Dermatologists Want You to Start Applying Retinol to This Part of the Body—Stat

Photo Credits: MS_studio/ Shutterstock | Image Used for Illustrative Purposes Only

It’s no secret that the beauty world is saturated: There are many, many serums that promise to do many, many things, millions of masks for body parts that we barely knew we had before, and moisturizers that could very easily be stacked from here to the moon a few times back, and then some.

But somewhere along this long list of "stuff," our ears were left out—a move that seems oddly dismissive, considering they’re part of the face, as Spokane, WA dermatologist Wm. Philip Werschler, MD so succinctly points out. “Skin on the ears is comparable to skin on the face,” he says. “However, they do have some special considerations.” Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby agrees: “Unfortunately, we don’t even think about them in the aesthetic realm unless there are problems.”

You May Also Like: The Surprising Body Part Facial Plastic Surgeons Say Droops Once You Hit Your 30s

The irony is also not lost on Guelph, Canada dermatologist Dusan Sajic, MD, who coins the ears as "easily the most forgotten area on the body."

“This is especially important to note, as skin cancer on the ears and lips both have a higher chance for metastasis,” he says. “Care for the ears should be the same for the rest of the face—and that includes sunscreen, retinol and antioxidants like vitamin C and/or green tea.” Memphis dermatologist Puvisha Patel, MD is also on board with the full-regimen route for the ears: “They require just as much TLC as the face and neck; I recommend SPF in morning and a retinol or vitamin C at night.”

Let the Sun NOT Shine In
This kind of dedication may all sound like a scary thought—especially since, chances are, many of us have never let our skin-care application skills venture that far. The good news? As long as you focus on the sunscreen part of that equation, most derms will agree you’re off to a pretty solid start. 

“Broad-spectrum sunscreens are a must,” says New York dermatologist Ritu Saini, MD. Orange County, CA dermatologist Daniel Chang, MD stresses the same message: “Sunscreen should definitely include the ears because they are a common site for skin cancer development.” 

Ashburn, VA dermatologist Stephanie Daniel, MD also screams the “sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen” mantra, and admits that’s pretty much all she uses on her own ears. “Ears are one of the places we frequently encounter skin cancers and pre-skin cancers [actinic keratosis],” she explains. “It’s also a place where usually less-aggressive skin cancers can become more aggressive.” Brookline, MA dermatologist Papri Sarkar, MD sums it up: “It's hard for us to reach those patches of skin sometimes, but not at all hard for the sun!”

Things That Go Bump
Besides sunscreen, there are two other common ear-skin concerns that Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD sees often: Acne in the form of open comedones [blackheads] within the ears and around them. "For these, we recommend a good cleanser and retinoid, such as Obagi Retinol 0.5% Cream,” he says. “Moisturizing is also a key factor in the wintertime, but ears can also suffer irritation and extreme dryness. That's where a product like FixMySkin 1% Hydrocortisone Healing Balm comes in handy. It can take areas that are past the point of dryness to the point where eczema or psoriasis have become an issue.”

What’s more, Dr. Werschler says that sometimes, inflammatory acne and even cysts can develop in or behind our ears, and those can be painful. “We use same the medications and interventions as those used on the face to treat ear acne. Some individuals will develop open and/or closed comedonal acne [blackheads and whiteheads] in the conchal bowl and may not be aware of it. I suggest OTC adapalene [Differin] two-to-three nights a week, which is usually quite successful after a few months of treatment.” 

“Remember, be gentle with your ears, they are delicate and unique in their construction,” he stresses. “Protect them, both inside and out, and if you have questions about them, see your dermatologist or an ENT specialist.”

Extra Credit: Dermatologists’ Favorite Tips for Proper Ear Care (aka, all the stuff skin-related)
Retinol Review: While a lot of dermatologists interviewed for this story praised the use of retinol for the ears, some were a little suspicious. “Skin care for the ears should be limited to sunscreen and antioxidants,” says Austin, TX dermatologist Ted Lain, MD. “Retinol will be likely too irritating; retinaldehyde would be a better ingredient to look for as it is more gentle. However, since this skin is so thin and sensitive, I fear that any form of a retinoid would lead to irritation and itching.” 

Hats On: Besides SPF, Covington, LA dermatologist Christel Malinski, MD highly recommends wearing a hat with at least a four-inch brim to ensure suitable sun protection. Not convinced? New York dermatologist Mary Ruth Buchness, MD says she’s saw more sun-damaged ears this past summer than ever before.

Wash Behind Your Ears (and on Them!): If you have greasy or flaky skin on your ears, Boston dermatologist Dennis Porto, MD recommends that you wash them with a dandruff shampoo like Selsun Blue to get rid of the scales. Laguna Hills, CA dermatologist Jennifer Channual, MD concurs: “Besides sun protection, the second most common topical I recommend for ears would be an anti-dandruff shampoo, such as DHS zinc. Scaling inside the ears and behind the ears can cause itching and a visible rash, which occasionally may necessitate prescription ketoconazole shampoo and topical steroids.”

Try a Treatment: While Dr. Allenby stresses that dermatologists have always advocated liberal application of sunscreen to help reduce the risk of cancers and precancerous lesions, she points out that, in women, the hair typically covers the upper ear and allows for a slightly better shading effect to the skin. “I more often treat earlobe earring tears, add volume to shrinking lobes, or do lasers for sun damage and hair removal in men.”

Give Your Lobes Some Love: Dr. Patel is also pro lobe-specific treatments. “The lobes tend to sag over time and can be treated with fillers, microneedling and Ultherapy,” she says. Oklahoma City dermatologist Kimberly Jerdan, MD is also a big fan of the filler route: “Aside from protection for the ears, heavy earrings over time can make an earlobe droopy and stretched. I always find a little filler in the earlobes helps beef them up and even holds post earrings better!” Dr. Sarkar even recommends taking out stud earrings at night before bed. “Over time the pressure from the studs and the backing can cause loss of volume around the ear hole or cause stretching.”

Clean Your Piercings: Even if your lobes aren’t an area of concern, it’s vital to keep ear piercings clean. “For pierced ears, on both the earlobes and through the cartilage, care needs to be taken to keep the pierced holes clean,” says Dr. Werschler, who recommends simply placing a drop of hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol over the hole and then pushing the post of the earring through the piercing hole. “Similarly, if the piercing hole is dry or flakey, I suggest using a petroleum jelly, coating the earring post and gently guide back and forth a few times through the hole,” he says.

Get the Story Straight on the Swab: To use a Q-Tip or not to use a Q-Tip? As far as the age-old questions goes, Dr. Chang says to skip the swab: “Earwax is designed to fall out naturally and you should avoid measures like cotton swabs in the ears because this can cause earwax to become impacted against the eardrum.” And take note of Dr. Werschler’s genius tip: “One of my favorite suggestions is to use a Swimmer’s Ear drying drop product after showering. These products typically contain a combination of isopropyl alcohol and glycerin. Not only do the drops absorb water, but they also help reduce wax buildup. I prefer them to the classic cotton-tipped ear swabs, which can push ear wax further into the canal where it can congeal and harden.”

Pillow Talk: Finding a pillow that might be able to keep you on your back while you sleep at night not only can help with face wrinkles, but can also decrease the chances of painful bumps that occur along the cartilage of the ear, according to Dr. Daniel.

Make Moves to Monitor: The bottom line: “Always remember to monitor your own skin, including your ears, for possible changes and symptoms, and if you notice a new or changing growth, to see your board-certified dermatologist for evaluation,” says Harrison, NY dermatologist Jennifer Silverman Kitchin, MD. “Ears are a highly sun exposed area, and a frequent site of skin cancer.”