A Woman Was Left With Chemical Burns After Mixing Two Popular Skin Care Ingredients

Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill - Getty Images
Photo credit: JGI/Jamie Grill - Getty Images

From Prevention

Getting a shiny new skin care regimen can be an exciting moment-finally you'll get the skin of your dreams, you think. It's easy to get a little impatient when many skin care products often take weeks and even months of use before showing any results, and it's tempting to want to speed up the process. (Trust me, I've been there.) But one woman's story serves as a reminder that some skin care products have particularly potent ingredients and can damage your skin if used incorrectly.

In a post shared to r/SkincareAddiction, Reddit user avidforscandal wrote that she was pumped to receive a gift pack of Drunk Elephant skincare, which included a retinol cream and another product with alpha hydroxy acids. Excited to use her new products, she "went from zero to all the AHA and retinol," but unfortunately, the results were not as expected.

Within a few days, she reported having "bad chemical burns" on her cheeks and chin. "[I] read that they should be used as a complete skin care routine so went full steam ahead," she wrote. "This isn't a slag on DE products - this was entirely my fault." Luckily, she was able to see a dermatologist, who advised using a gentle cleanser, moisturizing with oils (like rosehip), applying hydrocortisone ointment, and using an icepack to heal the burns.

OK, back up: what are retinol and AHAs again?

Unless you live and breathe the world of skin care, you may not be as familiar with these products, but both AHAs and retinol are becoming increasingly popular due to their transformative effects on the skin.

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that promotes cell turnover and boosts collagen in the skin. "New, healthy collagen production can help fill in lines and wrinkles to improve the cosmetic appearance of the skin, explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Alpha hydroxy acids-commonly referred to as AHAs-are chemical compounds that exfoliate dead skin cells on your face, revealing the newer, youthful skin beneath and increasing overall radiance. The most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid, and they're often used in spas, if you've ever heard of a chemical peel. "There’s also data to suggest that they help strengthen the skin foundation by stimulating collagen," adds Dr. Zeichner. In this way, AHAs serve a similar purpose as retinol: both promote healthier, younger-looking skin.

Should retinol and AHAs be used together?

Reddit user avidforscandal's story goes to show that the instructions on a product don't always give you enough information to know how to use it safely (after all, not everyone can afford a dermatologist, and many over-the-counter products are potent enough to cause serious irritation if used carelessly). So we asked Dr. Zeichner whether it's actually safe to use retinol and AHAs together, and why these common skin care products have the potential to cause chemical burns.

Retinol and AHAs can definitely complement each other in a skin care routine, Dr. Zeichner told Prevention. "However, both products can lead to irritation, or a so-called chemical burn," he says. "Because they thin out the outer skin layer, they also make the skin sensitive to a burn from the sun." That's why he never prescribes both an AHA and retinoid at the same time.

"I typically recommend starting with one, and once you are stable after a few weeks, consider adding another one," he explains. "Use a pea-sized amount of retinol on your fingertip, and spread it on the entire face. Start out using every other night." You can also follow with a gentle moisturizer or combine the product with your moisturizer if you're more sensitive, he says. This applies to AHA leave-on products as well, but if you're using an AHA cleanser, start by using it just once or twice a week. "If at any point your face gets red, itchy, or peeling, skip a day or two," he adds.

Another note: avoid applying retinol and AHAs together at the same time of day as both products can cause irritation and sun sensitivity, says Dr. Zeichner. You may consider using AHA in the morning and retinol at night, but either way, it's crucial to use sunscreen if you're using either product, as they can otherwise cause serious sun damage.

What to do if your skin becomes irritated

Even the most diligent skin care user can suffer from redness and irritation after starting new products that resurface your skin. If your skin is particularly sensitive and feels burned after using AHAs or retinol, immediately give your skin a break from the products. Using a bland moisturizer to hydrate the skin and 1% hydrocortisone ointment to calm the inflammation should have you feeling better in no time, says Dr. Zeichner.

At the end of the day, don't panic if you do have some irritation when starting a retinoid or AHA, as they have powerful active ingredients that work to transform your skin. Just remember to introduce your new regimen slowly and let your skin gradually adjust for the best results.

Looking to try AHAs and/or retinol for yourself? For AHAs, Dr. Zeichner recommends Biologique Recherche Lotion P50, which "contains a mix of gentle hydroxy acids that exfoliate and brighten the skin." There are several versions of the P50 lotion for various skin types; the P50W was formulated specifically for sensitive skin. (Note that this lotion is a professional salon product, so you can only order online from certain spas).

For retinol, he suggests Neutrogena's Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil. "This retinol-containing oil is much milder than other formulas on the market, and the oil base helps hydrate the skin to minimize the risk of irritation," says Dr. Zeichner. You can leave this formula on overnight to nourish dry skin and diminish the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots while you sleep.

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