Retinol comes with a lot of rules. Don’t wear it without SPF! Don’t mix it with powerful acids! Don’t use it right before you get your eyebrows waxed! And, one more worth adding to the list: Don’t use it anywhere near lasers.
Retinols work to exfoliate the skin from the bottom up by stimulating cell turnover, which is why your face looks like that of a newborn infant angel when you use it regularly. But because it’s so powerful, it can make your skin more sensitive to outside forces—whether they’re chemical, mechanical, or thermal—hence all of the rules about staying away from things like certain skincare ingredients, hot wax, and, yup, lasers.
“Retinols can be irritating and drying which can lead to a possible adverse skin reactions post laser treatment which is associated with a higher risk of a burn,” says Lauren Abramowitz, Board Certified PA-C, founder Park Avenue Skin Solutions and dermatologist Estee Williams, MD, agrees, noting, “the risk associated with using a laser device on facial skin that has been treated with retinol in the last one to two weeks is that the recovery period will be longer than usual due to the skin being extra sensitive to the laser.” I learned this lesson the hard way a few weeks ago, when I simply forgot to pause my retinol regimen before going in to get my mustache lasered. As any skin-care pro could have predicted, my upper lip was red (albeit hairless) for the better part of the next week.
While these rules apply across the board—from skin resurfacing lasers to the ones that remove hair—not all skin types will necessarily have the same response to a retinol-laser meet-cute. Patients with dry or sensitive skin are more likely to have a reaction, hence why my skin turned the color of a boiled tomato. If you’re anything like me (AKA a dry or sensitive-skinned human), your best bet is to discontinue at least a week or two ahead of treatment.
With all of that in mind, there is some research that touts the benefits of using a retinoid pre-treatment for three months ahead of certain facial laser treatments…as long as you stop using it immediately before. If you’re getting an ablative laser treatment done, like Fraxel, experts suggest using a 0.1% tretinoin cream, and stopping use it 24 hours before. If you’re getting a non-ablative laser treatment, downgrade the dose to 0.05%. And be sure to go heavy on the moisturizer throughout the process to prevent reactions.
Cutting out retinol isn’t the only precaution you should take before going under the laser. Dr. Williams notes that you should also should also plan to ditch all all skincare products with acids, benzoyl peroxide, and any retinol like substances (a la Differin) at least five days before your laser appointment. And one more thing: After any sort of laser treatment, steer clear of retinol for 2 weeks, or until full healing has completed. Wait 24 hours post-procedure, then slather on zinc-based sunscreen religiously for the next two weeks. Then, you’ll be all good to get back to your regularly scheduled retinol-ing.
Wondering which cleanser you should use with retinol? Here’s your guide.
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