Dear Derms: Do I Need to Feel My Skin Care to Know It’s Working?

Photo: Stocksy/Milles Studio
For most of my life, I've been under the assumption that the more I can feel a beauty product tingling on my skin, the better it's working. Chock this up to really believing in context clues, but like assuming that toothpaste will zap a zit or even thinking that I should wash my face in the shower, the idea that a beauty product should tingle or burn to signal that it's working is a beauty myth that we need to drop—and pronto, according to dermatologists.

"When ingredients stimulate the nerves in the skin with burning and tingling, it creates a sensation that the product is doing something and that it's working," says Purvisha Patel, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "Just because a product tingles doesn't mean it's more effective—nerve sensation is not correlated to skin outcome." What's more, Robert Anolik, MD, a New York-based dermatologist, adds that feeling your skin care penetrate is merely a psychological affect. "Often it's just these sorts of cooling or tingling ingredients giving us that positive psychological feedback while the actual activity is imperceptible by a different ingredient," he says.

"Nerve sensation is not correlated to skin outcome." —Purvisha Patel, MD

When you can feel that burn, it likely has to do with the product's pH level. "Tingling doesn’t mean the product is working better than a non-tingling product," explains facialist and Spa Radiance founder Angelina Umansky. "It usually means the pH of the product is lower or more acidic than your skin’s natural pH level. Sometimes your skin is so dry and sensitive that almost any product will give you a tingle, and all tingles are not created equal."

This all doesn't mean that having those satisfying sensations with your skin care is a bad thing—there are just certain ingredients that give off that burns-so-good feeling. "Alpha-hydroxy acids or fruit acids are exfoliants that tingle with use as the ingredient is going into the skin," says Dr. Patel. They're not alone. Other exfoliators such as beta-hydroxy acids, enzymes, retinoids frequently tingle, as well, according to Umansky, and these are most definitely due to a pH change on skin. Other ingredients like menthol, which mimics the response of a cold sensation in the brain's receptors, and camphor, which has been shown to cool and warm the skin, can also create skin responses.

While in the case of menthol or camphor, this is a localized, commonly non-threatening reaction, other tingles could be signaling that a product is too intense (especially in those with sensitive skin). "If products make you tingle, they may actually be too strong for you and should be avoided," says Dr. Patel. "Also, allergic reactions and burning of the skin can start with skin tingling, which is not a desirable result from skin care." Other not-so-beneficial culprits that can lead to the sting are astringent products. "If you're experiencing more than a quickly disappearing tingle or you're getting a full-on stinging or burning sensation, this commonly happens with astringents like alcohol-based products—those reactions shouldn't be happening," says Umansky.

So, yeah—if you're swiping on a serum or a face mask, for example, and that tingling turns from satisfying (and ultra-quick) to steady and not going away, use caution. "If the sensation lasts for more than a few minutes, if the skin gets red or inflamed, and if the skin starts to peel, it could mean there's an allergic reaction to the product and it should be washed off," says Dr. Patel. "If it still persists after washing off the product, consult a board-certified dermatologist." Also important to note: Keep those products away from especially sensitive areas, like around your eyes, she says.

If you're aware of the sensational lurkers on your beauty shelf, that's a good thing—just enjoy that sizzle on your skin, as long as it doesn't lead to anything more serious. But, also, don't get mad at your retinol if it doesn't burn into your complexion—it's still doing its job.

On the hunt for active beauty? These are some tried-and-true retinol serums for sensitive skin, and here's the deal on chemical exfoliation via AHA and BHAs

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