It doesn’t have to hurt to work
Retinol is the gold-standard active ingredient proven to reverse signs of aging (aka sun damage). However, although the end results can be incredible, the path to achieving them does not always run smooth. Redness, peeling, flaking and, yes, pain, can all be part of what’s known as the ‘retinization process’. So much so that many of us give up along the way. “But you absolutely do not need to go through that extreme reaction,” explains dermo-pharmacist and formulator Dr. Colette Haydon. “That is a notion that is left over from the dark ages of beauty, when women thought that having sore, red and inflamed skin showed that their retinol was working.”
Start low and go slow
The products themselves are not at fault – it mostly comes down to how we use (or misuse) them: applying too much, too often, and thinking we can just skip the required acclimatization process. More is not better, and even with today’s excellent new generation of less reactive but highly effective retinols – and now retinals – there is still that key period of building up the skin’s resilience that should never be skipped. “The only difference between starting retinol for the first time and re-starting it after a break (if longer than a month) is that those who have used it before have a better idea of how it affects their skin, compared to those who are completely ‘retinol naive’,” explains dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. “Be patient. Start low and gradually progress with your dosing regimen to avoid any peeling, pain and irritation. This means using just a small amount, and only applying two to three days a week. Also, try layering your retinol product with your moisturizer, as this ensures your face stays hydrated wherever the retinol is applied.”
Indeed, even though retinols now come formulated with ceramides, niacinamide and other cushioning and calming ingredients, I still apply my favorite retinol (Medik8’s Crystal Retinol 10 Stable Retinal Night Serum) at night, wait 10 minutes and then apply a cream, such as La Mer Crème de la Mer, Augustinus Bader The Cream or Omorovicza’s Cushioning Day Cream on top. You get all the benefits, minus the discomfort.
Prescription products versus cosmetic creams
With prescription-only tretinoin – aka Retin-A (retinoic acid) – being the most potent form (and the formula most retinoid users will be striving to acclimatize their skin to), interestingly, some dermatologists are no longer prescribing it, favoring more user-friendly, over-the-counter retinol products instead. “Consistency is key here, and it’s the day-in, day-out accumulative use that makes the difference,” says Dr. Dennis Gross. “I’m a huge proponent of using retinol every day, and I find patients are better off using something [less intensive] that they will be consistent with, rather than the starting and stopping with a prescription tretinoin that makes their skin red, irritated and reactive. It’s the constant exposure to vitamin A that makes the difference.”
Today’s advanced retinol products are excellent – so much so that I have now swapped my dermatologist-prescribed Ketrel 0.05% Retin A cream for the aforementioned Medik8 Crystal Retinol Night Serum – and I get the same fresh, even-toned skin results without any of the negatives.
Rethink your other skin-routine regulars
The ideal is to work your way up to using a retinol every evening; however, what you use with it – often unwittingly – can cause issues. Daily exfoliating essences, overnight retexturizing serums and glycolic peel masks can prove too much for many. As a healthy skin-cell turnover is one of the key benefits of using retinols, there is no need to use additional peels. However, if, like me, you like to exfoliate, I recommend a peel pad twice a week – Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Universal Daily Peel pads are excellent and tingle-free (there is also an Ultra Gentle version). Alternatively, if you prefer a scrub, I can’t recommend Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Facial Scrub highly enough. A blend of jojoba oils and a grainy scrub, it is excellent – especially for lifting off dry skin.
The newer names to know
Retinaldehyde (used by Medik8), also known as retinal, “is very similar to Retin-A or tretinoin when it comes to cellular activity, and although you still have to build up to it, it’s better tolerated by the skin,” explains Daniel Issacs, director of research at Medik8. “Plus, when you apply a retinoid, it’s converted to retinonic acid by receptors. But if you apply retinaldehyde, or retinal, to the skin, it only converts what’s needed, which makes it better tolerated.”
While Granactive retinol (a next-generation retinol) is prescription-only in some countries (including Canada), in the US it can be used in a concentration of 1% in a skincare formula. “And that’s a good active dose,” explains Dr. AJ Sturnham, who utilizes it in her Decree Treat Tincture skincare line. “I used to go down the tretintoin pathway [with my patients], until I realized it wasn’t working for a lot of people, as they couldn’t tolerate it. But Granactive is good even if you have sensitive skin, because it gets a good dose of retinol into the skin that is still tolerable, which means most people don’t stop and start.”
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