Yes, You Can Use Retinol on Dry Skin—Here's How

No irritation required.

In the world of skincare, retinoids are as good as gold. Not only have they been utilized for decades, this anti-aging ingredient is accompanied by ample scientific evidence that confirms its worth.

"Vitamin A compounds help the skin cells to differentiate—or 'turn over'—which helps to renew the epidermal layer," says Anthony Rossi Jr., MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Retinols and retinoids have been shown to reduce signs of photoaging and UV damage, and they also work well for conditions such as acne and hyperpigmentation."

But there's a small catch. Retinoids have some unsavory side effects, including flakiness, redness, and sensitivity. This is called "retinization," a period of time when the skin adapts to topical applications. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months for your skin to make it past this phase.

How to Use Retinol for Dry Skin

Though the retinization phase can make retinoids a bit trickier to use if you have dry skin, you don't have to skip this skincare hero altogether. The key is to gradually ease into using it and be mindful of your skin's reaction.

Step 1: Choose a Mild Product

First, start with an over-the-counter retinol versus prescription retinoic acid (tretinoin), the latter of which is notably more potent. It's also ideal to seek out milder retinols with lower concentrations and gentle, hydrating formulations.

"These milder formulations contain ingredients that moisturize and support the skin barrier, and use less potent forms [of retinol], so most people will be able to tolerate at least a milder formulation," notes Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

(The exception might be those with a compromised skin barrier, such as those with skin conditions including rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, or skin that's exceptionally dry and irritated. In that case, it's best to focus on nourishing with non-irritating, supremely gentle ingredients.)

Dr. Rossi notes that newer formulations of retinoids or retinols are being micronized or encapsulated so they are less irritating to the skin. Some mild retinol options include IT Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream ($69; ulta.com)—which is infused with vitamins B5 and E to soothe and hydrate—and Good Molecules Gentle Retinol Cream ($8; ulta.com), a .1% retinol supplemented with bakuchiol, grapeseed oil, and allantoin, and acmella oleracea extract.

Step 2: Start Slow

After selecting your product, you can begin testing the waters. Apply a small, pea-sized amount to clean skin and follow up with a moisturizer. Wait a few days and see how your skin reacts. If you have a strong reaction, wait three to seven days to try again. If your skin seems OK, follow an every-other-night regimen.

It's important to always use a moisturizer afterward. You can even combine your retinol with a moisturizer and apply it that way. Dr. Rossi says this can help combat retinization side effects, and that it helps protect the epidermal barrier. Another option is to try the 'sandwich technique,' where you apply moisturizer first, then retinol, then another layer of moisturizer.

Step 3: Increase Frequency

Once you've determined the best approach for using retinol on dry skin, maintain the frequency for four to six weeks. Once your skin has adapted, you can increase your frequency of use. This might mean increasing to an every-other-night frequency, or even daily use. You may notice side effects as your skin gets used to the increased frequency.

Step 4: Increase Potency (if you want)

Once you're at a point of using the product daily or every other day, you can experiment with stronger retinol formulations. Again, there may be another round of retinization as your skin adapts, but this should subside within four to six weeks. If it doesn't, revert back to the product you were using before.

Bakuchiol: A Retinol Alternative for Dry Skin

If you find that your skin is especially sensitive and doesn't tolerate retinoids very well despite following the above steps, consider swapping in an alternative anti-aging ingredient.

"Bakuchiol is an extract of the Babchi plant long used in Ayurvedic medicine. It's one of only a few retinol alternatives where studies demonstrate retinol-like effects, including anti-aging and skin brightening," says Dr. King.

She explains that bakuchiol appears to activate the genes that regulate our collagen and elastin production, which is what retinoids do as well. Perhaps most importantly, bakuchiol doesn't carry the same notorious side effects of retinoids, which means it's a gentler option approved for sensitive and dry skin types.

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