Retinol For Dry Skin

Does Retinol Make Dry Skin Worse?

I have dry skin and I  wanted to enter the promised land of retinol use. I’ve heard that retinol can make dry skin worse. Retinol is one of the skincare ingredients that every dermatologist recommends, even for dry skin.

So I wanted to know . . 

Does Retinol Make Dry Skin Worse?

Retinol makes your skin cells turn over faster. This is an intense process for your skin and as a result, it can make your dry skin worse. But this added dryness should only be temporary while your skin adjusts to retinol. The uptick in cell turnover is one of the things about retinol that makes it a skincare superstar.

While it’s true that retinol can make dry skin worse, that doesn’t’ mean you and retinol can’t be friends.

In fact, the benefits of retinol far outweigh the negatives of adding retinol to your skincare routine.

Why Does Retinol Make Your Skin Dry?

Retinol is the scientific name for Vitamin A. Retinol is part of a family of retinol derivates also known as retinoids.

These vary in strength. The strongest form of retinol is retinoic acids, one of which is Tretinoin.

Tretinoin is a prescription-only medication. It was developed in the 1960s to treat acne. You might know it as Retin A.

People using tretinoin for acne started to notice that not only did the acne go away – but their skin looked more even, less wrinkled and had a glow.

The cosmetics industry took notice and started researching and developing skin care products that contained retinol.

The reason that retinol makes your skin smoother, glowy and lessens hyperpigmentation, is the same reasons it makes your skin dry.

Retinol speeds up your skin cells reproduction. This means it makes new cells quicker and pushes the top layer of old skin cells off your skin faster.

Because your skin is not used to the rapid production of new skin cells being formed it reacts by increasing inflammation markers.

These inflammation markers pull histamine to the skin cells and histamine further irritates your skin.  Inflammation caused by retinol can result in increased redness, dryness and skin flakiness.

You might have heard this called retinol rash or skin purging. It is a totally normal process when you start using retinol for the first time.

Strangely retinol is often used by dermatologists to treat inflammatory conditions like acne as well as fine lines and wrinkles. This is because retinol also boosts collagen production.

What You Can Do To Lessen The Drying Effects of Retinol.

The best thing you can do is start slowly and with low strength retinol. I mentioned at the start of this article that retinol is part of the retinoid family.

Retinols come in differing strengths. The lower the strength of the retinoid the least irritating it will be.

The less irritating, the less it will dry out your skin. When looking to add retinol into your skincare routine this chart shows you where retinol and the other retinoids go, in terms of strength.

Retinol/Retinoid Strength


It’s All About Balance

The weaker the retinoid the less drying it will be. Also the less effective it will be at doing what retinol does best.

That is speeding up new skin cells, plumping out fine lines, boosting hydration, and increasing collagen.

The reason that retinol is the most popular retinoid is that it gives the most amount of benefits, with the least amount of dryness and irritation.

However, retinol doesn’t work for everyone straight away.

What you want to do is gently acclimatise your skin to retinol.  Here are a few more things you can do to work retinol into your skincare routine without it drying out your dry skin more.

Start Low, Start Slow and Start Sparingly

Seriously please don’t go and buy the strongest retinol on the market and slap it on your face hoping for great results! You will regret it and end up with more problems than you started with.

Start with low strength retinol. Retinol comes in 0.025% all the way up to 2.0%.

2.0% retinol is the highest concentration you can buy OTC.

To get stronger retinol than 2.0% requires a prescription from a dermatologist.

If you have sensitive skin or have never used retinol before then start with 0.25% and put it on at night twice a week.

Don’t slap on a palm-full either! We are talking a few drops gently smoothed over your skin.

Retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun so it’s very important you wear an SPF 30 sunscreen on your face every day.

But you already doing that, right?

If your skin is tolerating the low dose twice a week then move up to every other day. As your skin gets used to retinol you can start applying it every night.

Should I Apply Moisturizer before or after retinol?

Because you’ve got dry skin, you should be using a moisturizer morning and night. You’ll definitely need to apply moisturizer when using retinol.

If your skin is dry and sensitive then it is recommended that you apply moisturizer before retinol. Let it absorb and dry on your skin and then apply moisturizer.

You may need to go in with a second layer of moisturizer after you’ve applied retinol as well. This will depend on how your skin reacts.

As your skin gets acclimatised to retinol you can put it directly on after cleansing. Then apply moisturizer on top of the retinol.

It’s a great idea to use a moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid, as this is super hydrating for your skin.

Should I Even Need To Use Retinol?

Retinol has a lot of benefits for the skin, and it is raved about and recommended by nearly every dermatologist and skinfluencer on the web.

You do you though. If you’re at all concerned about using retinol then you should seek advice from a dermatologist.

Retinol is amazing at reducing fine lines and wrinkles and reversing sun damage and collagen loss and making skin glow.

These are some of the things that we all want to achieve with our skin.

Remember not everyone can use retinol and if that you then there are other products you can try.

Is There A Less Drying Alternative To Retinol?

There are many less irritating alternatives to retinol, in fact, some of them are still in the retinoid family.

You can try using products that contain retinyl esters.

These contain a milder form of retinoids.

It will take longer to see improvements, but a slow improvement without increasing dryness, redness and peeling is a better option for some people.

There is also a relatively new kid on the skincare block called Bakuchiol.

Bakuchiol is a plant-based alternative to retinol and is perfect for sensitive skin that may become drier with retinol.

There was an impressive study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science that found bakuchiol was as effective as retinol in anti-ageing.

Our only concern when it comes to bakuchiol and dry skin is that just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it won’t irritate and dry your skin out as well.

However, as you can’t use retinoids when your pregnant and some scientific studies have shown that bakuchiol was much less irritating to the skin it might be worth trying if you can’t handle retinoids.

The Verdict on Retinol and Dry Skin.

There is no doubting that retinol is the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to being a skincare hero.

This is largely due to the many clinical trials that retinoids have been subjected through since the 1970s.

Very few cosmetic ingredients have been studied as much as retinoids.

The anti-ageing, skin plumping and smoothing and hyperpigmentation reversal make it a holy grail for many.

If you can find a way to work it into your skincare routine without it causing too much dryness, then it is definitely a good ingredient to try.

The drying and irritating effects should only last one to two weeks.

If you can persevere with retinol or one of it’s less potent derivates you will be rewarded with healthier, brighter skin.

The Retinol Products We Recommend For Dry Skin.

You can learn more about the retinols we recommend here.

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