How does retinol actually work?
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.
Can you use retinol while getting laser hair removal?
The short answer: Experts don’t recommend it.
"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, 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 beig 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.
Do these retinol rules apply to everyone before laser treatments?
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), Dr. Boakye says your best bet is to discontinue at least a week ahead of treatment. 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 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.
Other Precautions to Take
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.
One more thing: After any sort of laser treatment, Dr. Boakye suggests steering clear of retinol for two day to two weeks, or until full healing has 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.
And 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. And, after your treatment, ensure you review the post-care instructions with them as well. This is key to ensuring you have the best experience and results. “Post care instructions are important,” she says. “The patient needs to follow them to mitigate irritation and side effects.”
Retinol and Laser FAQs
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, ideally one week before.
Can I get laser hair removal while on tretinoin?
Dr. Boakye says tretinoin (a retinoid that’s also known to cause irritation) is generally safe to use before laser hair removal. However, she notes your provider may consider using a lower energy setting if they notice irritation during treatment. For that reason, be sure to communicate your skincare routine with them prior to treatment.
Can you use vitamin C before laser hair removal?
The same goes if you’re using vitamin C in your skincare routine. Dr. Boakye says it’s typically fine to use before laser hair removal. Your provider may just lower the energy setting if your skin has any irritation.
Can I use hyaluronic acid while getting laser hair removal?
Yup! 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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