How to fend off the initial skin irritation
Retinol has officially achieved iconic status in skin care. The ingredient, which is a derivative of vitamin A, has a wide field of expertise: it can help minimize fine lines and wrinkles, remove acne, and reduce stubborn dark spots. Unfortunately, the side effects of retinol, like irritation, redness, dryness, and flaking – although temporary – often overshadow its many benefits.
According to Dr Corey Hartman, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Birmingham, these irritations are officially called retinization, and they usually occur within two weeks of the ingredients being introduced – sometimes sooner.
Retinoids (the general term used to describe all vitamin A derivatives) work their magic by increasing cell turnover. During this period of retinization, Dr. Hartman explains that your skin basically gets used to the retinoids doing their job. “It’s just kind of a shock to the system,” he says.
The good news? These side effects don’t last forever, and the benefits of using retinol or a dermatologist-prescribed retinoid in your skin care routine can far outweigh the initial drawbacks. In addition to this, the extent of irritation, redness, or peeling (if any) depends on several factors.
Up front, five tips that will make dealing with the retinol learning curve much easier – so you can finally experience the hype for yourself.
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 1: Retinol Is Less Irritating Than Other Retinoids
First of all, an important vocabulary lesson. Dr. Hartman says that when dermatologists use the term “retinoids,” they’re usually talking about prescription formulas, or the active ingredient retinoic acid, which he says is typically 10 to 20 times more potent than retinol.
As a reminder, retinol is the derivative of vitamin A present in over-the-counter products. “Retinols have to be converted to retinoic acid to have any effect as opposed to prescription retinoids that exist as retinoic acid,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City.
Because retinol has to go through a conversion process on the skin to take the form of retinoic acid, it takes longer to have an effect (i.e. the results you want for your skin). However, Dr Garshick says that means retinol is less irritating as well. “Plus, retinols can be formulated with other ingredients that simultaneously help hydrate the skin, which may also help with tolerance.”
Therefore, a person using a retinoid product prescribed by their dermatologist may experience more redness, peeling, and irritation than a person who purchased an over-the-counter anti-aging serum from Sephora.
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 2: Ask Your Dermatologist for Custom Product Suggestions
Your skin type and the products you use daily can influence your reaction to a prescription retinol or retinoid, so it’s especially helpful to take the extra time and make an appointment with a dermatologist before introducing this ingredient. in your routine. He or she can help you choose the right retinol or prescription retinoid, educate you on its proper use, and organize a routine filled with complementary products and ingredients. “There’s a lot of education going into it,” says Dr. Hartman.
For example, a dermatologist may recommend a completely different vitamin A formula and set of instructions for someone with oily skin versus someone with dry skin or rosacea. “Someone who’s dry, he doesn’t have the same needs,” says Dr. Hartman. “They may not have acne. They might not need the oil control so they can get away with a product that is more of a retinol or something that is not as high in concentration.
A person with oily, acne-prone skin who also has scarring or discoloration, says Dr. Hartman, may need to take a prescription product to see results and may also start at a higher dose.
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 3: Introduce Your Retinol Slowly – But Always
If you’ve never used a prescription retinol or retinoid before, applying it every night from the start is not a good idea.
“Retinoids can trigger irritant dermatitis, which is defined as something coming into contact with the skin that triggers irritation and can occur in anyone exposed to a sufficient amount of the product, as opposed to allergic contact dermatitis which is usually a condition that only occurs in some people, regardless of how much of an ingredient is exposed to the skin, ”says Dr. Garshick.
So, to minimize reactions, you’ll want to introduce this ingredient very slowly and in small amounts. A general starting point is 2-3 times per week, but this is subject to change depending on your skin type. For example, Dr. Garshick explains that a person with sensitive skin can start using retinol just once a week.
Then it’s a bit of a game of waiting to see how and if your skin reacts. If there are no issues with tolerance, redness or dryness, Dr Garshick says frequency of use can be increased slowly. However, moving too quickly can also lead to such irritation that you decide to drop the product for weeks at a time or altogether, which can hamper the trajectory of your results.
“If you stop and start over, you’ll never get any improvement,” says Dr. Hartman. “I would prefer that you [apply the product] twice a week, then increase that to three times a week after a few weeks, then do seven days in a row, then stop it and start again for seven days – because you’ll never get to that point that you can handle the effects. secondary ones that you are trying to avoid. “
A gradual introduction, says Dr. Hartman, will help you manage your side effects and develop a consistent habit – and that’s the key to improvement. “We know that the best products in the world, if not used consistently, are worthless.”
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 3: Combine Your Retinol With A Moisturizer
Using a moisturizer with a retinol might help soothe some of the irritation from retinization, says Dr. Hartman – typically he recommends applying retinoids over a moisturizer.
“Some retinoids, like tazarotene, are lipophilic, which means they like a more oily environment, not a water-based environment. When you apply this first, it helps draw the product into the dermis where it will be more effective than sitting on the epidermis, where you will experience more side effects with the peel, dryness and redness, ” Dr Hartman said.
If you have sensitive skin, something called the “sandwich technique” can be helpful in preventing irritation. Dr Garshick says it’s when you first apply the moisturizer, then the retinoid, then your moisturizer on top again. Remember that a retinoid can already cause excessive dryness, so don’t skimp when it comes to replenishing your skin’s moisture.
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 4: Use Sunscreen
You should wear sunscreen every day to protect your skin from harmful UV rays – period. But sunscreen can also serve as a tool to soothe retinol-related side effects. Whether you apply retinol in the morning or evening, the ingredient can cause irritation. This irritation can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s crucial to apply (and reapply) the correct amount of SPF. Dr Hartman says that sunscreen can also help relieve redness.
When in doubt – or if you’re not always so diligent in applying your daily SPF – use your favorite retinoid product at night when your skin is out of the sun and has enough time to rest. and repair themselves.
Retinol Side Effects Tip # 5: Change Your Routine
You may need to temporarily change your skin care routine as you get used to your retinol. For example, Dr. Hartman says you may want to remove or limit certain hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid, which could “make a retinoid work harder.” All of these active ingredients are basically a recipe for skin irritation.
However, not all hydroxy acids need the boot. “Some humectant hydroxyl acids, like glycolic and lactic, can actually be beneficial because they can entrain moisture and they can also help get rid of unwanted flaking,” says Dr. Hartman. Another pro tip? Avoid cleansers that are particularly dry and opt for a more hydrating formula instead.
Now is not the time to finally try the serum you see all over TikTok or the moisturizer you bought during the Sephora Spring Sale. When adding a retinoid (or any new product) to your routine, Dr. Garshick suggests introducing them one at a time so that you can easily identify what is causing a reaction.
And when in doubt, call a dermatologist to help you organize a well-balanced routine. As Dr. Hartman explains, they know firsthand how much of a game-changer retinoids can be. “Any dermatologist would never stop using a retinoid. If there was only one product that each of us could use, after sunscreen, it would still be a retinoid. Always. There is simply too much science behind it all. “