Ask Curology: retinoids or retinol

Q: “I started using retinol and my face is peeling off??”

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Curology Team
Apr 09, 2019 · 7 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Medically reviewed by: Nancy Satur, MD

Written by: Curology Editorial Team

We’re big fans of retinoids, but sometimes using powerful active ingredients can irritate your skin if you aren’t careful. Read on for pro tips on how to get one of the best forms of retinoid available (hint: it’s Curology), plus some of the best OTC retinol products to try.

What is retinol?

Well, retinol is a kind of retinoid. What is a retinoid? Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, and some retinoids work better than others. I know it can get confusing with all the medical jargon, so I’ll try to simplify things for you! First of all, there’s a difference between retinol and prescription retinoids, and that’s pretty key.

The best retinol isn’t really retinol at all: a prescription-only topical retinoid is one of the most effective anti-aging and acne-clearing skincare ingredients. You need a licensed medical provider to prescribe it for you, and the easiest, cheapest way to get the most-researched and effective topical retinoid is via Curology!

I know you’re concerned (to say the least) about your skin’s reaction to retinol, so let’s dive into how to use retinol (or other retinoids, in case you do move up to a prescription product such as Curology) so your face won’t peel off.

Is retinol safe?

Yes! Both retinol and other retinoids are well-proven to be safe and effective for lightening dark spots, smoothing wrinkles in aging and sun-damaged skin, and even reducing and preventing acne breakouts. But daily use of retinoids may be too harsh for some people’s skin — especially if they aren’t careful about wearing sunscreen every day. These vitamin A derivatives can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight (translation: you may sunburn more easily), I recommend using a retinoid only at night (as in your nightly Curology custom cream). And I really can’t recommend wearing sunscreen enough, especially if you’re using a retinoid product at night. Getting more sun damage on your skin will only defeat the purpose of using retinol or prescription retinoids!

Face sunscreens for every skin type that pass our test for non-comedogenic, non-irritating ingredients

How does retinol work?

Both retinol and prescription retinoids work by promoting skin cell turnover — that’s your old skin cells making way for fresh new ones! Over time, they will help fade spots, even skin tone, and reduce acne breakouts.

The problem is that if you go overboard with retinol or prescription retinoids — or if you forget to wear sunscreen with it (ouch), this increased turnover of your skin cells can sometimes lead to skin peeling. Other retinol side-effects can include redness and flakiness. Learn how much is a safe amount for your unique skin, and you’ll have an easier time balancing any side effects. It sounds like the retinol you’ve got is working alright, although perhaps a little too well. The peeling you’re experiencing likely means you’re using too much or too frequently.

How to use retinol or retinoids

Start low and go slow. After gently cleansing your skin, wait at least 10 minutes for your skin to be totally dry before applying (skin that’s still slightly damp will absorb this active ingredient more quickly, which could be the culprit behind your skin’s irritation). In your case, I’d recommend you lay off it for awhile until your skin heals, then reintroduce a retinoid into your nighttime skincare routine no more than once every two to three nights. Space it out like this for a few weeks until your skin adjusts. You might also try applying moisturizer first, then your retinoid.

Expert Tips for Applying Retinoids

Of course, you may need more help than that. The best way to take advantage of the benefits of retinoids is with a custom formula made for your skin type so that you can decrease or increase the strength, depending on how your skin does. Over-the-counter retinols aren’t as reliable or as potent as their medical-grade cousin.

The gold standard of retinoids

At Curology, the strength of each active ingredient in our custom formulas is adjusted to suit each individual’s skin needs. You may do better with a lower concentration of prescription retinoid than an over-the-counter one-size-fits-all retinol, because one of our licensed dermatology providers will have adjusted it just for your unique skin.

Woman smiling and holding a Curology Custom Formula bottle.

You can sign up for a free trial of Curology here. In the meantime, please treat your skin gently! It may be tempting to exfoliate when your skin is dry and peeling, but that will only make matters worse, not to mention it might hurt. Instead of scrubbing, picking, or peeling off the dead skin (ouch!), just moisturize it well and let nature take its course. Try a gentle moisturizer rich in ceramides to help repair your skin’s protective barrier. And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Retinoids available over-the-counter

If you’d like to try an over-the-counter retinol, here’s my list of recommended products. The best OTC retinol for you depends on your skin type.

DRY SKIN: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil, $27.99

I like this product for dry skin because it’s simple and non-comedogenic. There are tons of anti-aging oils on the market that may be equally as effective, but this one is simple and contains research-backed ingredients.

OILY SKIN: Philosophy Help Me Retinol Night Treatment, $49.00

For those who are concerned with overly rich products, this is a lightweight, oil-free serum that absorbs quickly into your skin, without leaving behind a residue. The retinol helps promote collagen to clear and minimize the look of pores, while vitamin C acts as a shield against photoaging.

COMBINATION SKIN: Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment, $58.00

If you have combination skin, pay attention to which part of your face is oily, dry, or normal. Oilier areas may be more likely to tolerate retinol better so you can apply a higher concentration to those spots. Aside from retinol, this serum also has vitamin C to help with fine lines and reduce uneven skin tones.

SENSITIVE SKIN: Derma Sensitive Skin Moisturizer, $29.95

This is a great option for people with sensitive skin. It’s a fragrance-free, gel-type moisturizer, formulated with aloe to soothe inflammation.

ACNE-PRONE SKIN: SUNDAY RILEY U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil, $80

This serum pairs the acne-fighting power of retinol with salicylic acid and tea tree oil. The exfoliation from the salicylic acid may trigger the skin’s natural renewal process, revealing new and younger skin cells that help your skin look healthier, with more even skin tone and, if you’re lucky, perhaps even some smoothing of texture. If your skin’s peeling from retinol already, however, this combination may also cause irritation! Use it less often if you start to experience any dryness or irritation — even just once a week would be fine.

MATURE SKIN: Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair Night Moisturizer, $22.49

A combination of vitamin C and Accelerated Retinol SA, this night moisturizer passes our standards for being non-comedogenic. Of course, you can get the same (but better) benefits from a custom formula through Curology, so of course you know what I’d recommend!

Best of luck to you and your skin, and thank you for taking such good care of you!

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We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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