At some point in the skin care journey, many people graduate to prescription-strength retinol — a topical form of vitamin A that board-certified New Jersey-based dermatologist Dr. Aanand Geria said is much more potent than over-the-counter preparations.
“Prescription-strength retinoids, such as tretinoin, [are] more effective in treating various skin conditions including acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation,” Geria wrote to HuffPost.
Studies show that tretinoin contributes to an improved overall skin appearance and an increase in production of collagen, according to Dr. Elaine F. Kung, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Weill-Cornell Medical College, but Geria cautioned that this miracle ingredient is not without drawbacks.
“Retinoids increase cell turnover, which can cause old, damaged skin cells to shed more quickly, leading to temporary inflammation and irritation,” he said.
This adjustment period, which can consist of skin purging, flaking, redness and sunlight sensitivity, is so notorious that there’s even a colloquialism for it: “the retinol uglies.”
“I tell patients who especially have whiteheads and blackheads that they will experience a purge period, because what is stuck under the skin will come up over the first few weeks of using a retinoid,” Kung said.
Kung added that introducing prescription retinol slowly, about two to three times a week, using just a pea-sized amount and avoiding harsh exfoliants can help prevent any rash- or bump-like symptoms. Geria also suggested crafting a good skin care routine around retinol, which can be helpful for both the acclimation period of “retinol uglies” and beyond.
Keep reading to discover the skin care ingredients that Kung and Geria recommend for combatting this purge period, plus more tips on how to make prescription-strength retinol work best for you with as little irritation as possible.
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A moisture renewal booster oil
According to dermatologist Dr. Aanand Geria
, ceramides are lipids naturally found in the skin and are essential to helping maintain its barrier function. "Using a product containing ceramides can help protect the skin and reduce dryness and irritation that may occur with retinoid use," he said.Our pick:
Formulated to use on its own or as a boosting additive to your moisturizer, this moisture renewal oil by Paula's Choice contains a concentrated blend of nine nourishing and antioxidant-rich plant oils and barrier-strengthening ceramides.
One Paula's Choice reviewer said
that nightly use of this fast-absorbing and lightweight oil has managed to eradicate all of the dryness and flakiness that they were experiencing from tretinoin, while adding a hydrated glow to their skin.
A multi-molecular hyaluronic acid
"Hyaluronic acid is a hydrating ingredient that can help to plump and firm the skin," Geria said of the popular humectant that helps draw moisture into the skin and keep it there.
Our pick: This fast-absorbing serum from The Inkey List contains a 2% concentration of a multi-molecular hyaluronic acid to allow for better ingredient penetration, as well as a peptide complex for added skin plumping benefits.
An affordable moisturizer with 11 hydrators
"I suggest using a skin moisturizer either before or after retinoid application," said dermatologist Dr. Elaine F. Kung
, adding that a moisturizer containing both ceramides and hyaluronic acid will be the best at preventing irritation. Our pick:
The Ordinary's natural factors moisturizer contains a total of 11 tried-and-true hydrating ingredients like lipid-loving fatty acids, glycerin, barrier-restoring ceramides and hyaluronic acid. It's an all-purpose preparation that's effective, suitable for all skin types and comes at a great price point.
A moisturizing SPF lotion
Geria said that sunscreen is essential when using retinoids because it can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Our pick: In addition to offering SPF 30 broad-spectrum sun protection, this daily facial moisturizer by CeraVe has been formulated with three essential ceramides, hyaluronic acid and is oil-free.
A tinted skin serum and SPF
Our Pick: Another SPF option for those that want sun protection, but also want a touch of glowy coverage, is this tinted skin serum by Ilia infused with mineral SPF 40 along with a host of beneficial skin care ingredients like hydrating squalane, brightening niacinamide and our dermatologist-recommended hyaluronic acid. The finish is a dewy, healthy your-skin-but-better look, and it comes in 30 shades.
A gentle non-foaming cleanser with ceramides
When it comes to a cleanser, Geria suggests opting for something that's soft, non-foaming and won't strip away the skin's natural oils.
Our pick: CeraVe's hydrating facial cleanser checks all of these boxes: it's non-foaming, doesn't use any harsh or stripping surfactants in order to remove impurities and has a hydrating milky texture that contains hyaluronic acid and three essential ceramides.
A soothing milky ceramide toner
Our Pick: Toners
can be a great way to prep your skin for other products or for adding an additional dose of hydration to your routine. This milky toner by Korean skin care brand Tonymoly contains not only a concentrated helping of ceramides, hyaluronic acid and strengthening vitamin B5, but it's also been enriched with centella asiatica, a soothing and redness-reducing ingredient popular in Asian skin care.
A deeply penetrating hydrating serum
Our Pick: This luxurious Italian-crafted serum from U Beauty claims to offer long-lasting, deeply penetrating and plumping hydration by using a capsulated long-chain hyaluronic acid delivery system that's proprietary to the brand. This nourishing complex is also supported by a variety of plant-derived oils, butters, protective antioxidants and purified oat extract which can help calm skin and diminish the appearance of redness and irritation.