5 Signs You Should Switch Your Retinol

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Retinol is dubbed the gold-standard ingredient for signs of aging, acne and more, but it’s also known to be irritating. If that shiny new bottle of retinol backfires and wreaks havoc on your skin, it may be time to switch your retinol to another formula. Not all products work for everyone, and sometimes, regular purging can turn into serious irritation overnight.

“We know retinol is fabulous to keep our skin looking youthful and toned. However, some factors or formulations can definitely be too strong,” says celebrity aesthetician Nerida Joy. “Certain times or seasons of the year, the climate and environment we’re in, and our own mental and physical health can all make a retinol ‘too much.'” Here’s how to tell when it’s time to switch your retinol and try a different one, or stop using it altogether. No one wants to wake up and see redness, bumps and irritation staring back at them in the mirror.

Featured Experts:

  • Carmen Castilla, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York
  • Purvisha Patel, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Germantown, TN
  • Nerida Joy is a celebrity aesthetician based in Los Angeles
  • Tammy Fender is a holistic skin-care expert and founder of her eponymous skin-care brand, based in Palm Beach, FL

Signs That Your Retinol Isn’t Working

According to Joy (she’s Jennifer Garner’s longtime facialist), signs of overuse of retinol, or using a retinol that’s too strong, include skin ruddiness, irritation, inflammation and thinning. “In some cases, overuse can even cause ‘retinol burn.’ This is when the reaction causes damage and skin becomes highly sensitive or extremely irritated,” adds Tammy Fender, holistic skin-care expert and founder of her eponymous skin-care brand. “But what’s not as easy to see is the long-term effects that overuse can have. And, in some rare cases, it can thin the skin and cause it to look more advanced in age.”

Though not ideal, Germantown, TN dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD says that dryness and peeling is normal. “If you don’t experience this, it is a sign that your retinol isn’t working.”

Is Retinol Purging Normal?

For many people, purging is a regular part of the retinol user experience. “Retinol speeds up cellular turnover, which can cause congestion to come to the surface as the skin is adjusting,” says Fender. “This reaction is known as purging and can involve clogged pores and minor breakouts.” It can last a couple weeks (sometimes longer), but it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. However, Joy says the skin doesn’t necessarily have to purge at all with the introduction of a retinol or retinoid. “I don’t believe you have to go through this stage to get the benefits of retinol use. If you prefer, just change up your product and go with something lighter and gentler.”

What to Do If Your Retinol Isn’t Working

If you are experiencing side effects like irritation, ruddiness and/or heavy flaking, the best solution is to first, give your skin a break from the retinol. Nourish it with barrier-boosting ingredients like ceramides to restore it to optimal health. “It’s important when using retinol-type formulas to give your skin a break in order to allow it to replenish,” Fender says, recommending her soothing Plant Milk Serum and calming Intensive Repair Balm. “Skin needs downtime!”

Then, when you return to using retinol, lighten up on the strength you’re using and see if that helps. Retinol comes in 0.25 percent (the weakest), 0.3 percent, 0.5 percent and 1 percent concentrations (the strongest). “Retinoids are all members of the vitamin A family, and they all have different strengths and molecular weights,” Joy explains. “The prescription-only Retin-A—also known as retinoic acid—is the most aggressive and will have a harsher effect on the skin. Retinyl esters are the least potent form of retinoids and considered quite gentle. This is because retinyl esters take three steps to convert into retinoic acid on the skin. Examples of retinyl esters include retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate and retinyl palmitate, and they are found in over-the-counter products.” Retinol falls somewhere in-between and takes two steps to convert to retinoic acid.

You can also switch to a retinol alternative. Dr. Patel recommends plant-based bakuchiol. “It is not as irritating as retinol in the cell turnover process, resulting in less redness, peeling and sun sensitivity,” she explains. “It is better suited for sensitive skin, and it’s a great ingredient in body products. I like Visha Skincare Top 2 Toe body wash, which can be easily applied to the whole body without irritating the skin.”

Then there are those people in the reverse camp where they aren’t experiencing side effects or seeing results. If this is you, consider increasing the strength of your retinol. Or, try a serum versus a cream. “Creams typically include moisturizing ingredients that buffer the retinol a bit,” says Joy.

Signs That Your Retinol Is Working

There are also telltale signs that your retinol product is working, which is the ultimate goal. “A tightening feeling after washing your skin, and mild peeling, are clues that your retinol is working,” says Dr. Patel. Dr. Castilla adds, “The skin will be brighter in appearance overall—more luminous. You should also notice an improved appearance of skin texture. It will be smoother in general, though this is a subtle change.”

Other visible improvements include the fading of dark spots, pigmentation or freckles. “However, you need to use sunscreen in combination with your retinol or retinoid for this to happen,” Dr. Castilla advises. If you’ve ever looked at the label on a retinol product, you’ve seen the “warning” that it can make skin more sensitive to sun exposure. If you use retinol and don’t apply sunscreen, you might as well not use it at all.

Dr. Patel says, “Retinol exfoliates the skin to help boost collagen production, so if you notice a decrease in fine lines and plumper skin, your product is working.” It’s unlikely to make a noticeable difference in deep-set wrinkles though, adds Dr. Castilla. For deep-set wrinkles, in-office treatments like fillers, peels and lasers can have a significant impact.

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