We should all know by now that retinol has numerous skin benefits, including delaying the effects of ageing, reducing the occurrence of acne and also promoting skin tone that is more even. But why does it seem that using this highly raved skincare ingredient only causes our skin to itch, flake and even burn? Dr Rachel Ho, medical director at La Clinic, shares that side effects such as retinoid dermatitis or retinoid burns can occur if the product is not used properly. “Using retinol when the skin barrier is compromised can worsen the condition. Using retinols with inappropriate skincare ingredients like AHAs and BHAs or using retinols that are too strong too frequently can also cause injury to your skin.”
She adds that retinoid dermatitis or retinoid burns are forms of irritant contact dermatitis, and should not be confused with skin purging or a hypersensitivity reaction (allergy). “In the process of increasing cell turnover, the top layer of skin gets sloughed off faster than the newer skin cells from underneath can replace this top layer, causing a transient compromise to the skin barrier,” she explains. “The appearance of retinoid dermatitis or retinoid burns is that of redness, hypersensitivity, peeling, tenderness and blisters.”
How will you know if your skin is reacting well to the use of retinols, then? Dr Ho explains that you should experience its benefits within approximately four to eight weeks. Additionally, you should be able to tolerate the use of the product without experiencing any symptoms of retinoid dermatitis. With that, she shares some tips on how to safely use retinols, so you can reap its rewards without the pain.
Tip 1: Pair with sunscreen in the day
“Because retinol increases the rate of cell turnover, the skin sheds and becomes thinner, thus increasing its sensitivity towards UV rays,” explains Dr Ho. Hence, she strongly encourages using SPF during the day with regular reapplication to prevent sun damage.
Tip 2: Use with moisturisers
According to Dr Ho, dryness is a common side effect of using retinols, so using moisturisers will certainly help in reducing this experience. “I recommend using hyaluronic acid and ceramide-containing moisturisers as these ingredients can also strengthen the skin barrier without compromising the effects of retinols,” she says.
Tip 3: Use only at night
Dr Ho explains that sunlight reduces the effectiveness of retinols, so it is best to use it in your night time routine instead.
Tip 4: Start with formulas at a lower percentage
“If you are new to retinols, start with a lower concentration first, such as 0.1 per cent to avoid side effects such as retinoid dermatitis,” Dr Ho advised. She also shares that you should only increase the formula’s retinol percentage only when your skin is able to tolerate the use of retinols nightly.
Tip 5: Consider stronger retinoid formulas only when you’re ready
“Formulas with retinaldehye requires fewer conversion steps to retinoic acid as compared to retinol,” shares Dr Ho.
She explains that all forms of retinoids, including retinol, will eventually be converted to retinoic acid (the bioactive form of retinoid) when it comes in contact with receptors in the skin. “If you tolerate retinols well, consider using more potent forms of retinoids such as retinaldehyde for more dramatic results.”
Tip 6: Try the “retinol sandwich” method
“If you are are unable to tolerate using retinols despite using moisturisers, consider sandwiching the retinol between two layers of moisturisers,” suggests Dr Ho.
She explains that the first layer of moisturiser acts as a physical barrier to reduce the skin’s uptake of retinol. Though this method decreases the retinol’s efficacy, it also reduces the dryness and irritation, helping your skin to tolerate the use of retinol.
Tip 7: Avoid using acids, otherwise consider skin cycling
“Avoid using acids like AHAs and BHAs together with retinols, as this increases the risk of developing retinoid dermatitis,” warns Dr Ho. Instead, she suggests alternating the use of acids and retinols on different nights.
“Skin cycling is a practice where the users exfoliates with acid on one night, followed by retinols on the second night; and resting of the skin for another two nights,” she shares. “This skin cycling method is said to allow users to tolerate both acids and retinols better.”