Retinol peeling: how to prevent and treat the dreaded retinol uglies

Everything you need to know to prevent and treat retinol peeling

Young woman with good skin and blonde and pink hair standing against a wall blocking sunlight from her face as the shadow from her hand casts a shadow across her face
(Image credit: Getty Images / Westend61)

When it comes to skin dilemma's retinol peeling is high on the list. The path to beautiful skin very rarely runs smoothly unless you’re wise to some side effect prevention strategies—namely how to deal with retinol peeling (also referred to as the retinol uglies) in the first few weeks of use. 

There’s not much that retinol can’t do. Smooth lines and wrinkles, reduce pigmentation, tighten pores, and impart a covetable glow - which can all be achieved with the best retinol creams. But when the dreaded retinol peeling comes around, you might be left regretting using it in the first place—unless you know how to prevent and treat the retinol uglies.

Why does retinol peeling happen?

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, medical director at Adonia Medical Clinic.

Retinol peeling: how long does it last?

In general, retinol is one of the more gentle varieties of retinoids, 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,” adds Ejikeme.

This adjustment period has been dubbed 'retinization' and not only leads to your skin peeling, but redness, and sensitivity too. And while they should all subside by week four it’s understandable that you’d want to reap all of retinols rewards and bypass the awkward snake-like shedding phase as quickly as humanly possible. Luckily for you, we’ve discovered how…

How to treat retinol peeling

1. Start Gradually

While you might have heard some hellish retinol stories, if you delve a little deeper, you’ll likely discover that slow and steady was not the approach. 

If you have a dry, dehydrated or sensitive skin type, start with a 0.3% concentration and gradually increase as tolerated—on average around every 3 months till you reach the optimum dose—which will likely be about 1%. 

Normal skin types can start with 0.5 % and work up to around 1.5%. While those with an oilier more resilient skin type can usually 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 Ejikeme.

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2. Add Moisture

When retinol cleverly converts to retinoic acid and starts ramping up your skin cell production in the lower layers of the skin, it also speeds up the shedding of the “dead” upper layer of skin. 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 Ejikeme. The cure? Drip feed your face with a hydrating 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 Ejikeme.

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3. Don’t Exfoliate

We know you’ll be tempted to reach for an exfoliant to buff away all that unsightly dead skin, but hold off. “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 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.