The derm-approved ways to apply retinol without irritating your complexion


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Plain and simple: Retinol has been bestowing millions of people with glowy complexions for decades. Vitamin A derivatives (from OTC retinols to prescription-strength tretinoins) have been prescribed by derms, recommended by facialists, and snatched off of beauty shelves en masse because of the ingredient’s unparalleled ability to speed up skin’s cellular turnover, promote collagen production, and help skin repair itself from a handful of woes.

Despite its amazing popularity and glow-inducing prowess, it still leaves some people frustrated—that’s because, while working these wonders, it can also irritate the complexion, resulting in dryness and flakiness for some. That why plenty of skin-care pros advise that new retinol users start out by using it every other day or even once a week. And now another rule to keep in mind: Many prescription-strength retinoids suggest users wait upwards of 20 minutes post-cleansing before putting retinol on their skin and 20 more minutes before putting anything else on, according to Reddit.

According to derms, however, it’s an old-school rule. “In the 1980s, when we just started using Retin-A and tretinoin for anti-aging, we instructed women to wash and wait 20 minutes before applying the Retin-A,” explains Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a Miami-based dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. “At this time, dermatologists believed waiting was the best way to minimize any irritation from the product. Immediately after washing, while our skin is slightly damp, you do get enhanced absorption.” These days, however, retinol formulas are more skin-friendly and don’t tend to cause the overt irritation that they previously did, so the rule isn’t always necessary and has been phased out. (TYSM for those 20 minutes I just got back, doc!) Still, if you find that your retinol or tretinoin is more active than you’d like, let your face dry completely to test out the theory.

But what about layering a retinol with other skin-care products to help keep irritation away? As an avid retinol devotee, I’ve always thought that gentle moisturizers can also help temper the negative side effects of vitamin A, so I checked in with a few other derms who told me that you don’t have to wait to slather on a moisturizer post-retinol, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re someone who’s oily by nature and/or using retinol to help with acne, it’s better to play it safe and let your retinol dry fully before using anything else. “Generally speaking, I do not recommend combining retinol or generic formulations of tretinoin with anything besides a bland moisturizer,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a NYC-based dermatologist. “Both ingredients are highly unstable and can become inactivated easily. Let the first product dry fully then apply the other.”

If you’re more sensitive, however, buffering it with another product can help you to prevent inflammation in the skin (AKA dryness and redness) from happening. “Ultimately, the benefits of retinoids are in a tug-of-war with the negatives of inflammation if marked inflammation occurs,” says Robert Anolik, MD, a NYC-based dermatologist. “In this setting, it makes sense to apply a moisturizer at the same time without waiting just to minimize the negative effects of inflammation and to allow the soothing effects of the moisturizer.” Either way, just be sure to at least try the ingredient—it works wonders.

Other key skin-boosting ingredients? Vitamin C—here are dermatologist-approved serums to try. And another glow-inducer is hyaluronic acid, which adds serious moisture.

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