How To Use Retinoids in Your Skincare Routine

Engage in skincare with care.

Retinoids are well known for being the ultimate does-it-all skin solution. This product derived from vitamin A—commonly used in its over-the-counter form, retinol—treats acne, fights signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, unclogs pores, and evens out the skin.

"Retinol stimulates a quicker renewal of skin cells," explained New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules. "When someone uses retinol, the outer layer of the skin is sloughed off and the newer skin underneath is revealed."

What could be more appealing than fresh, unblemished, youthful-looking skin? But this revitalization doesn't come without risks. "Retinoids can be irritating and drying to the skin, especially when you first start using them," said Shari Lipner, MD, a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. And that's on their own: Combine retinoids with other strong ingredients found in cleansers, creams, and serums, and the results can be uncomfortable—and unsightly, too.

Here are some tips that'll help your skin flourish while you use these types of products.

Which Ingredients or Products Don't Mix Well With Retinoids?

Exfoliators

Retinoids get the job done by exfoliating your skin, and this is one case where more isn't better. When you add another powerful exfoliant on top of your retinoid—like alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA)—it can leave your skin raw, said Ava Shamban, MD, a Beverly Hills dermatologist and founder of SKIN FIVE. AHA is not the only problematic exfoliating acid: Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), also known as salicylic acid, is also a poor mix with retinoids, Dr. Jaliman said. Along with going after whiteheads and blackheads, the salicylic acid exfoliates the skin.

You can still use these products—just stagger your application. "Products with acids can be used during the daytime and retinoids at night," Dr. Jaliman said. Or, use an antioxidant as a serum, as Dr. Shamban recommended. "It will both penetrate better and reduce the chance of irritation."

Astringents, Toners, and Other Drying Agents

Products like astringents are used to dry out oily skin, according to MedlinePlus. Likewise, retinoids tend to dry out your skin—so the last thing you want to do is deprive it of moisture further. "It is best to avoid other drying agents when using retinoids such as toners, astringents, and medicated cleansers. These products cause further irritation," Dr. Lipner said. Instead, consider piling on rich, creamy moisturizers to counteract any dryness that may occur.

How To Apply Retinoids for the Best Results

Start Small, Go Slow

A little goes a long way, Dr. Lipner said, adding that a pea-sized amount of the product can treat your entire face. You'll also want to ease into the medication. "I tell my patients to start slowly, using the medication Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until their skin acclimates to the medication," Dr. Lipner explained. Once your skin is accustomed, you can increase usage to nightly.

Use Sunscreen

"Using retinol can make your skin more sun sensitive," Dr. Shamban said, who recommended that you don't spend a lot of time in the sun. Whenever you are in the sun, make sure to wear sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat to protect your skin per FDA guidelines. Further, whether or not you use a retinoid, make it a daily habit to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that's SPF 30 or above, and reapply at least every two hours. Try one of these dermatologist-recommended options if you're not sure where to start in your search for a good sunscreen.

Apply Retinoids in the Evening

Because topical retinoids are photolabile (affected by light), according to an October 2021 Drugs in Context article, using these products after the sun goes down can help you avoid the sun sensitivity side effect. "Retinoids are best applied at nighttime since sunlight can inactivate [them], making [them] ineffective," Dr. Lipner said.

Don't Use Before Wax and Laser Procedures

Planning to wax or get laser hair removal on your eyebrows or upper lip? Both procedures target the top layer of skin cells, which is super fragile because retinoids encourage cell turnover. The result could be burns and irritation. "Your dermatologist may advise you to stop using your retinoid before waxing or laser procedures," Dr. Lipner said. Thus, the simple fix is just taking a break from products prior to the treatment.

Stop Using During Pregnancy

According to a March 2019 Nutrients article, retinol (in the form of vitamin A) can be transferred to a baby through the placenta and during breastfeeding. If you're planning to get pregnant—or are already expecting—do not use retinoids, Dr. Lipner said. They are not safe to use during pregnancy as they could lead to fetal retinoid syndrome, a condition that includes physical birth defects such as ear and eye abnormalities, growth delay, and heart defects according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD).

Ultimately, if you still have questions or concerns about retinoids or other skin care products, talk with your dermatologist for more information.

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