Click here to read all about why if you’re not already consistently using a retinoid you may want to consider it. Retinoids tend to irritate the skin, especially when you first start using them, so many people give up before getting to see their beautiful effects. While a little irritation is to be expected at first, there are ways to minimize it and slowly acclimate your skin.
When I talk about being cautious with retinoids, I’m mostly speaking about prescription strength retinoids (or Differin gel, which is a prescription strength product that can now be purchased over the counter). People with sensitive skin could experience some irritation from higher strength over the counter retinoids, so the following advice could apply to them/those as well.
Getting started with retinoids
I can tell you from personal experience that the last thing you want to do is get overzealous with a retinoid. Using more will not give you quicker or better results. It’s a good way to experience the worst skin sensitivity of your life. Like, plain water hurts-type sensitivity.
Retinoids must be used cautiously and judiciously. When you first begin using one, it’s essential that you follow your doctor’s recommendations exactly. When in doubt err on the side of less is more. Use less product, less often. You will still reap the benefits from your retinoid, even if you only apply it a few times a week. A good guideline is to start with every third night for two to three weeks, then move to every other night for two to three weeks before carefully testing the waters of every night. It’s never necessary to apply every night either, so long as you’re consistent.
It’s a process of trial and error, and you will undoubtedly experience a day or two of dry, flaking and red, irritated skin. This is no reason to give up on retinoids. Your skin is merely letting you know that you did too much. Just wait a night or two before applying again and modify your routine until you get to the point where you no longer experience any irritation. (Taking more than two nights off is not recommended if you are trying to build up a tolerance, but listen to your skin. If you overdo it, take longer.)
You can experiment with using slightly less or slightly more, but about a pea-sized amount is the recommendation. You may need a lower strength, or if the product is too potent, you can “buffer it” by applying your moisturizer prior to your retinoid. (I actually like to mix my retinoid with my moisturizer as the last step of my skincare in the evening.) Buffering is essentially helping to reduce penetration, so you are likely reducing efficacy slightly, but it is better to use a tiny amount than to use none. Buffering is also an excellent way to build up your skin’s tolerance to the retinoid.
The dosing schedule, amount and method of application for retinoids is highly individual and will ultimately depend upon your unique skin. You just have to be in tune with what your skin is telling you. The frequency with which you use your retinoid will also depend on the other active products you are using. If you are already using acids (like AHAs or a BHA) for example, immediate daily use of another potential irritant may not be for the best. Test the waters very cautiously at first to see what your skin can handle.
You should already be wearing a high SPF sunscreen that also provides adequate UVA ray protection. Any ambition to improve your skin with topicals is futile if you’re not also guarding it against its number one enemy every day. Your stratum corneum is your first layer of protection against the sun, so the sloughing off of this layer with retinoids is going to make you more sun sensitive. Going out in the sun while using retinoid therapy can also cause photoallergic reactions.
Interestingly, I found conflicting information on the topic of sun and retinoids throughout my research. Everyone seems to agree that you should never apply retinoids in the daytime since retinoids themselves break down in sunlight, and their actual presence makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight. But some research suggests that the use of retinoids in the evening can actually make your skin more resilient to the sun/less susceptible to UVB damage in the daytime. Since it’s never a good idea to subject your skin to UV rays without sufficient protection, it seems safest to continue practicing smart habits with sunscreen regardless. If the use of retinoids is giving your skin an extra boost of protection, that’s just a bonus!
Glycolic acid has been shown to increase the penetration of retinoic acid. There is a lot of misinformation out there about the use of acids with retinoids. Whether you choose to use both is ultimately up to you. Some find it to be overkill for their skin while others may notice that adding an AHA or BHA can help do away with any flaking at a faster pace. But the old rule that said you shouldn’t mix acids with retinoids because one “deactivates” the other has been debunked.
In closing, it’s important to remember that with retinoids consistency is critical. When you take away the retinoids, you take away the results, and the longer you use them, the better they work! Find a dosing schedule and strength that works for your skin and then stick with it. The research says you’ll be happy you did.