By Elise Tabin
Retinol and retinoids should always be used gradually and even intermittently at first. As Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, explains, it is best to start slow and increase the usage or potency as tolerated with any vitamin A-derived topical. “Doing so helps reduce skin irritation, peeling, and even breakouts,” she says. However, it is common for the skin to acclimate to the use of retinol through a process known as retinization.
One of the adverse side effects of retinol is the flaking and dryness that come with it, which can occur with retinol virgins and experienced, multi-year users. But applying moisturizer can help majorly. “Layering retinol in between two layers of moisturizer can reduce redness, sensitivity, peeling, flaking, and dryness that is often associated with vitamin A,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Houshmand, a board-certified dermatologist in Dallas, TX. That’s because the moisturizer acts as a buffer of sorts to prevent and diminish the potential for redness, irritations, sensitivities, dryness, and peeling. Plus, using moisturizer in tandem with retinol helps the skin to function optimally so that the retinol can penetrate as designed and work towards optimal results.
There are a lot of important rules when it comes to using retinol, but the one that is perhaps most imperative to oblige with is the use of sunscreen. You should only apply retinol to the skin at night (the sun can increase the risk of sunburns and damage); this is one decree you won’t want to ignore. Using retinol without adequate daily sun protection is a surefire way to wind up with a sunburn. That’s because retinol reduces the skin’s ability to protect itself naturally from damaging factors, like the sun.
As Dr. Houshmand explains, the best way to avoid irritation from retinol is to use (especially when first starting with the ingredient) it once a week and work your way up. “This is especially true if you have sensitive skin,” she says. “I also tell my patient to look for the words time-released on their products, which helps with potential irritation.” Time-released retinol is precisely as it sounds. Instead of loading the skin up with an intense punch of the ingredient, these formulas disperse a controlled amount of the ingredient over an extended time to prevent unwanted yet common retinol side effects, including dryness and redness.
There are plenty of ingredients that complement retinol well and others that don’t. Of course, your skin type plays into what should and shouldn’t be combined. “Some formulations of vitamin C may be irritating when used at the same time as retinol, though it is usually not the case, and they are often compatible used at the same time,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “Generally, however, vitamin C is most beneficial when used during the day to protect against environmental stressors, and retinol is best used at night to repair and restore.”
Cysteamine is another ingredient that has been shown to help with hyperpigmentation and can be a great option for someone looking for a non-hydroquinone option, explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York. “It can help to improve the appearance of sunspots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” she says. “L-cysteamine is thought to work by inhibiting melanin synthesis to help reduce pigmentation.” It can be found in a specific topical known as Cyspera and can be discussed with your dermatologist.