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Even if you’re not a skin care enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of retinol, the derm-favorite ingredient that seemingly does it all. Dealing with acne? Retinol can help. Pesky dark spots? Retinol again. Wrinkles and fine lines? Yep, retinol can fade and prevent those too. But it’s important to use it properly—and sparingly—or else you might end up with dry, flaky, or angrier skin instead of that glow you were promised.
Before we tell you how to avoid those unpleasant side effects, let’s briefly get into how retinol works. Essentially, the vitamin A derivative’s main job is increasing skin cell turnover, or turning over dead, dull cells and replacing them with new, healthier ones, as SELF previously reported. And while this process can give you a fresher look, it can also “temporarily disrupt the skin’s moisture barrier that locks in hydration and prevents water loss,” Lauren Penzi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in Long Island, New York, tells SELF. That’s why so many topical retinol products can cause dryness and irritation, Dr. Penzi says.
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between retinol’s impressive benefits and a happy, hydrated face. We asked dermatologists for the best ways to incorporate this powerhouse into your routine—and avoid the hell that is flaking, peeling, and cracking.
1. Keep the rest of your routine as simple as possible.
As we just mentioned, retinol can do a lot for your complexion, but causing dryness is one of its annoying drawbacks—a side effect that can be especially frustrating during the dehydrating winter months or for anyone who already has dry skin. So it only makes sense to avoid making things worse with other harsh, moisture-stripping ingredients.
“Use a very gentle cleanser and moisturizer when using retinol,” Divya Shokeen, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan Beach, California, and founder of Ocean Skin and Vein Institute, tells SELF. Specifically, she recommends looking for hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides, since these ingredients are all gentle and hydrating enough to pair with retinol.
“Also, don’t use any other potent actives at the same time,” Dr. Shokeen adds, like vitamin C, for example, or benzoyl peroxide and other chemical exfoliants. Doubling up on the strong stuff might seem like a recipe for better results, but it’ll likely overwhelm your moisture barrier, causing more dryness, irritation, and sensitivity, she says.
2. Go for a retinol-infused moisturizer instead of a serum.
“If you’re very new to retinol, I would pick a moisturizer-based product,” Dr. Shokeen says. That’s because these thicker formulas are often mixed with ingredients like ceramides or hyaluronic acid that help keep your face hydrated. Plus, something as concentrated as a serum might be too strong at first, especially if you’re already dealing with dry or sensitive skin, Dr. Shokeen adds.
Another way to prevent a scaly, flaky reaction: Look for lower concentrations. “Starting with 0.5% max is probably reasonable for most skin types, including sensitive ones,” Dr. Penzi says. Once you’ve adjusted, you can gradually work your way up to 1%, as long as you don’t have any negative side effects. But for now, here are a few gentle formulas to try:
Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
Regenerist Retinol24 + Peptide Night Face Moisturizer
Retinol + HPR Ceramide Rapid Skin Renewing Water Cream
Intensive Repair Cream
3. Try the sandwich method.
Already have a highly concentrated serum in your medicine cabinet? Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. You can try something called the sandwich method: Similar to how you’d make your beloved PB&J or grilled cheese, you sandwich the good stuff (retinol) between two layers of moisturizer. This strategy dilutes the retinol so that it absorbs at a slower rate and lower intensity, Dr. Shokeen says, making it less likely to strip your skin barrier.
To get more specific, she suggests first applying a thin layer of your favorite moisturizer after cleansing, and waiting 5 to 10 minutes for it to absorb before using retinol. “The reason I recommend waiting is that you don’t want to dilute your retinol too much by applying it too soon between steps,” she says. “The retinol might move around [with the moisturizer] or become thinned out to the point where it’s not very effective.” The last step: Wait another 10 to 15 minutes before sealing everything in with another layer of moisturizer, Dr. Shokeen says.
The downside of the sandwich method is that, technically, the retinol won’t be as effective compared to applying it directly onto your skin, Dr. Penzi says. But still, getting some of its perks is way better than getting none—or risking irritation and making your face a dehydrated, angry mess.
4. Try the 1-2-3 rule.
If you’re wondering how often you should use retinol, both dermatologists we consulted agree that it’s best to ease into it. “Definitely don’t start doing it every single night,” Dr. Penzi says, since “you’re more likely to dry your skin out that way.” The general guideline for beginners is two to three times a week, but another way to build up your tolerance (and minimize irritation) is what Dr. Shokeen calls the 1-2-3 rule.
Here’s how it works: “Use a pea-size amount on your face once a week for one week,” she explains. Then twice for the next two weeks, and—you guessed it—three times for the following three weeks, she says. Then, if you want to use it even more frequently, you can try working your way up to four times per week (or even every night), if your skin seems to be cool with it.
Of course, you can adjust this rule to your specific needs. If your cheeks are burning up with a once-a-week schedule, for instance, take a break until the irritation goes away. On the flip side, you’re welcome to step up your usage if you’re tolerating retinol well (meaning no redness, flakiness, or discomfort), per Dr. Shokeen. No one knows your skin better than you, so just pay attention to any signs that your product is doing more harm than good.
5. Skip certain parts of your face that are extra sensitive.
Again, you should only be using a pea-size amount for your entire face, according to Dr. Penzi, Dr. Shokeen, and the Mayo Clinic. That said, you might want to skip certain parts that are particularly prone to dryness. For example, “You don’t have to put it right under your eyes, since the skin there is so sensitive and delicate,” Dr. Penzi says. The same goes for the corners of your mouth or nose—they’re already more likely to crack and get chapped without retinol, so why take the risk?
6. Recognize when you’re overdoing it—and stop.
Even if you follow all of the advice above, you can expect a little bit of dryness, and even mild peeling, while using retinol consistently. (That’s kind of what happens when you force your outer layer of skin to slough off.) But to prevent your face from becoming absolutely parched—to the point where you’re experiencing excessive itchiness, flaking, and discomfort—it’s important to know when to take a break.
Your skin might be telling you to stop if it’s getting really red, for example, or you’re experiencing tenderness or large patches of peeling skin, Dr. Penzi says. That usually indicates a negative reaction (like irritation or an allergic reaction) as opposed to standard skin cell turnover. “Another big sign is that your face will begin to burn, like when you wash it or put any other products on,” Dr. Penzi says, “That sensation means that your barrier is torn up and you’re overdoing it.”
If you experience any of the above, both dermatologists agree to stop using retinol—and any active, for that matter—ASAP. And keep it simple with gentle moisturizers and serums. Then, when things have finally calmed down, that’s when you can reconsider slowly bringing retinol back into your routine, keeping the above steps in mind.
Originally Appeared on SELF