How to Use a Retinol Without Your Face Peeling Off

How to Use a Retinol Without Your Face Peeling Off
Photo: popcorner, Shutterstock

When you decide to start doing a grown-up skincare routine, what seems like a pleasant bit of self-care can quickly turn into an overwhelming mess. In what order do you apply all this junk? Which steps can you skip and which are essential? Why is everyone on the forums recommending retinol? Why are there so many forums for face-washing in the first place?

Skincare enthusiasts love retinol. It’s a holy-grail product that can reduce fine lines, even skin texture, and fade spots. All those good effects are a result of the sheer power of retinoids — but that power can also be used for a little bit of evil: First-timers often experience the “retinol uglies,” or a skin purge that results in a big breakout, massive peeling, tons of redness, or a combination of all of that.

You can soften the blow as your skin adjusts and counteract the uglies, but just like your new skincare routine, this will take more planning than you think.

What is retinol, and how do you pick one?

Retinol is a retinoid that is best applied at night because it will make your skin very sensitive to the sun. (The last step of your morning skincare routine should always be a healthy slathering of SPF!) Made from vitamin A, retinol gets into your skin and neutralizes free radicals, ultimately plumping your skin and doing away with fine lines and enlarged pores, which can also help with acne. While retinol itself doesn’t exfoliate or remove dead cells, it does have an effect on texture, too. It’s suitable for all ages because it has a benefit for just about everyone, no matter what issue you’re trying to correct.

One product that can even skin tone, combat acne, and serve up some anti-ageing effects can sound too good to be true, but it’s not. As long as you’re careful, this can be an excellent addition to your routine.

You’ll notice when you start shopping for a retinol that there are percentages listed on the front of each bottle. You’ll ultimately want at least .25% retinol, but you should start small. First-timers should consider a low-strength retinol, so look for .01% to .03%. Paula’s Choice makes a popular line that starts in that range; some, like this one, are actually moisturizers that contain a little retinol while others can go up to 1%. (My favourite is the Glossier Universal Pro-Retinol, which mixes pure retinol with sunflower seed fatty acids for a .5% retinol formulation.)

“Elect for a concentration of less than .25%,” said Dr. Alexis Parcells, a board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of SUNNIE, a skincare and anti-ageing clinic, as well as Parcells Plastic Surgery. “Most over-the-counter options are at that level. Once you build tolerance, you can upgrade to a prescription grade (.5%).”

Dermatologists can also prescribe tretinoin and retinoic acid. These are much stronger than what you can pick up at a drug store or online. Be warned, however: That means the “uglies” can be stronger, too.

What are the retinol “uglies,” and how can you counteract them?

The “uglies” can include quite a bit of ugliness. When you start using retinoids, your skin may peel or become red. Some people even have a big breakout while their skin purges. This can be disheartening. Isn’t the point of incorporating this much-hyped step into your skincare routine that it should make you look better?

Don’t be discouraged here. First, know you’re not alone. Look at Reddit for proof that this truly happens to even the most seasoned skincare veterans. New threads about the uglies pop up on the platform every few weeks and commenters swap stories and photos of their peeling nightmares. They also swap the tips and tricks that helped them avoid the uglies going forward.

It takes a bit of work to figure out the right combination of steps, but if it were entirely impossible to use retinol without looking like a monster, no one would do it.

Here are some of the ways to combat the uglies:

  • Don’t use retinol every night at first. Parcells said you should start using retinol just once per week while your skin builds a tolerance. Again, start with a lower-dose concentration and slowly increase to two to three applications per week. “It can take weeks to months to see results from retinol, depending upon your skin concern, so be patient,” she said.
  • Use retinol in conjunction with a moisturizer. You can apply moisturizer before and after you use your retinol. Parcells calls this the “sandwich technique.” Retinol can dry the skin out, so you’ll want a nice, heavy-duty moisturizer. Some retinols, like Glossier’s, come with moisturizing ingredients built in. Pick up a moisturizing sleeping mask, too. Just layer it on before bed and wash it off in the morning. Or try a night cream with retinol in it. Parcells sells this one, which has a .5% formulation.
  • Mix it with a hyaluronic acid serum. Parcells has a great tip here: If your uglies are too much to bear, try mixing your retinol with a serum that includes hyaluronic acid, which helps your skin retain water for a moisturizing, pumping effect. Here’s a highly-rated one from The Ordinary. Hyaluronic acid, like retinol, is a beloved skincare staple that is seemingly always having a moment. Hell, even Kylie Skin makes one of these serums (and it has great ratings, too).
  • Plan each night’s skincare routine in advance. Skincare can be fun and it’s easy to go all-in when you start, buying every product recommended by the wisest poster on your favourite forum or the dewiest beauty vlogger on YouTube. Even once you amass all the holy grail products, you must not use them all at the same time. Plan out your schedule carefully. Some nights are for certain products and certain products only. “Avoid using toners, scrubs, AHAs/BHAs, and vitamin C around a retinol session. Give your body at least 48 hours before applying one of these products to avoid drying out or irritating your skin,” Parcells said.
  • Don’t use too much. You want to use a pea-sized amount of retinol for your whole face. That’s it. This is not like a mask or a moisturizer. It is potent and powerful enough in small doses. Put the tiny dab on your fingers and rub it around, then transfer it to your face.
  • Always use sunscreen. This is going to make your face more sensitive to the sun. You don’t need a sunburn on top of your peeling and purging — or ever. If you’re new to putting heavy-duty sunscreen on your face, check out Supergoop, which has a beloved line of SPF-infused skincare products. Their Unseen Sunscreen blends out invisibly and works great, even under your makeup. Some foundations even include SPF. For example, the Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint is well-loved, comes in a large shade range, and has SPF 40.
  • Drink water. Moisturize from the inside out. While your skin is flaking, you need to hydrate. Chug water all day. Keep a water bottle and a travel-sized moisturizer on you at all times. When you reach for one, make sure to use the other.

The uglies can last for months, but the payoff is worth it in the end. Invest in some quality moisturizers and a cute water bottle, resolve not to let the stares of alarmed observers break your spirit, and get ready to emerge on the other side of this journey with gorgeous skin.

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