Derm DMs: Can You Use a Chemical Exfoliator If You’re Using a Retinol?
There are a lot of rules and best practices to follow when it comes to skin care. One subject in particular that seems to have the masses intrigued is exfoliation. Aside from the most common queries being how often should you exfoliate, and what’s the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation, another popular question skin-care experts hear is: Is it safe to use a chemical exfoliator if you’re already using retinol?
We consulted with friend of Skincare.com, Ted Lain, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, to find out the answer. But first, let’s review what a retinol and chemical exfoliator do.
“Once retinol is absorbed into the skin, it is converted to another form for which our skin cells have receptors,” says Dr. Lain. It helps to increase cell turnover, therefore improving the appearance of brown spots and skin’s brightness. Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, are not biologically active like retinol because there are no receptors for them.” While the two are very different, they share many of the same benefits with prolonged, consistent use.
So, Is It Safe to Use a Chemical Exfoliator If You’re Already Using Retinol?
“If your skin has already adjusted to the retinol — whether prescription or over-the-counter — meaning no visible signs of redness or scaling, then yes, it is safe to use a mild exfoliator,” says Dr. Lain. “I would recommend starting with a cleanser containing either lipohydroxy acid or lactic acid because these are the more gentle chemical exfoliating ingredients.”
Like all forms of exfoliation, the major risk of using a chemical exfoliator and a retinol is irritation in the form of inflammation, redness and flaking. “This can lead to itching, and tenderness,” says Dr. Lain.
As such, it’s best to allow your skin time to adjust to your new routine slowly. It’s also important to identify your skin type before attempting to mix a chemical exfoliator and retinol. “Usually the more sensitive skin types should use one or the other and not try to combine them. In addition, those with dry skin will likely not tolerate the two products together,” he says.
If you’re new to retinol, you should allow your skin to pass the “adjustment period” before trying to incorporate any additional exfoliating products.
“I advise starting with retinol applied at night with a moisturizer and gentle cleanser, and using the same cleanser and a broad-spectrum sunscreen in the morning,” says Dr. Lain. “If after 4-6 weeks of use the skin is healthy with no signs of redness or scaling, then you can start to use a gentle chemical exfoliator in the morning, followed by broad-spectrum sunscreen.”