Ask a Beauty Editor: 4 Clever Hacks to Avoid Retinol Irritation

·4 min read

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I just started using retinol and am slowly working up to daily use. Do you have any tips for avoiding irritation? — @kayla_krist1ne

How I view retinol is similar to how I view my past relationships: I have mixed feelings. While dermatologists wax poetic about the miracle anti-aging ingredient, the side effects—redness, peeling, and irritation galore—can be so bad that the slow-burn benefits just don't seem worth it.

"Retinol is a great ingredient to look for in your skincare but they are a Catch-22," says Camille Howard-Verovic, MD, DO, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "When I prescribe them to my patients, the first thing I tell them is that their skin should now be categorized as 'sensitive.'"

My skin is already sensitive enough, so as you can imagine it completely flips at the touch of retinol. But don't worry: You can reap all of retinol's smoothing, brightening, firming, and breakout-busting benefits without hardcore irritating your face.

First things first, since you've only just started using retinol, do expect some skin changes in the first few weeks. The skin takes time to adjust to retinol, so it's totally normal to experience some dryness, flaking, and even some redness. A process called retinization, it's not necessarily irritation, just a sign that the retinol is increasing skin cell turnover.

You should also be starting at a very low frequency and concentration, building up gradually over time. Marnie Nussbaum, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, agrees, noting to start with the lowest concentration and use it only twice a week. "After a few weeks, you can try increasing the frequency to four nights a week until you can use it nightly."

But if your skin is still super irritated (i.e., stinging, burning, and/or rashes), there are several steps you can take, so I've listed them out in the order you should try them. If the first step doesn't work, go to the next one, etc.

Audit the rest of your skincare

Because retinol is increasing your skin’s sensitivity, it’s important to build additional ingredients into your routine that counter that. These products should aim to hydrate and offer a calming effect, such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe, or oats. “It’s all about creating synergy in your skincare routine by using ingredients that complement one another,” says Dr. Howard. Her top recommendation for retinol-using patients is Aveeno’s Calm + Restore collection, as its all-natural triple oat complex and feverfew ingredients are ideal for soothing dry, irritated skin. Dr. Nussbaum likes Skinbetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream ($125, skinbetter.com), which combines encapsulated retinol with lactic acid to avoid irritation.

Similarly, you should be cutting out products that increase your skin’s sensitivity. This includes harsh exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs (alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acids), salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide, all of which work by drying out skin.

Sandwich technique

My go-to retinol hack is the sandwich technique, which no, isn’t when you eat a sandwich while applying your skincare. This is when you apply moisturizer before and after you apply retinol, hence “sandwiching” the retinol application in between two layers of moisturizer. Although it may sound excessive, trust me—it works. These extra layers will mitigate the side effects.

Short contact application

Dr. Howard also endorses something called the “short contact” technique, which involves applying your retinol on clean skin and then washing it off after letting it sit for 30 minutes to an hour. This helps your skin gradually adjust until you can leave it on for longer periods of time, and ultimately, overnight.

Switch to retinol alternatives

Still can’t catch a break? Plants can help. Enter bakuchiol, a plant-based alternative you can take to achieve similar, transformative results sans retinol's infamous irritation. When used effectively, it should significantly improve lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, and overall firmness and elasticity. My all-time favorite comes from Herbivore Botanicals' Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum ($54; herbivorebotanicals.com), a pretty purple bottle infused with the stuff. You can also try derivatives from other brands to find your favorite—for example, Bare Minerals carries a collection with phyto-retinol, a natural, plant-based retinol alternative derived from the Picão Preto plant.