twice a week. I also know dermatologists who recommend to apply a moisturiser before retinoids. That would partly compromise their penetration but make them less irritating too.

JD September 12, 2017 - 4:56 am

I hope that my skin looks as good as hers when I reach her age. It’s a great and informative interview.

I recently began using a retinol essence produced by a Japanese maker. It is marketed as being good for wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. The maker claims that it’s not a problem to use it during daytime because they don’t use ingredients that has phototoxic effects (not sure how this works). The maker does not say that a daytime user must use sunblock when using its retinol, although since the product is sold in Japan the maker probably assumes that the use of sunblock by its buyers is a given. I use the retinol essence 3x a week, alternating it with an AHA lotion. I don’t have an issue with wrinkles yet, so I’m not really sure if I need it 🙂 . I also don’t think that I will have a problem embracing wrinkles should they start coming out. I’m more concerned with age spots. So, I am considering not repurchasing retinol when I finish my current bottle.

Barbara September 12, 2017 - 7:27 am

Hi JD, Can you share the name of the brand of this Japanese product?

JD September 13, 2017 - 5:18 am

The brand is called Tunemakers. I don’t know if they sell outside Japan. They have a website but it’s in Japanese.

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:43 am

JD, glad you enjoyed the interview. Retinoids can be used during the day if you’re religious about sun protection. I recommend their use only at night because I know a lot of people are not. They either don’t use enough in the first place or don’t reapply it… It’s safer to use them when the sun ain’t around.

If you don’t have wrinkles, retinol can still help by preventing their formation in the first place. If that’s something that interests you, you should keep using it. But maybe you can cut back frequency so the product will last you longer.

Barbara September 12, 2017 - 7:30 am

On a separate note, I have a combined routine of using The Ordinary Retinol 2% at night (I actually find it quite moisturizing and even have to sometimes cut out my night moisturizer during the summer!) and The Ordinary. Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% during the day. In the beginning months my skin was a little sensitive and I only used them alternatively every other day. Now it´s everyday and I don´t feel any irritation. After about a month I noticed that even the smallest pimples (and the hormonal ones that appear around the chin) have disappeared!

I would be also interested in what this woman dietary routine is like and what she ate and whether she worked out. Great article as always!

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:47 am

Barbara, so glad to hear The Ordinary skincare is working so well for you. They’re cheap but pack quite a punch, don’t they?

Marina (Makeup4all) September 12, 2017 - 11:15 am

Thanks for posting this x

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:47 am

Marina, my pleasure!

Catherine September 15, 2017 - 10:12 pm

Hi, Barbara. Thank you for your interest. I have been a vegetarian for about 25 years, although not a strict one, as i live in the San Francisco area and love seafood! Also, I am lap swimmer and a walker. I had a yoga practice, too, but only do the restorative occasionally now, mainly due to structural and joint problems…(I’m 66 and have had a variety of injuries over the years – several due to yoga – so my doctor wants me to stick with swimming.)

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:48 am

Catherine, thanks for sharing and for doing this interview! 🙂


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