‘Retinoids’ is the umbrella term for chemical vitamin A derivatives, and there are four main types. Tretinoin is a prescription only retinoid, used universally to treat many skin concerns including acne, sun damage and wrinkles.
Over the counter retinoids include retinol, retinol esters and retinaldehyde, and are commonly used in many popular cult beauty brands such as The Ordinary.
Retinoids work on a cellular level of skin, 'waking up' cell receptors to rejuvenate them. This results in collagen stimulation, treating acne and scarring, refining the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, and delivering an overall glow to the skin.
What exactly are ‘retinoid uglies’?Retinoids can offer powerful results, but with this power it is possible that skin will purge.
Vitamin A can be unstable as an ingredient, and this can mean your skin will become more sensitive. There is often an initial phase when using retinoids for the first time, known by many as the 'retinoid uglies'.
Essentially, your skin can see a decline before improvement during an adjustment period.
What can you expect to happen’?You may notice your skin becomes flaky, sensitive and red. You may even feel a stinging sensation when applying the rest of your skincare routine, such as moisturiser or cleanser.
Zoe Myers, Lead Aesthetician at Authentic Aesthetics in Warwickshire, says: “A perceived downside to retinoids is the ability to cause peeling and skin sensitivity which some people may mistake for a reaction, however this is actually a sign of repair within the skin. As your skin becomes more tolerant to retinol the reactions subside.”
Fortunately, these ‘symptoms’ are more than likely to go away on their own as your skin gets gradually more used to the retinoid, and you should be left with plump, soft, glowing skin.
But, if you’re keen to try and avoid an intense purge, or are looking to minimise the effects of one, there are things you can do…
When should I be applying my retinoid?Each product will have its own suggested routine, and you should follow that. However, general advice is to ensure the product is applied to clean, dry skin—not wet from just being cleansed.
You can allow your skin to adjust by applying every three nights for the first few weeks, and then moving to every other day, before gradually building up a resilience and being able to apply each day.
How can I treat the effects?Ensure that you are keeping your skin hydrated, and most importantly, protected from the sun. To ensure sufficient hydration, you may want to try a thicker, richer moisturiser at night as retinoids can be quite drying, especially at first.
Applying a suitable SPF on your skin is essential when using retinoids, because it will be more sensitive to sunlight.
You can use moisturiser before you apply retinoids, and you can even mix the two together. This is likely to lessen side effects, and keep your skin hydrated.
Myers believes that “gentle exfoliation is your best friend” and can help to remove some of the dry, flaky skin that may be irritating you. Try to use a natural exfoliant such as a product that contains coffee, sugar, or oatmeal. Just don’t scrub at your skin too hard!
You can even try steaming your face before cleansing if you’ve experienced a breakout type of reaction. This will help open up your pores and release trapped bacteria. Make sure the water isn’t too hot, just warm enough to let off steam.
If you don’t have a facial steamer, then you can hold your face above the bowl with a towel over your head.
Should I stop using retinoids if I have side effects?Unfortunately, your skin is likely to get worse before it gets better. Try to persevere with the product if you experience typical side effects such as dry, red, peeling and tight skin.
If you don’t persevere with your routine, your skin will never build up a tolerance, meaning you are likely to stay in an adjustment period for a long time.
However, there are atypical reactions that mean you would need to stop using a product. If your skin becomes swollen, or extremely itchy—seek medical advice. If you notice cracking or bleeding, this could be a reaction—you know your own skin better than most, so if you think you’re having serious side effects, stop and seek advice before you continue with any retinoid routine.
Which retinoid products should I choose?Booking a consultation with a qualified aesthetic practitioner or dermatologist is the best way to ensure you receive the most suitable retinoid regime for your skin. If you are purchasing retinoids, however, ensure that you select a product which is recommended for your skin type.
Even though products may contain the same ingredient, they often come in different formulations or concentrations. As a general rule, start off with a lower concentration such as 0.1 per cent to see how your skin tolerates the retinoid, working your way up to one per cent.
Remember, that 'retinoid uglies' are likely to be temporary, and it will take time before you see the end result.
You have three skin layers—the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. Your epidermis is your visible layer, and renews approximately every 28 days. Therefore, you can expect to have to wait at least six weeks for a full turnover of cells and adjustment to a new routine.
Within that six weeks, you should see a significant improvement of any side effects. If they last more than two months, see a dermatologist.
Be kind to your skin and don’t expect miracles overnight. Always remember to seek medical advice if you sense something is wrong.
Zoe Myers, Owner and Lead Aesthetician
My name is Zoe Myers and I am a self confessed skin addict! I have a passion for skin, and knew from an early age that...Book with Zoe Myers