Starting Retinol Can Be Tricky — Here’s How to Survive the Adjustment Period

April 30, 2019
Jessica Harrington
By: Jessica Harrington | by L'Oréal
Starting Retinol Can Be Tricky — Here’s How to Survive the Adjustment Period

When it comes to fighting premature signs of aging and keeping your skin looking healthy and radiant, dermatologists tend to agree that no skin-care ingredient works better than retinol. The powerful vitamin A derivative has long been regarded as the youth-enhancing, holy grail of the beauty world with everything from drugstore to luxe products boasting its inclusion in their formulas. But retinol does not mess around. If you’ve ever started using a product with a high concentration of retinol in it and then abruptly stopped due to skin irritation or a number of other reasons — first off, know we’ve all been there — and second, keep reading because this is for you. While retinol has a long list of skin-care benefits, you have to be careful when you start incorporating it into your routine.

We spoke with Ted Lain, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, to learn the ins and outs of surviving the adjustment period — AKA the first few weeks — of using retinol. Ahead, he details why everyone should be using a retinol, plus how to avoid skin irritation and more.

What do you tell your patients who are looking to start using retinol but don’t know much about it?

Retinol is an amazing skin-care product that builds collagen, lightens brown spots and evens tone and texture. It is a natural product; that is, there are receptors for retinoic acid, retinol's derivative, on the surface of the skin cells. By binding to these receptors, retinoic acid causes favorable expression of certain genes, and production of proteins that lead to these great results. However, people with sensitive skin need to be careful with retinol because it can cause quite a bit of irritation, isolated incidents of inflammation, dryness and redness during the first few weeks of use.   

Can you explain what the "adjustment period" of retinol is referring to?

One of the primary results of retinol use is the increased turnover of skin cells, which contributes to the beneficial results. By causing dead skin cells to shed more frequently, the skin undergoes an initial period of scaling and sensitivity until the user increases moisturization and skin habituates to a new equilibrium.

What should you expect during these first few weeks of use?

Expect dryness, sun sensitivity and mild redness. These can be mitigated by daily use of sunscreen, moisturizer and applying the correct amount (a pea size) of retinol at night.

What’s your number-one tip that you give patients when they start retinol?

I often counsel patients to start retinol application at night, initially applying every other night for two-to-three weeks until the initial reaction has subsided, then increasing to daily application. In addition, I advise either mixing retinol with an equal amount of non-comedogenic moisturizer and applying a thin layer to the face, or applying a layer of moisturizer first and then the retinol. Retinol should be stopped for at least seven days prior to waxing or threading, and longer prior to laser treatments.

For those who experience severe flaking, dryness and/or skin irritation after using retinol, do you have any tips to combat this?

Decrease the frequency of retinol use, increase the frequency of moisturizer and ensure that only a pea-sized amount of the retinol product is applied. The initial few weeks are crucial to achieve all the amazing benefits of retinol! I urge patients to not stop during this time because the future results far outweigh these initial annoying, but treatable, symptoms.

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