Is It A Red Flag If Retinol Is Making Your Skin Peel?

When it comes to skin health at any age, we have to get proactive. Throughout the first few decades of life, the skin naturally produces a decent amount of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid to keep the skin hydrated and plump. However, this production decreases with age, contributing to a loss of elasticity and structural integrity in the skin, according to a study published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal Open Forum. That's why we need to keep up with a good skincare routine to keep the skin in tip-top shape. As far as anti-aging skincare goes, one powerhouse ingredient always seems to stand the test of time: retinol

Retinol is often added to topical treatments that address skin changes associated with aging skin and acne. According to the Cleveland Clinic, retinol boasts clinically proven benefits in speeding up skin cell turnover and exfoliating the skin, therefore reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. While retinol has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is considered the gold standard in anti-aging skincare, it is not without downsides. For instance, it's not uncommon to see new retinol users experience peeling and flaking of the skin after initial use. Although peeling is one of the common side effects of retinol, it can leave vitamin A-derivative newbies wondering if they should continue the product. So, what should you do when your skin peels as a result of retinol usage?

Don't stop using retinol

According to dermatologist Dr. Elaine Cook from Advanced Skin Treatment Center, peeling of the skin and redness — also known as the process of retinization — are common side effects of retinol use.  Many people discontinue using retinol — or any retinoid product — after experiencing peeling and wait until their skin gets better to start using retinol again. According to Dr. Cook, this is not the best course of action.

If you ditch your retinol treatment just because you can't push past the initial side effects, your skin will never be able to build tolerance and get used to retinol. Dr. Cook says that if you keep on using retinol at a stretch for about two months, the peeling effects will go away.  

"Most, but not all, people who have had problems using a retinoid can use it successfully if they do it the right way," shares Dr. Cook. "I often start patients off every other or every third night and work up to every night, but consistently." You can begin with the least irritating retinoid and work your way up to the most irritating product. Older gel formulations, for example, are more drying and aggravating than creams, but current microsphere gels are not, says Dr. Cook. Although retinol is found in numerous over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products, you should consult a dermatologist before using it. Or, you should start with a low dose to see how your skin reacts to it before working up to a higher dose. 

How retinol interacts with other skincare products

Retinol makes your skin more sun-sensitive, so take care to slather up with a sunscreen of at least an SPF 30 and reapply throughout the day — even when you pass the time indoors or it rains the whole day — to protect your skin against potential irritation. Keeping your skin hydrated with a moisturizer can also help you cope with retinol-induced dryness woes. 

"Studies have shown that layering topical retinoids over moisturizers minimizes skin irritation without interfering with how well they work in the skin," Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Allure. Moisturizing ingredients that can be used in the same skincare routine with retinol are hyaluronic acid and glycerin. Loaded with hydrating qualities, these humectants can retain water molecules in the skin to keep it hydrated and reduce the potentially irritating side effects of retinol usage, according to Heyday and MedEsthetics

One ingredient that you should never use with retinol is benzoyl peroxide. This acne-fighting antiseptic is able to compromise the positive effects of retinol and leave the skin feeling more irritated. If you are experiencing the side effects from retinol, consider soothing your skin with a bland moisturizer and giving makeup a pass for the day, Dr. Zeichner tells by L'Oréal. "You are better off letting your skin calm down so you can resume your normal makeup routine in the future," he says.