Despite dermatologists describing retinol as a skin care star, it can come with an unpleasant side effect: retinol burn. Also known as retinol irritation, it’s essentially what happens when your face can’t tolerate the powerful ingredient and subsequently devolves into a flaky, peeling, red mess. Derms and editors alike often describe it as the most powerful exfoliant out there, so when you hit the sweet spot, it makes for glowing, luminous skin—Heather Rogers, M.D., calls it a wonder cream. But, if you accidentally overdo it or use it incorrectly, the reaction can be sudden and unpleasant—something that discourages many from even trying retinol.
“Some patients jump into using retinols with too much excitement—it’s important to ease your way in to avoid excessive irritation,” says Union Square Laser Dermatology‘s Y. Claire Chang, M.D.. “I always recommend a spot test before applying to your whole face. Incorrect application and misuse can also lead to excess irritation.”
There is, however, an easy trick to foolproof retinol application. It’s called buffering, and it involves combining retinol with moisturizer to dilute it so your skin can adjust. Below, experts break down the process.
Why does retinol burn my skin?
“Of all of the topical options you have for antiaging, retinols have been most often proven effective,” says dermatologist Hadley King, M.D.. Retinol works by increasing cell turnover so that brown spots go away faster, blackheads and blocked pores clear out, sun damage is repaired, and your skin builds collagen (which keeps wrinkles and fine lines at bay). The tricky part: The more it gets on your skin, the more it’s going to kick cells into overdrive. Your face does what it’s told, so if too much of the ingredient sinks in, not-ready skin will surface—and just like that, you’re left with red, peeling irritation.
Retinol burn may also occur depending on the formulation you’re using and how often you’re applying it. “Over-the-counter retinols tend to cause less irritation than prescription retinoids,” says Chang. “It can take weeks for your skin to get used to them, so it’s important to ease your way in. Use as tolerated.” She often advises patients to only incorporate the ingredient every few nights initially, then increasing frequency slowly. Consider your skin type too; retinol is a powerful ingredient, so if you tend to be sensitive (or have skin conditions like eczema and rosacea), avoid flare-up areas and go slowly.
How to prevent skin irritation from retinol
Preventing irritation is where buffering comes in—answering the common question of whether you should apply your retinol before or after moisturizer. Answer: Try applying it at the same time instead. While it’s more potent when applied beforehand, some complexions can benefit from an additional layer of moisturizer.
“Buffering dilutes the retinol and makes it more tolerable overall,” explains dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC Morgan Rabach, M.D.. “This is recommended for people who get dry after using retinols.”
If you want to reap the benefits of the ingredient without the gamble that you’re using it wrong, moisturizer is key. Rogers agrees, pointing out that the process both hydrates your skin and acts as a buffer for a gentler experience.
While it does mean you won’t get the full thrust of retinol’s abilities, for people with dry or sensitive skin, that can be a good thing. The thinner or more reactive your skin, the more retinol will be absorbed, so adding a plain, basic moisturizer like CeraVe Moisturizing Cream keeps your skin happy. If you want to simplify even more, King says you can moisturize first, then top with your retinol. Still, buffering—mixing the two together—is a great way to be extra sure you’re not overdoing it, and Rogers says she recommends it for people who’ve had a bad retinol experience but want to give it another shot.