How Long Should We Give Skin Care to Work?

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Building a skin-care routine isn’t easy, especially when you’re not sure how long to try a product before you know if it works for you.

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos explains that finding the right skin care is all about goal setting. “Start with thinking about the benefits you want to achieve and then look for ingredients with known efficacy that deliver on those benefits,” Dobos says. “Do a little research with trusted sources like the American Academy of Dermatology—they have some fantastic consumer resources online.”

Washington, D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD stresses the importance of starting small. “A patch test is the application of a product on the underside of the wrist (which is relatively thin skinned) for a few days in a row,” Dr. Alster explains.  “This will provide an initial assessment of a product’s irritation potential.”

After a few days of patch testing, you’ll be ready to try the product for real. But it’s important not to get carried away, and to introduce each new product slowly.

“Initiate a new product one at a time on clean skin,” Dr. Alster says. “And use them regularly (usually once daily) for a week before introducing another new product to ensure that there is no irritation or allergic reaction.” This will help you easily identify what product is behind a potential reaction.

Typically, You’ll Want to Give it a Month

While you’re building your routine, you should know that to properly evaluate most skin care you’ll usually need around a month of consistent use. “Skin turnover occurs every 30 days, so any new product should be used for one month before assessing early clinical response,” Dr. Alster explains.

New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD notes that different types of skin care can show results early, while others will take several months to show real changes. “So, it depends on the product,” Dr. Day explains. “If we’re looking for a hydrator, that can be as little as a few days to a week. If you’re looking to build collagen, that’s biology and that takes a minimum of six weeks. A retinol you would want to see firmness or change in skin quality, and that takes about six weeks.”

How Long it Takes Depends on What it Does

This variability in the time it takes products to work comes down to its chemistry and how it interacts at different levels of your skin.

“It really depends on each ingredient’s individual chemistry which affects how it will penetrate the skin, the concentration, and then what happens to it once on the skin,” Dobos explains. “I think retinoids might provide a good example. Both retinol and retinaldehyde, aka retinal, need to be converted to retinoic acid in the skin. Retinol takes two steps while retinal takes just one. When a chemical change has to happen like this the overall efficacy can be decreased because not all of the material will get reacted.”

“If it’s a brightening product and the pigment that you’re trying to brighten is more superficial, that can take as little as a week,” Dr. Day says. “But if the pigment is deeper, it can take a few months because of skin cell turnover and the process of pigmentation that’s driving that discoloration. So even for the same problem it can be that you start to see a change early, but to see a real change, or a longer-lasting change, or a complete change, that could take a few months.”

Reaching Your Goals

There are some kinds of skin care that you will need to keep up continuously, and others that will take a few months to show substantial change.

Medical aesthetician Amy Peterson notes that some skin problems tend to resurface over time, so treatment must continue even after you’ve seen improvement. “In adult females, acne has a tendency to relapse and come back,” Peterson explains. “So, treatment has to remain really consistent.”

If your goal includes the reduction of wrinkles, fine lines, or hyperpigmentation, it’s important to remember that more mature skin will take longer to show signs of change. “Skin undergoes many changes as we age,” Dobos explains. “The changes to the skin that lead to whatever we’re looking to help improve, whether it’s fine lines or uneven tone, have taken years to accumulate. It’s not as easy to turn back the clock.”

What If It Still Isn’t Working?

If you’ve given a product the appropriate amount of time to work on the problem, but you’re still not seeing a change, it’s probably time to talk to a professional.

“That’s really when you would want to talk to a dermatologist,” Dr. Day says. “Because either you’re not using the right product or it’s the wrong concentration, or you might be applying it in the wrong order. It could be that you’re using the wrong formula. There’s a whole bunch of things behind it. That’s why we go through dermatology residency for three years where all we do is look at skin.”

When Seeing a Professional

It’s a good idea to make a list of the products you use before going in to see a dermatologist or medical aesthetician and note what you liked about them and what you didn’t. Take pictures of the front and back of the product so the name, concentration, and ingredient list are clear.

I could be using something, and you could be using the same ingredient, but they’re put together in slightly different concentrations,” Dr. Day explains. “It could be a gel versus a cream versus a serum. All those things behave differently.”

Peterson notes that it may be a problem of the product’s strength, which is where medical aestheticians and dermatologists can help.

“What you can sell to the public is not the same as what you can sell at an individual practice,” Peterson explains. “So, the strength of retinol, benzyl peroxide and niacinamides is going to be stronger.”

If you’re still not getting the results you want, a dermatologist or medical aesthetician can help figure out what formulations, ingredients, concentrations, and other lifestyle changes could benefit your skin.

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