Here’s How to Build Your Tolerance to Irritating Skin-Care Products

And when to just let it go

The excitement of trying a fancy new skin-care product is matched only by the disappointment you feel when it inevitably leaves your skin stinging and red. But irritating products aren't totally off-limits, it turns out. Most people's skin will adjust to those products over time—and dermatologists have some go-to tips for making it a little easier.

Here are the main offenders.

"There are a lot of products, both over-the-counter and prescription, that can cause irritation for patients," Nada Elbuluk, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Clinic at USC Keck School of Medicine, tells SELF. Although the potential for a reaction varies from person to person, she says the products most commonly associated with irritation are those used to treat acne and ones for antiaging purposes.

In particular, topical retinoids, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide commonly cause some irritation when patients initially start using them, Jennifer Mancuso, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at the University of Michigan, tells SELF. Certain acids, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, can also cause irritation and drying, she says.

Physical exfoliating products—including scrubs and rotating Clarisonic-style brushes—can do the same when used too often, Temitayo Ogunleye, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells SELF.

And what do those reactions look like? We're talking redness, peeling, scaling, and flaking that can be mild, moderate, or severe. Luckily, in most cases, you can ease your skin into using them so that, eventually, they don't cause any reactions.

This what dermatologists suggest to make the process a little easier.

First, of course, it's important to make sure that your irritation is not actually the symptom of an allergic reaction. If your reaction is related to allergies, it might present with redness (that could go beyond the area in which you applied the product), itching, pain, and some scaling that usually occurs hours to weeks after the product is applied, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) explains. And if you keep using the product, you could end up with cracked skin or thickened skin in that area.

But if you're just dealing with a mild (nonallergic) reaction, there are some easy ways to make the process less intense.

  • Start small. If you're using a prescription product, it should come with detailed instructions for how to get started based on your individual case, Dr. Elbuluk says. But, in general, dermatologists recommend starting with a potentially irritating product (like a retinoid) just two or three days a week for at least two weeks or so to see how your skin reacts. It's also important not to use too much, Dr. Ogunleye says, suggesting that her patients stick with just a pea-sized amount for their face, or even less.

  • Go slowly. After that, if your skin is tolerating the product well, Dr. Mancuso says she'll recommend her patients increase their usage to three or four times a week and, eventually, every other night or even nightly over several more weeks. But not everyone can increase that much—or at all. "Everyone’s very different," she says. For most people, it takes a few weeks to a month for their skin to fully adjust to the product, "but some people continue to have irritation long-term and can only use these types of topical treatments twice a week." And for others, they're just not a sustainable option.

  • Use a moisturizer. While you're adjusting, it may be helpful to mix the potentially irritating product with a moisturizer to dilute the product and ease the skin, Dr. Mancuso says. Or you can make sure to apply your moisturizer—ideally a gentle or "bland" one—right after applying the other product, Dr. Ogunleye suggests. If you really want to be careful, you could even put your moisturizer on, then apply the other product, then apply another layer of moisturizer, Dr. Mancuso says.

  • Only use it on dry skin. Some people notice that using a retinoid or other irritating product right after taking a shower or washing their face with warm water causes more irritation, Dr. Mancuso says, because the warmth helps loosen and clear out their pores. Although that's generally a good thing, it can also make your face a little more vulnerable to irritants, which is why she recommends waiting at least 30 minutes after taking a warm shower before applying an irritating product.

Here's how to know when something just isn't for you.

Sadly, even after all this trouble, some products are just not meant for your particular skin—and that's OK! If your irritation isn't getting better after a few weeks of trying these tactics or if you use a product even once and notice severe irritation, it's time to check in with a professional. "Listen to your skin," Dr. Ogunleye says.

Your dermatologist will take your primary concerns and your individual skin type into consideration when recommending a product. They can also help you figure out whether the side effects of something irritating are really worth the potential benefits. For some people, treating acne is enough of a benefit to push through the side effects of using a topical retinoid, for instance. But others may decide that the long-term antiaging effects just aren't enough to justify using it. "It’s always a balance," Dr. Mancuso says.

Also keep in mind that the irritation is a side effect—not necessarily a sign that the product is working. That means adding more of the products won't help you get faster results, it'll just cause more problems. "Less is more, particularly when it comes to [products designed to treat] things like wrinkles and acne," Dr. Ogunleye. "People are really anxious to get it to go away and are slathering a lot of these types of products on their face and these products are not made for slathering."

And your dermatologist is there to help you figure your way through exactly these issues. So, if you have any questions, they should be your first call. "Dermatologists are there to help guide patients through this," Dr. Elbuluk says. "If someone is trying something and feels like their skin is getting irritated or worse, it's really good to just get it assessed, and that takes out a lot of the guesswork."