Exfoliation on retinoids – The best way to do it | Ask Doctor Anne

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Hey Doctor Anne, can I still exfoliate when on retinoids? How often can I use my AHAs with my Tretinoin? Do my chemical exfoliants go in the same routine as my retinol?
I can’t count how many versions of this question I have had in the last years, and I get it. Retinoids on their own can be pretty intimidating, and no one wants to aggravate the side effects by overdoing the acids.

 

A blonde woman contemplating something with "How often? With what?" written next to her face
It can be confusing, I get that.

 

But how often do you need to exfoliate when on retinoids? Is tretinoin an exfoliant? Which exfoliant goes best with your retinol and which skin type should use which product?
Let’s talk.

 

 

What can happen if you pair retinoids with chemical exfoliants?

Well, in the best case, nothing will happen and you’ll live happily ever after with soft and glowing skin – every skin is different.

What might happen though if you are less fortunate is that the irritation potential from the chemical exfoliant and the irritation potential from your retinoid will combine or even maximize each other, leaving you with tight, red and flaking skin that is sensitive even to water. Not always instantly, that is the tricky thing here. Sometimes the irritation takes a few weeks to develop, so you feel you are fine and then, one morning, your face goes crazy. (More info: Damaged skin barrier as cause for acne, redness and eczema)

The problem here is that this is often not a short lived thing that goes away once you stop what you are doing, but that this can lead to an impaired skin barrier that takes a long time to heal, with inflammation, irritation and reaction to other things that were previously fine in the process.

That obviously depends on a lot of different factors that we will discuss in detail later, but the main takeaway is: It could happen eventually and if it does, it is not fun.
I won’t go into detail on a damaged skin barrier and how to heal it now, I already have different blog posts on that topic that I will link throughout this article, but overexfoliation is one of the more common reasons for it to happen. (More info: The 5 steps you need to take to heal your skin barrier)

 

Woman touching her face on the chin, which has red pimples
Irritated skin can be tight, red or prone to breakouts
Image by Kjerstin Michaela Noomi Sakura Gihle Martinsen Haraldsen from Pixabay

 

Is Tretinoin an exfoliant?

Now if I say overexfoliation, does that mean that Tretinoin or the other retinoids are exfoliants?

No. But they do have exfoliating properties that resemble those of Alpha Hydroxy Acids.

Quick recap:

Chemical exfoliants work at the skins surface where they dissolve the glue that holds the dead skin cells together so they shed quicker, getting rid of skin texture and revealing the newer, brighter skin underneath.

Retinoids on the other hand speed up the skin turnover process, meaning the skin cells are replaced quicker, so again, you’ll get newer, smoother skin on the surface. The end result is similar, the mechanism is different. (More info: The different retinoids explained)

And combined, it can be too much.

 

Do you always need to use both?

So when retinoids have a similar effect on the skin as chemical exfoliants, can’t you just stick with one of them? Of course you can!

Not everyone needs or tolerates a retinoid in their routine, and those that already use some kind of retinol, especially one of the stronger ones, might find it to be all they need to reach their skin goals. Don’t feel pushed to use a retinoid and an exfoliant just because some Pinterest skincare routine features both. (More info: Is skinimalism the way to healthy skin?)

But for some, and that includes myself, even Tretinoin alone will not be enough, so they will want to find a way to have both in their routine.

 

Red haired woman shaving her face in front of a mirror Shaving is exfoliation too
Remember that things like shaving your face or dermaplaning are exfoliating as well
Image by John Ondreasz from Pixabay

 

What is the best way to pair retinol and exfoliation?

And that is entirely possible, just take it slow and always listen to your skin.

You might remember from my article on “How to introduce Retin-A with minimal irritation” that I recommend introducing retinoids very slowly, starting with once or twice a week and slowly building up to the point where you can use it consistently without any problems at your desired frequency (which for me is every other night).

Then, and only then, is the time when I would start reintroducing exfoliants, again at a lower strength and or reduced frequency, or maybe as a different form of application, for example a Salicylic Acid Cleanser as opposed to a Salicylic Acid Leave-On product.

When doing that, look for early warning signs that it is too much for your skin, like products that were previously fine starting to sting, or flaky skin starting to appear around your mouth, and if that happens, take a step back to let your skin recover.

Also take into consideration other changes you are experiencing, like switching your moisturizer or the seasons changing from hot and humid to cold and dry and always think about other potential ways you might be exfoliating, like using a cloth to take of your cleanser as opposed to just rinsing it with water.

I would also suggest using them at different times in your routine – either use the exfoliants on your retinoid off days, the thing TikTok calls skin cycling, or use your exfoliant in the mornings and your retinoid at night. (More info: What is skin cycling and do you need to do it?)

For me personally the following works best: Tretinoin every other night year round and a Salicylic Acid two to three times a week in the mornings, depending on the season. The only time I use AHAs is in late summer, early autumn, when I appreciate their extra help in reducing the hyperpigmentation that reappears when I spend time outdoors in the sun.

(More info: The best way to treat hyperpigmentation)

 

Which chemical exfoliant works best for which skin issue?

Now depending on your skin type and skin issue, here are some suggestions that I think might work for you, assuming you want or need to use a retinoid – remember, not everyone needs to, you can have a perfectly fine routine without them:

  • If your skin is very sensitive, rosacea or eczema prone, I wouldn’t risk using both, but stick to one or the other, but if you insist, try using Polyhydroxy Acids that are among the gentlest exfoliants available. (More info: The benefits of Polyhydroxy Acids in skincare and How to treat rosacea prone skin)
  • If your skin is more on the sensitive side and you feel you need a chemical exfoliant to help with hyperpigmentation or inflammation, Polyhydroxy Acids or Mandelic Acid might be right for you.
  • Acne prone skin that still gets congestion and inflamed acne lesions should try pairing their retinoid with Salicylic Acid, either as a wash off in the form of a cleanser or as leave on product if that is tolerated.
  • And if hyperpigmentation or premature aging are what you want to address and your skin is pretty sturdy, then an AHA like Lactic or Glycolic Acid can be used, with Glycolic being the strongest one with the highest risk of potential irritation.

 

TL;DR

Although retinoids are not exfoliants, they can when paired with exfoliants lead to irritated skin and a damaged skin barrier. As retinoids have in parts similar effects to exfoliants, it might be that you don’t need to use both in your routine – listen to your skin here. If you do feel you need them, start slowly, opt for more gentle chemical exfoliants or try wash off formulas rather than leave on products. Try to use them at different times in your routine, for example in the mornings or on your off nights and don’t use them daily.

 

The best way to exfoliate when on Tretinoin or strong retinoids
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