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Have Sensitive Skin? Use Your Retinol As A Wash-Off Mask, Says A Derm

Woman Applying Skincare to Face
Image by ohlamour studio / Stocksy
January 11, 2021
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If your skin runs hypersensitive, even some of the most beloved ingredients can cause irritation like acids and, yes, retinoids. While the latter can technically induce flare-ups for anyone (dubbed the great "retinol purge"), it tends to wreak extra havoc on sensitive skin. Some even swear off the skin care juggernaut altogether, cell-turnover and wound-healing benefits be damned. 

While you can always opt for a retinol alternative, dermatologist Camille Howard-Verovic, D.O., founder of Girl+Hair, says you don't have to surrender the coveted ingredient just yet. "You can still use retinol if you have sensitive skin," she declares over TikTok. Just mind this little application tip: 

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How to apply retinoids on sensitive skin. 

With retinoids, you'd typically slather on a pea-size amount and let it sit overnight, so it's able to seep into the skin and enhance cell turnover as you snooze. For some sensitive-skinned folk, though, that proves to be too much—which is why Howard-Verovic says you can treat the solution as a wash-off mask. 

"When you come home, wash your face as you normally would, preparing for your nighttime routine," she explains. "Then you put your retinoid on, and before you go to sleep—if you have a considerable amount of time between washing your face, putting on the retinoid, and going to sleep—you wash off your retinoid before you go to bed. So you come home and put it on, and then you wash it off before you go to bed and resume the rest of your skin care routine." 

It's a widely discussed trick among derm offices, known as "short contact therapy," and there's even a clinical trial to support its success: Participants were tasked with applying 0.05% tretinoin cream (a prescription-strength retinoid) once daily for 30 minutes before washing it off, for about 12 weeks. It seemed to do just the trick: Not only were the patients more compliant with their tube of tretinoin1 (read: reduced flaking and irritation), but it also helped improve their various skin care concerns. Meaning, retinoids can still yield their cell turnover benefits—even if you don't leave it on all night long.   

A quick caveat: Retinoids do come with a purging period, known as the "retinoid reaction" or retinoid-induced dermatitis, which typically includes peeling, itching, and burning. These side effects are quite common, even if you don't have tried-and-true "sensitive skin," and they should subside over time (anywhere from four to six weeks), so long as you're applying it correctly. It's when the purging seems to last longer than six weeks that you might need to edit the process, perhaps testing the "short contact" theory for yourself.

And, of course, you should see a dermatologist before trying your hand—they'll be able to tell you whether this trick might work for your sensitive skin, or if you'd be better off with a gentler retinol alternative. 

The takeaway. 

Yes, you can still use retinol if you have sensitive skin—you just might not want to leave it on your skin all night long. Take a page from Howard-Verovic's playbook and wash off your retinol before continuing with your skin care routine (and if you have sensitive skin, that should include nourishing, strengthening ingredients for your skin barrier).  

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