Ahead, dermatologists and laser hair removal specialists break down why retinol and lasers can be such a lethal combo for your skin’s integrity.
What is laser hair removal?
Before we dive into how retinol and laser hair removal interact with each other, it’s important to understand what laser hair removal actually does to your skin.
Laser hair removal is a cosmetic procedure that destroys hair follicles at the root through repetitive pulses of light. These pulses of light target the pigment of the hair follicles, destroying them with the heat that’s generated from each laser pulse. By targeting the hair follicle’s pigment, the laser pulverizes the follicle without damaging the skin cells that surround it.
How does retinol work?
Retinol is an anti-aging skincare ingredient that’s derived from vitamin A. 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. This increase in cell turnover is also why derms warn patients about the dreaded retinol purge, a weeks-long period wherein your skin may look worse before it gets better.
Because it's so powerful, it, unfortunately, can make your skin more sensitive to outside forces—whether they're chemical, mechanical, or thermal—hence why dermatologists warn users to stay away from things like certain skincare ingredients, hot wax, and, yup, lasers, while using it. This is also why derms recommend using gentler, specifically-formulated products when using retinol for your under eyes.
Retinols vs. retinoids vs. tretinoin: What’s the difference?
You may have heard retinols, retinoids, and tretinoin used interchangeably while shopping for skincare products, but these three terms differ slightly.
The term retinoids refers to the class of skincare ingredients derived from vitamin A, including (but not limited to!) retinol and tretinoin. Retinol is a type of retinoid that’s commonly found in over-the-counter anti-aging skincare ingredients. Tretinoin, on the other hand, can only be bought with a prescription.
This is because tretinoin has a higher potency than retinol.
“Retinol is a weaker form of a retinoid,” explains Georgetown-based SkinSpirit aesthetic nurse specialist Kathy Shay, RN. “It's still effective at reducing fine lines and wrinkles and renewing the skin if used consistently, but cell turnover is slower.”
Can I use retinol before laser hair removal?
The short answer: Experts don’t recommend it.
"Retinols can be irritating and drying, which can lead to possible adverse skin reactions post laser treatment which is associated with a higher risk of a burn," says Lauren Abramowitz, PA-C and founder of Skin Solutions Collective. Board-certified 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.
What happens if you use retinol before a laser treatment?
In addition to redness, Naana Boakye, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bergen Dermatology, says other adverse side effects of using retinol before a laser treatment include irritation, hyperpigmentation, or a possible burn. The severity of the effects will depend on the concentration of the retinol, she notes.
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 red.
How to safely use retinol while getting laser hair removal
No need to cancel your laser hair removal appointment or throw away your fancy retinol cream just yet; with proper prep and planning, you can have the best of both worlds. Here’s how.
How long should I avoid retinol before laser hair removal?
Shay, who has over 23 years of experience in cosmetic dermatology and specializes in cosmetic laser treatments, recommends abstaining from retinol use for at least three to five days before your treatment. But if you're anything like me (AKA a sensitive-skinned human), Dr. Boakye says your best bet is to discontinue your retinol skincare regimen at least a week ahead of your appointment. This allows enough time for the skin to repair itself since the retinols exfoliate the skin.
With all of that in mind, Dr. Boakye notes that some dermatologists and providers may suggest that you continue using retinol right up until your treatment. 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 just 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.
What other skincare should you avoid during laser hair removal?
Cutting out retinol isn't the only precaution you should take before going under the laser. Dr. Williams notes that you should also plan to ditch all skincare products with acids, benzoyl peroxide, and any retinol-like substances (a la Differin) at least five days before your laser appointment.
“It's important to discontinue all retinoids in addition to products that contain alpha or beta hydroxy, glycolic, and salicylic acid,” adds Shay. “It's also important to discontinue waxing and tweezing for approximately four weeks so [that] the hair is in the follicle at the time of the treatment.
After your treatment, ensure you fully review the post-treatment care instructions with your laser hair removal provider. This is key to ensuring you have the best experience and results, says Boakye. “The patient needs to follow them to mitigate irritation and side effects.”
According to Shay, you can apply a thin layer of aquaphor or hydrocortisone cream post-treatment in order to promote healing and reduce redness.
When should I resume retinol after laser hair removal?
Retinol can be resumed 3-4 days following a laser hair removal treatment “as long as the skin is fully healed and there are no visible signs of the treatment” such as redness or swelling, says Shay. “Your usual skin care regimen can be fully resumed at this time as well,” she adds.
After any sort of laser treatment, Dr. Boakye suggests steering clear of retinol for anywhere between two days to two weeks or until full healing is completed. But, this timeline may differ depending on the specific laser treatment. Also, 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.
When in doubt (especially if it’s your first time doing a laser treatment of any kind), Dr. Boakye advises calling up your dermatologist or laser provider to ask if they recommend any specific pre-laser prep instructions.
How long should you stop retinol before laser hair removal?
According to Shay, you should stop using retinol skincare products at least three to five days before your scheduled laser hair removal treatment, while Boakye recommends giving your skin a full week to prepare for the procedure.
What happens if you get laser hair removal after using retinol?
Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to light. Because laser hair removal devices use heavy flashes of light, this opens up your already-vulnerable skin to irritation.
“[It] can cause longer healing times and possibly burns and scarring,” says Shay.
Can I use retinol while doing IPL?
Intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments (aka photofacials that help with hyperpigmentation) use a light, not a laser, Dr. Boakye says. However, she still recommends talking to your doctor or provider prior to using retinol. How long before an IPL treatment you should stop retinol she says will depend on your skin and the settings the doctor uses. As a general rule of thumb, stop all retinol use one week beforehand.
Can I get laser hair removal while on tretinoin?
You can, but you (and your skin) may regret it.
Tretinoin, like retinol, is a retinoid. Because retinoids make your skin more sensitive to light, combining tretinoin and laser hair removal may result in skin irritation.
Can you use vitamin C before laser hair removal?
Dr. Boakye says it’s typically fine to use vitamin C before laser hair removal. However, your provider may lower the energy setting if your skin shows signs of irritation.
Can I use hyaluronic acid while getting laser hair removal?
Hyaluronic acid is a moisturizing ingredient, Dr. Boakye says, so there’s no issue there. But as mentioned previously, always check with your laser provider if you’re unsure about using certain ingredients before a treatment.
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