5 Dermatologist-Approved Tips for Using Retinol In the Winter
Allow me to be candid — I think winter sucks. On top of feeling cold, wearing layers on layers, and the overcast days, it also inevitably comes with dry skin.
Dry skin makes my daily skincare regimen a little more complicated. For example, my skin hates retinol during the winter. On top of the dryness caused by the low humidity and cold weather, retinol exacerbates any flakes and dry patches to the point of no return. And I'm only being slightly dramatic.
As it turns out, having issues using retinol during the winter is a common experience. "Skin in the winter can be characterized by tiny breaks between surface skin cells due to lack of ambient moisture," says Dr. Alicia Zalka, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep. She compares the tiny breaks in the skin as open windows letting cold air in, which causes dryness to settle in while natural oils needed for moisture are let "out."
"Add products containing retinol to this and it's like swinging the windows and doors wide open, and all the winter weather comes rushing in because retinol increases cell turnover, which — following our metaphor — keeps doors and windows easy to open," says Dr. Zalka. Mix cold winter air and retinol, and many have a recipe for dry, irritated skin.
Luckily, this doesn't mean you have to forgo using retinol altogether. After all, the benefits of this active ingredient are plenty. Instead, follow these expert-approved tips that can help keep your skin comfortable and those "windows" closed during the winter season.
Double Up On the Moisturizer
"The first sign of irritation is typically a burning sensation when applying lotion or cream, so if you don't right the ship at this point, redness and peeling are lurking right around the corner," says Dr. Robert Finney, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Entière Dermatology. "For starters, thicken up your moisturizer to something that is more cream-based, but still non-comedogenic."
He recommends the Alastin Ultra Nourishing Moisturizer, which also has collagen-stimulating peptides. If you notice any signs of sensitivity, he recommends sandwiching your retinol in between two layers of moisturizer to help prevent dryness, peeling, or flaking.
Dr. Zalka says to also look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin, or squalane when choosing a moisturizer.
Don't Mix Retinol With Other Active Exfoliating Ingredients
"Until your skin proves tolerant of retinol use in the winter, you may wish to skip combining retinol with other active exfoliating products, such as alpha hydroxy acid or beta hydroxy acid," says Dr. Zalka. Try alternating days in which you apply retinol and exfoliate.
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Decrease How Often You Apply Retinol
Not all skin types can tolerate using retinol daily at any time of year, let alone during the winter. If you're experiencing dryness and think your retinol isn't helping, Dr. Finney says to decrease usage to every other night or less. Then, you can increase frequency again during the warmer months or as your skin becomes more tolerable.
In addition to the number of times in a week you apply retinol, remember not to apply more than the suggested amount on the packaging, says Dr. Zalka. "Retinol-containing products should always be thought of as a treatment, not a moisturizer, which means to use it sparingly and do not coat the entire skin surface with it."
Opt for a Lower Strength Retinol
"I suggest choosing milder forms of retinol such as drugstore brands or brands designed for sensitive skin versus prescription tretinoin creams you get from your doctor," says Dr. Zalka. "Adapalene is one example of a retinol compound that has a gentler effect on the skin." One to try is the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Retinoid Treatment.
Apply Retinol on Dry Skin
One of the golden rules of skincare application is to apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp to increase absorption. That said, the opposite is true when it comes to retinol application in the winter. Instead, Dr. Zalka says to apply retinol while your skin is dry so that it isn't as potent and therefore less likely to cause any irritations.