Can we talk about retinoids side effects? Especially if you want to jump on the retinoid bandwagon but are scared they’ll turn your skin into a flaky, peeling mess?
I hear ya. You’ve heard that retinoids are the gold standard for antiaging. They reduce wrinkles. Shrink pores. Fade away dark spots. That’s all true.
You want yourself some of that. But you’re not keen on the adjustment period. You’ve gotta go to work. Have a social life. How can you leave the house when your skin is flaking worse than dried paint?!
Surely, there must be a way to enjoy that retinoid face without putting up with the peeling? Yes. But first, let’s get to know retinoids a little bit better and find out why they behave like that in the first place:
- What Are Retinoids And Why Should You Use Them?
- What Is Retinization?
- Retinoids Side Effects: How To Minimize The Peeling From Retinol & Co
- The Bottom Line
What Are Retinoids And Why Should You Use Them?
Retinoids are forms of Vitamin A. The most common ones are:
- Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
- Retinyl Palmitate
- Retinyl Retinoate
- Tretinoin (retinoic acid – prescription only)
Basically, if there’s a “retin” in the name, it’s a form of vitamin A.
The catch? Almost of all forms of Vitamin A must be converted into retinoid acid to work. The conversion looks like this.
Retinyl palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid
Usually, the further away a form of Vitamin A is from retinoic acid, the less effective BUT gentler it is. This is why retinol is available OTC while retinoic acid is prescription only. It’s so harsh, it’s best used under the care of a dermatologist.
Retinoids help your skin in many ways:
- They accelerate cellular turnover: Cellular turnover is a fancy name for the skin’s natural exfoliating process. Your skin is perfectly capable of replacing dead skin cells with new ones without the use of manual or chemical exfoliation. BUT, the older you get or the oilier your skin is, the less well it does the job. Retinol gives it a helping hand, speeding up the process. The result is smoother, brighter, more-even toned skin. All the benefits of exfoliation.
- They boost the production of collagen: Collagen is the protein that firms skin. Your skin starts losing 1% of collagen every year after you turn 21! At first, this loss is barely visible. But, it compounds overtime. The more collagen your skin can produce, the more slowly it’ll age.
- They bust acne: This is mostly due to its exfoliating properties. You know what happens when your skin can’t exfoliate on its own? Dead cells end up into your pores, clogging them up and giving you all kinds of acne (whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples). By exfoliating skin, you ensure dead cells slough off your skin and can’t aggravate acne.
- They fight free radicals: Free radicals are nasty molecules that destroy collagen, elastin, cellular DNA… anything good they find on their path. Eventually, this destruction leads to wrinkles, saggy skin, and dark spots. Retinoids neutralise free radicals before they can start this destructive chain reaction, helping to keep your skin younger for longer.
- They reduce the appearance of dark spots: Again, another benefit of exfoliation. As the darker-toned, damaged dead skin cells leave their place to the lighter-toned, newer cells that were lying underneath, dark spots slowly fade away.
- They shrink the size of pores: I know I start to sound like a broken record now, but this is another benefit of exfoliation. When your pores are clogged with dead skin cells, excess sebum, and other debris, they get stretched out and get bigger. By removing what’s clogging them, your pores go back to their genetically determined size (nothing can make them smaller than that).
Awesome, right? The price to pay for all these amazing skincare benefits? Retinization.
Related: 8 Science-Backed Ways To Rebuild Lost Collagen
Struggling to put together a skincare routine that minimises wrinkles, prevents premature aging, and gives your complexion a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
What Is Retinization?
Retinization is a fancy way to call the inevitable adjustment period you get when you first introduce retinoids into your skincare routine.
If you’re opting for Tretinoin (the harshest BUT most effective retinoid), you’re in for six weeks of red, flaky mess even the best makeup in the world can’t hide (it just makes it look worse!). *sighs* If you opt for something gentler like retinol or retinaldehyde, the symptoms are milder.
It’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel and forget this retinoid business altogether. Big mistake. This red, flaky mess is a sign your retinoid is working.
Here’s the deal: retinoids speed up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. This is NOT the same as “proper” exfoliation done with acids or scrubs (these REMOVE dead cells either manually or by dissolving the “glue” that holds them together).
But the result is similar. Retinoids make your skin cells turn over at a faster rate so now you have more dead cells on the surface of your skin. Hence the peeling.
But do you really have to put up with it? Nope. Here’s how to counteract the peeling effects of retinoids:
Retinoids Side Effects: How To Minimize The Peeling From Retinol & Co
There are a few ways to reduce retinization and the peeling you get from using retinoids. I encourage you to use them all for best results, especially if you’re using a prescription retinoid, like Tretinoin:
1. Don’t Stop Using Retinoids When Your Skin Starts To Peel
This is where most women go wrong. They see their faces turn into a flaky mess and stop using retinoids until their skin is completely back to normal. The next time they use the retinoid, the peeling starts all over again. Before you know it, retinoids become something they use only once in a while. Or worse, quit completely.
When you do this, your skin is reverting back into beginner mode. You didn’t give it enough time to get used to retinoids so now it acts like you’re using them for the first time. Every time.
Once you introduce a retinoid into your skincare routine, stick with it. It’s ok to cut back frequency (I will show you how soon) but don’t stop using it completely.
The only exception? If your skin is so sensitive that even after trying all the tips in this post, the peeling stubbornly persist after 6 weeks, give up. Retinoids just don’t agree with your skin.
2. Start With The Smallest Concentration You Can Find
If you’re starting your retinoid journey with Retin A or another prescription retinoid, the peeling is a done deal. There’s a reason why they’re prescription after all. The side effects are much more severe.
Unless they were prescribed by your doctor for a specific condition, it’s better for your skin (and your self-esteem) to start with a low dose of an OTC retinoid, like retinol.
Even so, start with the smallest concentration you can find. Believe it or not, 1% is HUGE for retinol. This is the stuff the PROs use. It’s the closest thing to a prescription retinoid you can find.
0.01%-0.3% is more than enough for beginners. Really. Retinoids are so powerful, a tiny bit goes a long, long way.
If your skin’s sensitive, I recommend you start with gentler forms of retinoids, like retinaldehyde and hydroxypinacolone retinoate. They’re not as effective as retinol but they’re so gentle, they’re unlikely to irritate your skin. (Seriously, if your skin can’t take this, retinoids are definitely NOT for you).
- Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00): A low strength retinol for beginners loaded with every antioxidant you can think of to help you prevent premature aging. It’s lightweight and suitable for combination and oily skin types. Available at Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum with Retinol ($34.00): A low strength retinol for beginners with dry skin. It’s chockfull of every antioxidant under the sun to prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Paula’s Choice
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane (£7.80): Granactive retinoid is a gentler form of Vitamin A that retinol. The jury’s still out there how well it works compared to retinol, but it’s a good option for beginners or people with sensitive skin. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, and Sephora
Related: What Strength Of Retinol Do You Really Need?
3. Go Slow And Increase Frequency Gradually
Retinoids are not like other skincare products. You can’t use them every day and expect them to give you gorgeous skin. You have to work your way up there.
When you first start out, use retinoids only twice a week. As your skin gets used to them (you’ll know when this happens – your skin will look smooth and radiant instead of red and flaky), build up frequency gradually.
Overtime, some of you may be able to use retinoids daily. Others may want to stick to 3/4 times a week. I personally use retinol only every other night (I alternate it with glycolic acid).
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
4. Moisturise, Moisturize, Moisturize
Don’t wait for your skin to peel before doing something about it. You know retinoids are gonna dry out your skin and peel it like a potato so be proactive and slather on that moisturiser before the problem starts.
Every night, straight after retinoids or at the end of your skincare routine (if you have a longer night-time routine), slather on that moisturiser. If you find this alone isn’t enough, switch to a richer formula. Facial oils work well too.
P.S. If you have sensitive skin or are using a prescription retinoid, consider putting on your moisturiser before the retinoid product. Yes, this may prevent some of the retinoid to penetrate through your skin – but that’s what makes the retinoid gentler and less likely to make your skin peel.
5. Don’t Use Retinoids With Other Harsh Actives
Look, I get it. You want to use all the good antiaging stuff. Like vitamin C to fight wrinkles and glycolic acid to exfoliate skin. The more the merrier, right?
Not really. All these ingredients are super powerful and your skin needs time to get used to them. Use them all together and the red, flaky mess is guaranteed.
Don’t get me wrong. Depending on how resistant your skin is, overtime you may be able to use two or three of them together.
But when you’re starting out, it’s best to let retinoids play solo. Remove all the other powerful actives from your skincare routine and reintroduce them once your skin has gotten used to the retinoid.
My skin is used to high concentrations of retinol, but I still alternate it with glycolic acid at night. I could use them together but I believe in treating my skin gently. In the morning, I use vitamin C. This way, I can fit all the good stuff into my skincare routine without bothering my skin.
P.S. While we’re on the subject, don’t use exfoliating scrubs, Clarisonic or anything else that could irritate your skin. The simpler and shorter your skincare routine is in the earlier stages, the better.
The Bottom Line
You can jump on the retinoid train or up your dose without putting up with flaky skin. The trick to avoid retinoids side effects, especially the peeling, is to adjust your skincare routine accordingly. Go basic, moisturise the heck out of your skin and go slow. This is a marathon, not a race.
Is there a printer version of this for me to print out & keep for reference please ? I am using Tretinoin as prescribed
Alicia, unfortunately I don’t have a print version but you can copy and paste it on Word and print it out.
is retinol stable in a serum that contains water? and the bottles with a dropper bottle seems crazy to me, all the air getting inside
Jeff, it depends on the type of retinol used. If it’s micro encapsulated, it’s well protected. Otherwise, it’s best to look for a more stable packaging or close that bottle really quickly!
Gio, maybe you could help me thinking. So, as you say, retinoids make more dead cells on skin surface. Now let’s say, I have keratinization disorder which leads to acne (among other reasons of course and theoretical because not diagnosed) – which would mean, my dead cells clogg up.
I do not intend to say retinoids would make acne worse in this case. I’m thinking then (acid) peelings would be (maybe even more) important to get rid of the dead cells. Because retinoids do not exfoliate, right? Or am I missing something here?
Minn, no retinoids don’t exfoliate. Adding salicylic acid to exfoliate skin would help get rid of the excess of dead cells and help you keep your pores clean.
When using my retinoid at night, should the routine really just be Cleanse, Retinoid, Moisturize? Anything like a BHA, Azelaic acid should be left for another night?
Anne, you can use a hyaluronic acid serum or other basic product like that with retinol. But yes, it’s best to live active ingredients (vitamin C, acids etc) for another night.
Hi Gio. So you have recommended The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% In Squalane. What is Granactive Retinoid vs Retinol and which is stronger? I have just about finished The Ordinary Retinol 0.2% in Squalane and am not sure it has done anything (although I do quite like the feel of the Squalane on my skin, even though I have oily skin it doesn’t seem to male it oily!). Was going to purchase the Retinol 0.5% in Squalane next to try but would you recommend the Granactive Retinoid instead?
Lee, I recommend different things to different skin types. Granactive retinoid is for sensitive skin. If your skin can tolerate 0.2% retinol, the next step up is 0.5% retinol.
Hi. My face has totally flared up – it fluctuates from swelling to just deep redness underneath. I was Usinf the Sunday Reilly day and night oils. I stopped after two days of using it around 10 days ago. My skin seems to be getting worse daily. What can I do?? I’m going to the gp tomorrow but they’ll probably just give me steroid cream. Help!!
Charlotte, I’d love to help, but it’s hard without more information. Just stay away from the oils for now and go back to a basic routine, only cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen.
Hi Gio! I am currently using a prescription tretinoin 0.1% every night and it has helped a lot with my skin! Unfortunately, my insurance doesn’t cover it though, so I end up paying around $200/year for it. In the grand scheme, this is worth it, but just wanted to know if there were any OTC high-percentage products you recommend? Thanks!
Rachel, I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but nothing OTC works near as well as Tretinoin. Don’t be fooled by the hype, there’s a reason why Tretinoin is prescription only.