Apr 09, 2019 · 7 min read
Medically reviewed by: Nancy Satur, MD
Written by: Curology Editorial Team
Welcome to Ask Curology, a new series on the Curology blog where one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers answers your questions about all things skincare. Today we’re talking topical retinoids, powerful age-defying and acne-fighting ingredients that come in a few different forms.
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.
I started using retinol and my face is peeling off??? I bought a night serum with retinol to help clear my skin and get rid of wrinkles, because I heard it’s the best anti-aging skincare ingredient there is. I’ve been using it every night and doing my usual routine of cleansing, moisturizing, and makeup in the mornings. Around week two, my skin started to look dry and flaky, and now it’s actually peeling off in some places! 😱 What am I doing wrong?!
— Peely Maggoo
I’m so sorry to hear you’re dealing with the discomfort of peeling skin, but I’m not all that surprised! You heard right: a retinol can be a potent ingredient for “anti-aging” as well as treating acne. But with great power comes great responsibility! I’ll explain a few things that will hopefully help clear up why you’ve been experiencing some peeling, and how to deal with it so your skin can heal ASAP.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a great option for people with sensitive skin. It’s a fragrance-free, gel-type moisturizer, formulated with aloe to soothe inflammation.
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.
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!
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.