How to Avoid Dry, Irritated Skin: Retinol: It’s the ingredient that has people stressing almost as much as when you use the last drop of a discontinued beauty product. Retinol products have a reputation for being effective but harsh. And here we are in the middle of winter when skin is put through the ringer with blustery winds, freezing temperatures, drying central heating and more. It sounds like risky business to pair a notoriously potent ingredient with harsh weather, so we asked experts about the best ways to use retinol in the winter without skin suffering a major reaction
Using Retinol in the Cold Weather
Retinol already has the potential to be irritating, particularly if newbies start using too much and/or applying it too quickly. The results can be dryness, redness, peeling and stinging. Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Naissan O. Wesley says that cold weather can also produce these same symptoms on its own. So, when you combine retinol with baseline skin irritation from frigid winter, it can result in a double whammy of skin irritation.
Dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara, MD says, “With temperatures dropping along with humidity levels, our skin can lose lots of its natural moisture and oils leading to irritation, which can sometimes be activated by our skincare products, including retinol.”
Retinol on Dry Skin
Those with naturally dry skin are probably wondering whether this puts them in a more precarious position. Geneva-based dermatologist and founder of Forever Institut and Alchimie Forever Dr. Luigi L. Polla concurs that retinol is harsher on dry skin versus normal or oilier skin types. There is a silver lining because the side effects of retinol have nothing to do with the efficacy of the ingredient. Polla says, “In other words, it can be as effective on dry skin types (with more irritation) as it is on thicker, oilier skin types (with minimal irritation).” Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Susan Van Dyke points out that dry skin can signal a break in the skin barrier, which would make retinol harsher on very dry, cracked skin.
How to Adapt a Retinol Routine
Dry skin, oily skin, or somewhere in between: Gohara says that there are many ways to alter a retinol routine to make it just as effective as it would be on other skin types or during different seasons. (Hooray!)
Start Slow and Go Small
A pea-sized drop of retinol is enough for the entire face, according to Wesley. She recommends starting slooowly. Look for a lower concentration of retinol, too. Try using retinol every other night, or every third night or even once a week then gradually build up. Celebrity Esthetician Shani Darden suggests adding one additional night every week. It’s not a race. Gohara says that rest days give skin a chance to recover between each use.
Make Sure Skin Isn’t Wet
Van Dyke says that skin that is well hydrated and even slightly damp may enhance the penetration of retinol and improve efficacy. Retinol newbies should ensure skin doesn’t have any residue on it before applying the treatment to properly acclimate to the product. Once skin is adjusted to retinol, experiment with applying it to damp skin.
Van Dyke advises that we treat skin with kindness and look for ways to enhance the skin barrier, such as with a moisturizer rich in shea butter, cocoa butter, ceramides or similar. Healthy skin tolerates retinols well.
Consider Layering Moisturizer
In the colder months, Wesley suggests applying a hydrating serum or light moisturizer prior to retinol to make a buffer. Or use a heavier cream on top to minimize dryness and help protect skin’s natural moisture barrier.
Mix Moisturizer Right In
Mixing retinol with an irritant-free moisturizer can also fight any weather-related dryness. Gohara says that the blending will not impact retinol’s superpower anti-aging and acne-fighting ingredients, but avoid mixing in a moisturizer with ingredients such as alcohol and synthetic fragrances
Look for Time-Released or Encapsulated Retinols
Time-released retinols are brilliant because they deliver the formula over a prolonged period rather than in a big punch all at once, which helps quell the potentially irritating effects of retinol. The Arbonne Intelligence Counter Spot Essence, $70, contains time-released, ceramide-encapsulated retinol with aloe vera for a formula that has been tested to be non-irritating.
Similarly, the Alchimie Forever Advanced Retinol Serum, $99, contains two types of retinol with time-release technology for a gentler approach. Additionally, it has a plethora of hydrators including jojoba oil and hyaluronic acid as well as European blueberry and red clover to help negate the typical side effects of retinol.
Darden recommends her Shani Darden Retinol Reform, $88, to her clients to keep their skin glowing in between facials. It’s formulated with an effective encapsulated retinol which is more stable and less irritating than a prescription retinol. She warns that a prescription formula may be harder to use regularly in winter because of its higher strength.
Try a Retinol Alternative
Those with retinol sensitivity might have fewer side effects with retinol alternatives, such as bakuchiol. Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City suggests the Rodan + Fields Redefine Overnight Restorative Cream, $90, as a great product to be used as a barrier and retinoid layer. It is formulated with bakuchiol as well as calming niacinamide to create an even skin tone.
Should You Use Retinol on Wind-burned Skin?
It’s a wise idea not to. Linkner advises skipping retinol during the night if the skin is wind-burned so as to not aggravate that sensitive face. Start using retinol again after skin returns to normal and reintroduce it slowly, as per Wesley. Think about it this way: “Retinol can be used on sensitive skin, which can be red,” says Polla. “However, retinol is best not used on sensitized skin — meaning skin that has been made sensitive by another product, a professional treatment, or wind or sun burn.”
Winter Skin Care Tips: Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
Skin needs hydration, especially in winter. Gohara recommends using products that help skin maintain its moisture levels, like the Fresh Chemistry Glow Getter Brightening Serum Set, $75. It’s rich in hyaluronic acid and features stabilized vitamin C that’s activated on use.
Shorten Shower Times
As much as you might love a long, hot, steamy shower in the cold, Linkner says that it’s best to shorten showering times to less than five minutes(!) to not be as drying and stripping on skin.
Try a Richer, Gentler Cleanser
Polla encourages switching from a foam cleanser to a cream cleanser because the latter is less stripping on skin. Similarly, try incorporating nourishing creams into other skin care steps. Those who are very dry can add face oils. Wesley suggests trying an oil cleanser or micellar water, too.