What to Do If Retinol Irritates Your Skin, According to Kate Somerville
The skincare expert shares her tips for soothing that "flash burn."
Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.
You probably know the name Kate Somerville because it's a best-selling skincare brand at Sephora. What makes the collection so beloved are the line's results-driven, cult-favorite products like the exfoliating ExfoliKate Treatment, zit-zapping EradiKate spot treatment, and the super-hydrating, wrinkle-reducing DermalQuench Liquid Lift.
But this all-star stacked lineup should come as no surprise. Kate Somerville, the women behind the brand, is a top Hollywood aesthetician, known as the "Guru of Glow" among her celeb clients like Eva Mendes, Demi Moore, Kate Hudson, and Kirsten Dunst.
Somerville's trailblazing multidimensional approach to treatments is what has made her L.A. clinic a mainstay since opening its doors in 2004. At the time, no one was using lasers, injectables, peels, or scientific formulations on clients in a single session to deliver transformative results with absolutely zero downtime.
The skincare expert has come a long way since then, and in 2019, Somerville celebrated her clinic's 15th anniversary by opening a second mini clinic inside Nordstrom's new N.Y.C. flagship store.
Here, we caught up with Somerville to talk about how she got her start, the next big skincare trend, and of course, to get some of her expert tips.
How did you get your start?
I had really bad eczema growing up. I remember my mom putting goat's milk in my bath once and my skin responded really well to it. That sparked my interest in skincare and finding hidden remedies. When I was around 20, a friend who was a dermatologist suggested that I get my aesthetics license and do medical skincare because she was seeing that the industry was shifting into the medical community.
While I was in school, my best friend used my concept of doing medical peels and injectables in doctors offices as the thesis for her senior year. This inspired me to put together a business plan and try to get into an office where I would treat patients pre- and post-operatively. At that time, doctors weren’t allowed to advertise, but aestheticians could. So, I got luckily because all of the doctors I interviewed with were open to my idea.
I started making my own products once lasers came on the scene. My client’s skin was so sensitive post-treatment that I couldn’t use the products I had. So I went to a chemist in town and had him mix formulas so I could get the results I wanted. Then, I met my husband and moved to L.A. where I landed in the office of one of the top surgeons. That’s where I got all of my celebrity clients. I opened my Kate Somerville clinic in 2004, when lasers had progressed from a massive undertaking to a lunchtime treatment. Along with injectables, peels, and products, I finally felt like I could give clients maximum results.
You're a pioneer in combining lasers, injectables, peels, and topical products in single treatments. What do you think is going to be the next big trend in skincare treatments?
I think the microbiome is going to be the next big thing. We’ve been finding that when there’s an imbalance in your microbiome and your skin barrier is broken, it can lead to issues like acne and eczema. We’re all made up with bacteria and each microbiome is unique to you. If we’re able to introduce the one you’re missing or not balanced with, I think healing is going to happen.
What are some tips for picking the right facial or non-invasive treatment for you?
It can be really confusing, so that’s why it’s good to talk to a professional and have them explain the options for treating your main issues or concerns. Also, thank God for the Internet because it’s changed things, where people are now filming themselves doing certain treatments and showing their before-and-after photos. Instagram is great for that, and a good starting point, but it’s important to go to a reputable person that really understands skin, or plastic surgery, if you’re exploring that.
Retinol is considered the gold standard of anti-aging ingredients, but there’s always been a ton of confusion around using it. What are your key tips?
I do think retinol is the most important ingredient in skincare because it transforms skin more than any other ingredient. It keeps you youthful because it stimulates collagen, minimizes brown spots, and improves the look of wrinkles and texture. I tell people to start using retinol in their late ‘20s, but if they have sun damage or acne, they can start it earlier. When you start, it can be beneficial to use retinol mixed with other ingredients, especially something hydrating like hyaluronic acid. Since retinol turns over skin cells a bit faster, coupling it with HA will stop the side effects and that flash burn.
If you have a lot of sun damage for example, and you want to see results faster because you have a big event in a few months, you can start with a stronger retinol. If you do this, just know that you’re going to have four to six weeks of irritation and a bit of flakiness. You can combat this with moisturizers and it will subside, or you can start off slow using it every other day.
What should you do if you do experience irritation from retinol?
I tell clients that if you overdo it, that’s when you have to back off. Give your skin three or four days off of active ingredients. Use a mild cleanser that doesn’t have any exfoliating properties and don’t use all-natural products. You want to look for benign products that say soothing or sensitive. I know it’s counterintuitive, but being in the medical field for so long, when I’ve seen clients use all-natural products with a lot of essential oils in them they tend to have more issues because they have allergies to these ingredients.
You can also apply an over-the-counter cortisone cream and sleep with it on and your skin won’t be as red when you wake up. However, you don’t want to do this too often though because cortisone can thin the skin over time. You might still have some extra dry skin so once the three days is up, you can use a gentle exfoliating treatment like ExfoliKate to get that crusty layer off.
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What products from your line are you most proud of?
The +Retinol Vitamin C Moisturizer is definitely the one I’m currently most proud of because we were able to find a retinol and a vitamin C that doesn’t fall apart in the formula. [Ed. Note: These two ingredients typically aren’t compatible because they can be irritating and operate at different pH levels.] It’s really transformational, but still gentle. It gives me the exact result I wanted without any downtime.
Of course, ExfoliKate. I love this product because it’s provides both physical and chemical exfoliation. You get results in two minutes like nothing else. It’s a peel, a scrub, and a mask in one. It's just a superior exfoliator.
And finally, our patented DermalQuench Liquid Lift Advanced Wrinkle Treatment. About 10 years ago I found this oxygen machine that I was using to push the smallest size hyaluronic acid molecule through skin. It took five years to figure out how to bottle this up into a product. We found this carrier called PSD oxygen that hospitals used on premature infants to help them breathe until their lungs are fully developed. It gives deep hydration through this little nozzle and it’s been one of our most successful products.