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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • Here’s Exactly How Often to Exfoliate if You’re Using Retinol (By Your Skin Type)

Here’s Exactly How Often to Exfoliate if You’re Using Retinol (By Your Skin Type)

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Image – Nabitang/Stocksy

When you hear the word ‘retinol’ you might know that whilst it’s an amazing ingredient for plumping, de-clogging and smoothing the skin, you should also proceed with caution. Especially when it comes to exfoliation

Of course, retinol is an utterly genius ingredient. But it’s also super strong. So including an exfoliant in your regime too can cause a skincare clash. 

I know what you’re thinking. “But surely you still need to exfoliate your skin, even if retinol is part of your skincare regime?!” You’re right, but how often you combine the two – and how – all depends on your skin type


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy


So, with help from board-certified dermatologists Dr Jennifer Baron and Dr Hamed, and aesthetics specialist Nina Prisk, this article answers helps you to figure out how exactly we should approach exfoliation when there’s retinol in the mix, and vice versa. 

Exfoliation and retinol both work wonders for the skin. So can you have the best of both worlds without experiencing a negative reaction? Read on to find out…


How to combine exfoliation and retinol if you have acne

“Typically, your skin will be oily and so it will be benefit from exfoliation as regularly as every other day,” recommends Prisk. When used in conjunction with retinol, this applies as long as you’re not using a physical exfoliant.

“Exfoliation will help to remove the dead skin cells, allowing the retinol to penetrate deeper into the skin, aiding repair.”

Be careful not to overdo the retinol on acne prone skin though. “Retinol can help to address acne but it’s important to remember that using it too often can result in red, peeling and dry skin,” warns Prisk

“For this reason, using it twice a week and in a low dose such as 0.3% to begin with is recommended and then working up to 0.5% or 1% depending on skin tolerance.”


How to combine exfoliation and retinol if you have oily skin

“People with oily skin typically need to exfoliate at least a couple of times a week in order to help remove the build-up of dead skin cells and avoid clogged pores,” Prisk explains. 

“It’s important not to fall into the temptation to over-exfoliate however, as this can actually impact the natural pH levels of the skin, causing it to become irritated and inflamed. I would avoid exfoliating every day.”


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy


How to combine exfoliation and retinol if you have dry skin

Prisk says less is more with both. “I would advise avoiding using retinol too frequently – probably a maximum of twice a week depending on individual skin tolerance,” she says.

“A chemical exfoliant can usually be used more often, sometimes every day. But if it’s a physical exfoliant then I would make this even less frequent.” 


How often to combine exfoliation and retinol if you have sensitive skin

If you have sensitive skin, a combination of retinol and exfoliation is probably already a major red flag. A notoriously strong vitamin A, mixed with a product that aims to shed dead skin cells? It doesn’t exactly scream wellbeing for sensitive skin! 

But according to Prisk, you can still reap the benefits if you start slow. “The principles of the use of retinol and exfoliator on sensitive skin are very similar to that of dry skin whereby you should exercise caution and start off with low doses of retinol, only use it every few days, gradually working up in frequency and strength if required,” she says. 

You could even alternate your retinol with a gentle chemical exfoliator so that you’re not using them on the same days, to be on the safe side.


Image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy


Tips for combining retinol and exfoliation

  • Don’t use retinol straight after exfoliation

“It takes time for the skin to get used to the increased vitamin A uptake,” says Dr Hamed. He therefore recommends avoiding applying your retinol straight after exfoliating.

  • Don’t use a physical scrub:

“Never use a physical exfoliator (sponge, loofa, gritty product) before a Retinol,” warns Dr Baron. So, chemical exfoliator – check!

  • Use your exfoliator and retinol at different times:

Another thing to consider is which stage of your regime you’re actually applying each product. Dr Hamed recommends exfoliating in the morning and applying Retinol at night, “for even absorption”. Vitamin A can react to UV rays too, so evening time Retinol application is best. 

In a perfect world, Retinol can be applied every evening if your skin and dosage allows it and you only need to exfoliate two or three times a week. So, because they’re being applied at different times of day and sometimes not even on the same day, they can be conveniently spaced out. Problem solved…?

  • Wear SPF:

Whenever you’re using retinol, an SPF is essential. “It’s vital to wear a high factor SPF every day when using retinol as it can make skin more sensitive to light and damage [causing conditions] such as pigmentation,” says Prisk.


 The takeaway

When it comes to combining retinol and exfoliation, always ere on the side of caution. Two products that both aim to make a huge impact on the skin can work for and against it, depending on your skin type.

Unfortunately it isn’t as simple as providing everyone with the same set routine for both. Everyone’s skin is different so everyone’s system should be too. Just remember that treating your skin with the utmost respect is key.

Physical exfoliants are very abrasive so it’s not recommended to use one when incorporating retinol into your regime. A chemical exfoliant is advised over a physical one, but alternating it with your retinol or only using it a few times a week in conjunction with regular retinol application is a good idea. 

Start slow with your retinol dose, whether you’re exfoliating regularly or not, and remember to apply a daily sunscreen whatever your skin type.


Meet the experts

Dr. Jennifer Baron is a double board-certified dermatologist with a premier skincare line. For more than a decade as a private practice dermatologic surgeon in San Jose, California, Dr. Baron continues to pair her medical training and experience with research and innovation of effective skin care treatments for her patients.


Dr Hamdan Abdullah Hamed is a board certified dermatologist and co-founder of online haircare shop PowerYourCurls.


Nina Prisk is an aesthetic nurse prescriber and owner of Update Aesthetics Cosmetic Clinics, both in London’s Harley Street and Cornwall. Prisk is a lecturer and ambassador for global industry brands. She advocates for the importance of a multi-faceted regime that incorporates both injectables and skincare products. Qual: RGN, INP, BSc, MSc.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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