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Can You REALLY Exfoliate While Using Retinol?

Can You REALLY Exfoliate While Using Retinol? We Ask the Experts

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Main Image – LightfieldStudios/Adobe

If you’re on Insta and TikTok, you will *definitely* have heard about retinol products. Not to mention the long list of acids and chemical peels that are floating around shelves at the moment – lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid… The list goes on.

But how much information can you ACTUALLY get from a social media post or 3 minute video?! Not enough to be using these acids and chemicals without finding out more from professional derms, TBH.

But don’t worry, we’ve got the all-important info that you need to be able to use retinol products safely, including how and when to combine with your exfoliators, creating a match made in skincare heaven.

Live That Glow HQ has spoken with 3 experts to empower you with all of the information you need about retinols, how to incorporate them into your skincare regime, and combining them with exfoliators.

Welcome Dermatology Nurse Practitioner Akis Ntonos, Board-certified dermatologist Mariano Busso, M.D, and specialist cosmetic nurse injector Lilian Alishaev.

Remember, with great power comes great responsibility – and skincare products are no exception.


Can You REALLY Exfoliate While Using Retinol?

Image – Adobe


What is retinol?

First up, a brief lesson on this powerhouse ingredient.

Simply put, retinols are a class of vitamin A derivatives that work their magic by encouraging skin cell turnover, stimulating collagen production, and combating annoying signs of ageing like fine lines and wrinkles.  It can also help acne-prone skin by reducing breakouts and improving acne scars.

Cleveland Clinic explains that retinol increases skin cell turnover and offers a whole host of other benefits. It says, “Retinol also exfoliates your skin and increases collagen production, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, giving your skin a fresher, plump appearance.”

Suitable for all skin types, this is a skin superhero that carries a cautionary tale though. Not to be confused with tretinoin (although these two anti-ageing ingredients are very much related) tretinoin most describes a more powerful prescription product, while retinol generally refers to weaker over-the-counter (OTC) formulas.

However, a word of caution is in order – both tretinoin and retinols are potent allies in the fight against ageing but wielded without wisdom, they can become the foe of healthy skin (think redness, flaking and a sensitive complexion).

For the ingredients to truly *shine*, they demand respect, a measured approach, and proper guidance from skincare professionals.


How do you *actually* use it?

You should ALWAYS do a patch test before trying a new product, and this is especially important with retinols.

After a couple of days, if your skin hasn’t reacted negatively, you can go ahead and use your product using the ‘1-2-3 retinol rule’ to apply it to clean, dry skin after you’ve used a gentle cleanser.

You may have heard of this super simple way of integrating retinol or tretinoin into your skincare routine (minus the irritation) But what is it?


Step 1: In the first week of using your retinol product, apply a pea-sized amount to your face once a week for a week. For example, if you got your product on a Friday, start it that night, but then don’t apply again until the following Friday at the earliest.


Step 2: For the next two weeks, apply the same pea-sized amount of your retinoid to your face at night twice a week. Space these applications as far as you can from each other, for example, every Sunday and Wednesday.


Step 3: For the next three weeks, apply the pea-sized amount of your retinoid to your face three times a week. Again, space these out as much as you can. For example, something like Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday.


After that, you can begin to incorporate your retinol daily.


Can you REALLY exfoliate while using retinol?

Image – Adobe


Can you exfoliate while using retinol?

The short answer to this is yes, however, “in order to avoid any negative reactions, it is best to include exfoliation to your skincare routine once your skin has gotten used to a new product,” says Mariano. This first period is called “the retinol uglies”.

Akis agrees that “due to the possibility of increased skin sensitivity, it is typically advised to approach exfoliation and acid use with caution when using retinol.”

“Due to the fact that retinol accelerates cellular turnover and can already cause some exfoliation, adding more exfoliants or acids may make the skin more irritated and damage the skin barrier.”

“However, it is advised to speak with a physician or skin care expert before incorporating exfoliation or acids while using retinol so they can evaluate your skin’s tolerance and offer tailored advice” he continues.

Lillian echoes this advice and says “it is always a good idea to consult with your cosmetic provider/ dermatologist for personalised advice and recommendations based on your specific situation.”

“Each patient’s skin is different, so approaching the skin with the right skincare routine and product is necessary.”

Exfoliating while using retinol can help:

  • Resurface the skin
  • Improve skin texture
  • Fade dark spots
  • Clear pores
  • Reduce acne
  • Soften fine lines and wrinkles

We’ve got *tons* more advice from the experts to make sure you use your retinol safely and get the best benefits possible.

So, read on, my friends.


Can you REALLY exfoliate while using retinol? skin retinoids

Image – Liubov Levytska/Adobe


Which exfoliators should you use with retinol (like acids or physical exfoliants?)

Akis tells LTG HQ, “To reduce the risk of discomfort, I advise using gentle exfoliation techniques like enzyme exfoliants.”

He also recommends lower-potency AHAs (like lactic acid or mandelic acid), “as well as spacing out the use of retinol and exfoliating products on various days.”

It’s also recommended to, “use a very mild exfoliating product and avoid harsh scrubbing or abrasive methods as it can damage the skin and do more harm than good,” says Lillian.

But what should you use instead? Lillian tells us that “it’s better to opt for chemical exfoliants, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).”

“These acids work to gently exfoliate the skin’s surface and help promote cell turnover,” she adds.

Both Lillian and Akis stress the importance of noticing your own skin and how it’s reacting when using chemicals and products.

Akis says that “while utilising these active substances together, it’s crucial to pay attention to how your skin reacts, stop using any products that are seriously irritating or inflicting considerable discomfort, and put moisturisation and sun protection first.”

And we couldn’t agree more. After hearing some pretty scary retinol misuse horror stories, we know just how much retinol can damage the sensitive skin on our face if not used properly and safely.

Cleveland Clinic advises, “Since retinol can irritate your skin, it’s best to start slow. After a patch test, you might use a product once every few days, and then gradually ramp up.”

“At first, you might experience redness, itching or burning, but these symptoms go away as your skin gets used to the treatment,” it adds.

Always, always, always (did we say ALWAYS?!) use SPF and protection from the sun when using retinols and chemicals, as some actives (like AHAs) can increase sun sensitivity.


Can you REALLY exfoliate while using retinol? skin retinoids

Image – Marina Kaiser/Adobe


How often should you exfoliate while using retinol?

Since exfoliating alongside retinol can cause irritation, start slowly by exfoliating once or twice a week before ramping this up if your skin can tolerate it.

As Lillian explains, “it is important to listen to your skin and adjust the frequency based on its reaction.”

“If you notice any excessive dryness, redness, or irritation, it’s best to reduce the frequency or consult with your cosmetic provider/ dermatologist for personalised guidance,” she adds.


When should you start exfoliating after starting with retinol?

Retinol can make your skin sensitive and it’s something that *definitely* needs to be incorporated into your skincare regime carefully and safely. This means that you will need to factor in its use and tailor your skincare routine to include it to get its full skin benefits.

Beginning to incorporate exfoliation back into your skincare is a pretty slow process, and, “it’s generally advisable to wait for a few weeks before incorporating exfoliants into your skincare routine to get your skin in a nice baseline and used to the retinol,” says Lillian.

“This waiting period allows your skin to adjust to the retinol and minimise the risk of potential irritation or sensitivity.”

“It’s essential to follow the instructions provided with your retinol product and consult with your cosmetic provider/dermatologist for personalised guidance. They can assess your skin’s response to retinol and provide recommendations on when and how to introduce exfoliants effectively.

Remember to start slowly with exfoliation and monitor how your skin responds to ensure optimal results,” Lillian adds.

The best exfoliators will gently remove dead cells from the outer layer of your skin while avoiding skin irritation.  Remember that the right way to incorporate a chemical exfoliator into your routine alongside your retinol is by doing it slowly and keeping an eye out for redness or dryness.

So, fellow skincare lovers, slow and steady wins the race. (Okay, it isn’t a race, but you get the sentiment.)


Can You REALLY Exfoliate While Using Retinol?

Image – LightfieldStudios/Adobe


Does retinol itself exfoliate skin?

REALLY common misconception is that retinol exfoliates the skin – but we are here to bust that myth!

Although retinol shares some of the benefits of exfoliants, like increased cell turnover, it doesn’t *actually* exfoliate the skin. Crazy, right?! Because we are certain you’ve most likely seen the same influencer videos that we have seen that claim retinol is the same as an exfoliator, but it just ain’t true!

Lillian told us the science behind retinol. She says that, “retinol itself does not exfoliate the skin in the same way as chemical or physical exfoliants. Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that works by speeding up the cell turnover process, which can help to improve the appearance of the skin and reduce the signs of ageing.”

“While retinol can contribute to some mild exfoliation due to its cell turnover effects, it is generally recommended to incorporate separate exfoliants into your skincare routine for more targeted exfoliation.”

“This can help to enhance the benefits of retinol while minimising the risk of over-exfoliation or irritation.”


Should you exfoliate before or after using retinol?

With so many products and chemicals on the market, it can be *extremely* confusing to know when to use which product within your routine. Something that can help with this is ‘skin cycling’, which means using and layering ingredients like retinol on specific days and having ‘rest’ days in between.

Dermatologists have been recommending intermittent or alternating use of active ingredients for a long time, and Lillian tells us that, “it is recommended to exfoliate before using retinol. Exfoliating helps to remove dead skin cells and creates a smoother surface for the retinol to penetrate.”

“However, it is important to avoid over-exfoliating as it can cause irritation. If you have sensitive skin, it may be best to consult with your cosmetic provider/dermatologist for personalised guidance on when and how to exfoliate while using retinol.”


Can you REALLY exfoliate while using retinol?

Image – Nu/Adobe


The takeaway

In case you didn’t get the memo, retinols are *SERIOUS* business and not to be taken lightly.

We don’t mean to sound like a bore, but you should do a patch test before starting use and, ideally, speak to a dermatologist or skincare professional to get personalised advice on the best way to use retinol and the strength that is suitable for your skin.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to wear sunscreen every day – come rain or shine – but this is especially important when using retinols, acids, and chemicals on your face. After all, what’s the point in spending money and time on a product for it to actually damage your skin?!

When introducing exfoliators back into your skincare routine while using retinols, slowly does it. Be patient and gentle with your skin.

Now you know that retinol isn’t *actually* an exfoliator, and the best types of exfoliating skin buffers to pair with retinols, go forth and bag that smooth skin, babe!


Meet the experts

Mariano Busso, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist who operates one of Miami, Florida’s busiest practices for the better part of three decades, and has recently opened a West Coast counterpart in the heart of Beverly Hills, California.


Lilian Alishaev is a cosmetic nurse injector at the Manhattan Laser Spa, specialising in treatments like treatments such as Botox, dermal fillers, platelet-rich plasma, RADIESSE®, and Kybella®.


Akis Ntonos, FNP-C, is a Dermatology Nurse Practitioner, Injectable Specialist, (a.k.a. Facial Architect) and the co-founder of Aion Aesthetics, New York’s premier injectables clinic.


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Senior Beauty Editor

Laura Kemp started her journalism career as a news reporter for one of the largest newspaper groups in Europe before moving into features and editorial writing. Combining her love of hard-hitting journalism with her passion for beauty, she’s now Senior Beauty Editor at Live That Glow. When she’s not writing, researching, or interviewing her favourite experts, you’ll find Laura practicing her downward dog or drifting on her paddleboard.

Expertise: Hair care, nails
Education: University of Salford
  • tanja i


    Great article! Everything’s explained!

    12th August 2023
    • Thank you! If there are any other retinol questions you’d like answered, just let us know! x

      8th September 2023

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