Have you ever had a retinoid rash or retinization? If you’ve recently started vitamin A or a very potent retinoid, you may notice that your skin is getting red, itchy, scaly, and irritated. Maybe you started something like tretinoin, Retin-A, or retinoic acid to get rid of acne, fine lines, wrinkles, or pigmentation. But since using the retinoid, you've noticed redness, burning, stinging, and peeling. This can be incredibly stressful, uncomfortable, and as if you’re trading one problem for another. But, perhaps you just need a different approach.
To understand different approaches, we first have to understand how retinoids aka vitamin A work.
How do retinoids work?
Vitamin A or the word retinoid is an umbrella term. Retinoids are anything from retinol, retinaldehyde, or even retinoic acid. All of these are considered retinoids, but they all have different strengths, meaning some are more powerful than others.
For example, if you get something like an OTC retinol, these work wonderfully, but they are not going to be nearly as powerful as retinoic acid aka tretinoin because it needs to transform itself twice in your skin to become bioavailable. More simply, it has to go through certain chemical changes in the skin to become retinoic acid. On the other hand, retinaldehyde only has to transform in the skin once. So, if you choose retinaldehyde or retinol, they have to transform themselves to become bioavailable. What does bioavailable mean? “Bio” means life and “available” means available. Meaning, these two products have to be transformed into retinoic acid so the skin can use it.
Retinoic acid just goes to work directly on the skin, and that is what makes it the most powerful. However, you can only get it as a prescription. Likewise, although tretinoin is wonderful, it can also cause irritation. And unfortunately, although retinaldehyde and retinol get turned into less potent forms of retinoic, they still become retinoic acid. Therefore, they can still cause redness, stinging, burning, flakiness, and peeling too.
Retinoids (vitamin A) in review. Listed from most powerful to least.
- Retinoic acid
- Retinol esters(We’ll explain this later in the blog.)
So, what do I do if my retinoid is causing irritation? 8 different ways to prevent irritation.
Decrease how much you use the retinoid.
If you’re experiencing a retinoid rash or retinization, it might be time to adjust how often you use it, especially if you’re using that retinoid every single day. Higher-strength retinoids are more prone to causing rashes, but retinol can do this as well, especially if you’re using larger amounts of it. Try a pea-sized dot or only use it once a week.
Build your skin up to using larger amounts
Our skin is resilient. So, you can build up your skin’s tolerance to the retinoid so it doesn’t burn, sting, or irritate you anymore. But, how do we get to that point?
In order to understand that, we have to understand exactly how retinoids work in the skin.
When retinoids enter a skin cell, they bind to two places the RAR and RxR receptors. These receptors are deep inside of your cells, and when retinoids bind to them, they stimulate epidermal growth. So basically, when they bind to the receptors, they tell the skin to build more cells. This is great because it actually plumps up the inner layers of your skin. It makes them thicker, and in turn, the top layers start to slough off more which is why you get flaking and peeling.
Wear a sunscreen
But because of this, retinoids also make you more susceptible to the sun. No matter what, you should always use sunscreen. But if you’re using a retinoid, you should especially protect your skin from the sun. This way, the retinoid can do its work while the SPF protects the skin. SPF prevents issues such as fine lines, acne scarring, and pigmentation. The sun causes issues such as fine lines, wrinkles, acne scarring, and pigmentation which are skin concerns retinoids also treat.
So, why we would go into the sun without an SPF, and hinder the retinoids' effectiveness?
This is a great sunscreen to use with your vitamin A because it is a redness corrector, it helps rosacea, and protects areas on the skin with retinization.
If you’re using a brand-new prescription retinoid twice a day, slow down and titrate. Titrate means to increase things gradually. So, instead of using a retinoid twice a day, try doing it once a day, or maybe even once to twice a week. After three weeks of that, you can graduate and level up to three times a week. Of course, talk to a dermatologist or care provider if you’re using a prescription product. Even if you’re using an OTC formula, you can also ask a doctor or expert how to titrate your retinoid.
Buffer your retinoid
Another way to prevent a retinoid rash is to buffer your retinoid or sandwich it. The word buffer means to block or stand in between. There are a lot of ways to buffer your retinoids. The first way is to use Vaseline, salimo, or petrolatum jelly,
Petroleum Jelly -$2.49
This is vegan and cruelty-free, unlike regular vaseline. A lot of experts recommend it, especially for people who have eczema, psoriasis, and dry, irritated skin. And if you’re struggling with dryness, redness, and irritation from a retinoid, you could use this.
How to buffer a retinoid
First, put a buffer on like Vaseline or a moisturizer. Then, put on your retinoid. This will help the retinoid to penetrate more slowly. Likewise, this is a much more gentle way to increase your skin’s tolerance to vitamin A.
Versed Smooth Landing Eye Cream - $17.99
The Versed Eye Balm is another option for buffering a retinoid that Cassandra really loves. This retinol infused into a Vaseline-like texture. And even though this is an eye cream, Cassandra uses it all over her face. She really loves this because the eye cream’s texture already gives you a buffer from the retinol. You don’t have to use a second product like Vaseline.
Bubble Over Night Hydrating Sleep Mask - $20
This is an overnight sleep mask from Bubble, and it has different acids in it like kojic and mandelic acid. These two acids can even spots, scars, and lines. So, while you can use this to buffer a retinoid, it’s still for pretty resilient skin.
The Ordinary Retinol .5% in Squalane Serum -$8.30
Squalane is an oil that mimics the oil your skin creates. So, if you are struggling with dryness, the oil in here can really help to soothe and buffer the skin. And remember, retinoids are oil soluble like vitamins D, E, and K, meaning they can dissolve in oil. Given that, vitamin A oil is able to help keep the skin moisturized and prevent it from overproducing oil.
Medature PSL Repair Moisturizer 4 -$48
This is fantastic, and this is built with little ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol that your skin naturally produces to help strengthen the skin barrier. It’s fragrance-free, and the entire line is built on restoring and replenishing. If you want to buffer a retinoid and rebuild your skin, this is wonderful and lightweight. If you’re taking a break from your retinoid, and you want to use this on your “off days when you’re titrating,” this one is excellent.
Use a retinol ester (i.e retinyl propionate)
Dermalogica Clearing Oil -$82
If you are struggling with acne, this is a great one. This contains retinyl propionate. Retinyl propionate is a vitamin A ester. The molecular size of retinyl propionate is very large compared to retinol, meaning it cannot reach too far down into the skin and cause too much irritation. It’s more gentle, but on the other hand, it takes a little longer to show real results on the skin compared to other forms of vitamin A. This also has salicylic acid which is also beneficial for acne. While retinol helps push off dead skin cells, the salicylic acid can help to mitigate acne.
Medik8 Crystal Retinal 3 Serum -$81
This is retinaldehyde, the second most potent vitamin. It only has to transform once to be retinoic acid. Cassandra feels that medik8 has one of the best overall retinaldehyde, especially if you have fine lines and wrinkles.
Use adapalene gel
AcneFree Adapalene Gel -$9.99
Adapalene contains retinoic acid, and therefore, it does not need to be converted in the skin. Given that, it is more potent than retinol, but because adapalene only interacts with certain RAR receptors and not RXR receptors, this makes them less potent than tretinoin and suitable for OTC consumption (Tolaymat, Leila 2022). Adapalene is also said to be less irritating, more photostable, and light-stable than something like tretinoin. More simply, it doesn’t degrade in the light as easily.
Likewise, it may be better to use adapalene gel than tretinoin during the day. However, adapalene gel can still cause retinization. But, if you have sensitive skin, it may be a more helpful option than retinal or retinoic acid. There’s also reason to believe that adapalene gel works on fine lines, wrinkles, scars, hyperpigmentation, and rosacea just the way that tretinoin does.
Get an encapsulated retinol
Encapsulated retinols are a really great option for sensitivity. Anything encapsulated is wonderful because it releases slowly. Time-released formulas gently ease retinol into the skin.
Beauty Pie Super Retinol Night Renewal Moisturizer - $80
This encapsulated retinol helps with hyperpigmentation, discoloration, and dark spots. And thanks to the vitamin C, it can also help with acne and fine lines.