Another way to prevent a scaly, flaky reaction: Look for lower concentrations. “Starting with 0.5% max is probably reasonable for most skin types, including sensitive ones,” Dr. Penzi says. Once you’ve adjusted, you can gradually work your way up to 1%, as long as you don’t have any negative side effects. But for now, here are a few gentle formulas to try:
3. Try the sandwich method.
Already have a highly concentrated serum in your medicine cabinet? Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. You can try something called the sandwich method: Similar to how you’d make your beloved PB&J or grilled cheese, you sandwich the good stuff (retinol) between two layers of moisturizer. This strategy dilutes the retinol so that it absorbs at a slower rate and lower intensity, Dr. Shokeen says, making it less likely to strip your skin barrier.
To get more specific, she suggests first applying a thin layer of your favorite moisturizer after cleansing, and waiting 5 to 10 minutes for it to absorb before using retinol. “The reason I recommend waiting is that you don’t want to dilute your retinol too much by applying it too soon between steps,” she says. “The retinol might move around [with the moisturizer] or become thinned out to the point where it’s not very effective.” The last step: Wait another 10 to 15 minutes before sealing everything in with another layer of moisturizer, Dr. Shokeen says.
The downside of the sandwich method is that, technically, the retinol won’t be as effective compared to applying it directly onto your skin, Dr. Penzi says. But still, getting some of its perks is way better than getting none—or risking irritation and making your face a dehydrated, angry mess.
4. Try the 1-2-3 rule.
If you’re wondering how often you should use retinol, both dermatologists we consulted agree that it’s best to ease into it. “Definitely don’t start doing it every single night,” Dr. Penzi says, since “you’re more likely to dry your skin out that way.” The general guideline for beginners is two to three times a week, but another way to build up your tolerance (and minimize irritation) is what Dr. Shokeen calls the 1-2-3 rule.
Here’s how it works: “Use a pea-size amount on your face once a week for one week,” she explains. Then twice for the next two weeks, and—you guessed it—three times for the following three weeks, she says. Then, if you want to use it even more frequently, you can try working your way up to four times per week (or even every night), if your skin seems to be cool with it.
Of course, you can adjust this rule to your specific needs. If your cheeks are burning up with a once-a-week schedule, for instance, take a break until the irritation goes away. On the flip side, you’re welcome to step up your usage if you’re tolerating retinol well (meaning no redness, flakiness, or discomfort), per Dr. Shokeen. No one knows your skin better than you, so just pay attention to any signs that your product is doing more harm than good.
5. Skip certain parts of your face that are extra sensitive.
Again, you should only be using a pea-size amount for your entire face, according to Dr. Penzi, Dr. Shokeen, and the Mayo Clinic. That said, you might want to skip certain parts that are particularly prone to dryness. For example, “You don’t have to put it right under your eyes, since the skin there is so sensitive and delicate,” Dr. Penzi says. The same goes for the corners of your mouth or nose—they’re already more likely to crack and get chapped without retinol, so why take the risk?
6. Recognize when you’re overdoing it—and stop.
Even if you follow all of the advice above, you can expect a little bit of dryness, and even mild peeling, while using retinol consistently. (That’s kind of what happens when you force your outer layer of skin to slough off.) But to prevent your face from becoming absolutely parched—to the point where you’re experiencing excessive itchiness, flaking, and discomfort—it’s important to know when to take a break.
Your skin might be telling you to stop if it’s getting really red, for example, or you’re experiencing tenderness or large patches of peeling skin, Dr. Penzi says. That usually indicates a negative reaction (like irritation or an allergic reaction) as opposed to standard skin cell turnover. “Another big sign is that your face will begin to burn, like when you wash it or put any other products on,” Dr. Penzi says, “That sensation means that your barrier is torn up and you’re overdoing it.”
If you experience any of the above, both dermatologists agree to stop using retinol—and any active, for that matter—ASAP. And keep it simple with gentle moisturizers and serums. Then, when things have finally calmed down, that’s when you can reconsider slowly bringing retinol back into your routine, keeping the above steps in mind.