Don't Make This Rookie Retinol Mistake Like I Did

As far as skincare ingredients go, it’s hard to top retinol. Available in prescription and over-the-counter form under different names like retinoic acid, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl acetate, the vitamin A derivative is used to treat everything from acne to fine lines and dullness by increasing skin cell turnover.

However, retinol’s potent exfoliating powers come with a downside: They can be too intense at times. As such, it’s not uncommon for first-time users to experience dryness and irritation until their skin acclimates. (And some people don’t tolerate the ingredient at all.)

And, as I recently learned, even those of us who have used retinols before aren’t immune to its drying effects if proper precautions aren’t taken.

What Are Some Precautions to Consider When Using Retinol?

Some preemptive measures you can take to prevent irritation include sandwiching your retinol between layers of moisturizer (you can do this by applying a thin layer of moisturizer before and after your retinol) and gradually incorporating the ingredient into your routine (only using it once or twice a week before bumping up the frequency to two or three times a week).

Another crucial tip if you’re prone to irritation? Don’t apply retinol to wet skin.

I made this mistake recently while rushing through my nighttime routine and I ended up paying the price for it. Overnight, my cheeks and chin turned to complete sandpaper and my skin was inflamed for nearly two weeks until things smoothed over.  

Why Shouldn’t You Put Retinol on Wet Skin?

Wet or damp skin is more permeable than dry skin, meaning it can absorb more product. This is a good thing in the case of moisturizers or moisturizing serums (which is why you should apply your body lotion straight out the shower), but maybe not so good in the case of a strong active ingredient like retinol.

In short, to reduce the potential for irritation, make sure your skin is completely dry before applying any retinol over it—and always top things off with moisturizer. Capeesh?

How to Restore Your Skin from Retinol Damage

If the damage is already done, put down your retinol and take a break from using any other active ingredients while you’re at it. This includes any astringent toners, acids (salicylic, glycolic, lactic, etc.) and exfoliating scrubs. I’d also skip anything with fragrance in it, which can trigger a reaction when your skin barrier is already compromised.

Instead, scale back your routine to just two basic steps: cleansing and moisturizing.

Until my skin healed, I used a gentle cleanser once a day, which I lightly massaged over my skin and wiped off using a soft cloth, followed by a layer of La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm all over and a thin layer of Vanicream Moisturizing Ointment over any especially dry patches. (Btw, I also use this ointment as a lip mask, on eczema flareups and for tattoo aftercare; it’s the rare all-purpose product that does what it says and it doesn’t feel too greasy.)

Two weeks later, my skin has finally recovered, and you better believe I’m making sure my face is dry to the touch before I ever put retinol on it again. You live and you learn, right?

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...