Retinol peeling: here's what you need to prevent and treat the dreaded retinol 'uglies'

Retinol peeling, aka 'retinol uglies', can actually be prevented with the right techniques—here's what you need to know according to the experts

pipette with clear serum inside and some dropping out on a light blue background
(Image credit: Getty)

Retinol peeling, aka the retinol uglies, is just one of the things that may stand in the way of a flawless complexion when incorporating the essential ingredient into your skincare routine.

Retinol is arguably one of the best beauty ingredients that you can include in your skincare routine—there's not much that it can't do. Using one of the best retinol serums is known to smooth lines and wrinkles, reduce pigmentation, tighten pores, and impart a covetable glow

But, with the use of this hero ingredient comes the potential retinol uglies, which is essentially a facial peeling that may take effect after you start using the serum for first time. There are some prevention strategies for this irritating side effect though—whether you're using a retinol oil or retinol serum—so one of our contributing beauty editors spoke to the experts about how to deal with retinol peeling if it does occur in the first few weeks of use.

Why does retinol peeling happen?

If you experience the dreaded retinol peeling comes around, your first thought might be panic—closely followed by a regret that you used the serum in the first place. But understanding why it happens, how to prevent it, and how to treat it, is key to using your retinol with no qualms in the future.

The retinol uglies occur as the vitamin A derivative sets to work speeding up your cell turnover “allowing for the faster progression of the cells through the skin, and the natural sloughing away of the dead top layer,” explains Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme (opens in new tab), medical director at Adonia Medical Clinic (opens in new tab).

So essentially, retinol peeling is your dead skin cells peeling away from your face; leaving behind a fresh, flawless new layer of skin. Turns out, it's actually a good thing!

How long does retinol peeling last?

In general, retinol is one of the more gentle varieties of retinoids (see the difference between retinol vs retinal here), however, “if you’re going to experience shedding, it will begin on day three to five of daily night time use, and this usually continues for about five to 10 days depending on your skin type and the percentage of retinol you’ve used,” explains Dr. Ejikeme.

Known as 'retinization' this adjustment period may mean that your skin is prone to skin peeling, sensitivity and redness too—kind of like when you introduce one of the best vitamin C serums into your routine. And while they should all subside by week four it’s understandable that you’d want to bypass the awkward snake-like shedding phase as quickly as humanly possible (which is possible if you're using vitamin C properly too), and reap all the rewards of retinol instead. As luck would have it, we've discovered how...

Four steps to treating retinol peeling

1. Start the retinol process gradually

Knowing how to start using retinol is vital to avoid this peeling effect. Slow and steady is best. Rather than slathering on the highest concentration of retinol available, you need to work your way up. Oh, and word to the wise, you should always avoid delicate areas on the face like your eye contour area—trust us, peeling eyelids are NOT it, especially during those pesky Zoom calls.

So, therefore, it's important to start with the correct product strength. If you have dry, dehydrated, or sensitive skin, then it's advisable to start with a gentler 0.3% concentration, like the La Roche Posay Retinol B3 Serum. This can gradually be increased as tolerated—on average around every 3 months till you reach the optimum dose—which will likely be about 1%.

Normal skin types on the other hand can usually start with 0.5 % and work up to around 1.5%. While those with an oilier, more resilient skin type can normally start with a 1% concentration and settle on 1.5% or 2%. 

“Initially apply your chosen retinol twice a week for two weeks, then increase to three times a week for another two weeks and follow with every night from week five. Done in this manner, you’ll find that you’ll experience very little shedding,” shares Dr. Ejikeme. For a more natural alternative for sensitive skin, you could also give bakuchiol a try.

2. Add hydration and moisture into the equation

Retinol cleverly converts to retinoic acid and starts ramping up your skin production in the lower layers of the skin, the result of which is speeding up the shedding of the upper layer of your skin—aka 'dead' skin. And turbocharging the skin’s functions in this way has a temporary effect on the barrier function of the skin. 

“If the barrier function is impaired there will be more water loss leading to dryness, which can exacerbate the flakiness of shedding skin,” explains Dr. Ejikeme. 

The cure? Hydration, hydration, hydration—one of our biggest retinol tips. Drip feed your face with your best hyaluronic acid serum 20 minutes post retinol application and then in the morning slather on a ceramide-packed moisturizer. “The ceramides help maintain the structural integrity of your skin barrier and the moisturizer will act as a barrier in and of itself, locking moisture in and alleviating dryness,” adds Dr. Ejikeme.

3. Make sure to avoid exfoliation

However unsightly you deem the dead and peeling skin, you must avoid the urge to reach for an exfoliant to buff it away. “Your skin will become sensitive when you first start using retinol, and while my patients often complain about flaking and the urge to scrub it away, I advise them to use a gentle moisturizing cleanser that won’t strip the skin and that doesn’t contain any exfoliating acids or beads,” says Dr. Ejikeme. 

However, if you’re desperate, “you can gently swipe a muslin cloth over your face while rinsing off your cleanser once a week, as this will gently slough off peeling skin,” adds Ejikeme.

So there you have it—consider yourself armed with the knowledge and know-how to add it to your skincare routine get into using retinol effectively, and without too much shedding!

Amerley is an award-winning beauty & lifestyle journalist who has been writing for the UK’s most well-known glossies, websites and newspapers for over a decade. Known for her ability to predict the next big trend, there is really very little she won’t try for a story. From microblading and injectables, to10 step skincare plans and breathing her way to better skin, Amerley loves to share her experiences and write relatable, informative and trend-led copy for beauty novices and junkies alike.