If Your Skin Is Too Sensitive for Retinol and Acids, Try Microdosing Instead

The slow-burn approach is picking up steam amongst people with sensitive skin.

Chances are you've heard of microdosing in a different context, aka the practice of taking drugs at very minimal doses to reap their benefits whilst minimizing adverse side effects, such as anxiety and paranoia. But did you know that the same method can be applied to your skincare routine? While a fairly new buzzword in the industry, "skincare microdosing" already yields nearly 250,000 search results on Google, with experts and editors alike waxing poetic about the pared-back approach to using active ingredients like vitamin C, exfoliating acids, and retinol. To learn more about the benefits of skincare microdosing, we tapped two board-certified dermatologists for their insight on the buzzy new technique. Keep scrolling for the full breakdown on what it means to microdose in skincare—plus, who will see the best results from it.

What exactly is skincare microdosing?

"Skincare microdosing refers to using lower concentrations of certain active ingredients to help improve tolerability," explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. She adds that when using products at a lower concentration, you'll still see results, but it reduces the risk of negative reactions—especially for those with fragile and easily compromised complexions, such as those with eczema or rosacea. "This can be especially beneficial for those with sensitive skin," says Dr. Garshick. "I always tell my patients I would rather them use a lower strength comfortably and consistently instead of using a higher strength that disrupts the skin barrier."

Which ingredients should you microdose?

Put simply, you should microdose any skincare ingredient that's known to be potentially irritating or cause sensitivity. According to Garshick, this includes retinoids, exfoliating acids like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, as well as vitamin C. These are all known in the skincare world as "actives."

Fellow NYC board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner concurs. "Retinol and exfoliating acids are the two main ingredients that are most useful in microdosing because using them less frequently or in a diluted form allows your skin to go through a smoother adjustment period," he says. "While effective, retinol is associated with irritation as your skin adjusts to it in the first few weeks, so I often dilute it in moisturizer and apply it less often to reduce irritation." When it comes to alpha and beta hydroxy acids—including glycolic, salicylic, and mandelic, to name just a few—pros suggest sticking to less potent formulas and not using these ingredients on a daily basis, especially if you're easily sensitized. "Besides a low concentration, start by applying a product every other day or even less frequently as this can allow you to use it without causing irritation," explains Dr. Zeichner.

An example of a product that would be ideal to microdose with is Youth To The People's Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant ($38; sephora.com), as it contains a gentle exfoliating blend of 3 percent AHA, 2 percent BHA, and 1 percent PHA, not to mention a slew of soothing agents like green tea and licorice root. Then you have what's known as skincare "boosters," which, as Dr. Zeichner explains, are products that typically contain one active and can be used intermittently or as needed to address a particular skin need. A few examples on the market include the Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster ($42; amazon.com), which targets texture, uneven skin tone, and pore size; Skin Inc.'s Serum Booster Clarify Shot $25; iloveskininc.com), a purifying salicylic acid formula for clogged pores; and True Botanicals Vitamin C Booster ($90; amazon.com), a supercharged powder form of the hero ingredient that works wonders on hyperpigmentation.

Are there any ingredients you should never microdose with?

Sunscreen is basically the only skincare ingredient that should never be microdosed, says Zeichner. "In order to get the SPF value that's on the bottle, you need to use enough of the sunscreen for it to actually work," he explains. "If you don't use an adequate amount, which is around a half teaspoon for the face and neck, then the protection gets diluted out, increasing your risk of a sunburn and skin damage."

Are there any downsides to microdosing?

In short, not really. Take it from Dr. Zeichner, who says, "The only thing about microdosing is that your skin is not getting as high a concentration of an active ingredient as you would perhaps like, but I look at microdosing as a gateway to your full skincare routine." He explains that the ultimate goal is to eventually transition yourself to a full concentration, but that there's nothing wrong with starting off low and slow. "In some people with sensitive skin, it may never be possible to use higher concentrations of irritating actives, so microdosing allows you to get at least some benefit," he adds.

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