First of all, I share your frustration. You’d think that now that you’re using retinol, the do-it-all ingredient, you don’t need to use any other active ingredient. That’s the general belief. But that’s not the whole truth. You expect smooth, gorgeous, and glorious skin when you’re using a retinol product. And a few days in, you realize that your skin looks flakier than ever. That’s when you start wondering if you should exfoliate. And yes, you should. There are exfoliators you can use with retinol. And exfoliators actually help out your retinol.
Vitamin A and its derivatives, collectively called retinoids, are not exfoliants. They stimulate skin turnover or cell renewal. And they continuously renew your skin. That helps with acne, wrinkles, and skin discolorations.
The idea is perfect. But the reality is, as your skin renews faster than ever, you have these dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. For some people, it’s full-blown skin peeling whereas for others it’s just minor skin flakes.
Either way, it can be uncomfortable. But retinol does nothing for that flakiness. That’s why we have skin peeling as the most common retinol side effect. That’s where exfoliators come in.
Can You Exfoliate When You’re Using Retinol?
Yes, you absolutely can exfoliate when you’re using retinol. Even though exfoliating while using a retinol product is not essential, know that you don’t need to live with peeling skin.
Chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid, and salicylic acid work on the surface of the skin. They soften the compound, the glue that keeps those dead skin cells intact. As a result, you have a smoother skin texture with no sign of scaly or flaky skin.
Both my sister and I used prescription retinoids. She took the oral route and used isotretinoin. And I used a topical retinoic acid cream. And our dermatologist recommended an additional salicylic acid cream for both of us.
My sister regularly used her salicylic acid cream. I started using mine way later than I started using my retinol cream. The result is, even though her medication was stronger than mine, her flakiness was significantly milder than mine.
You may not be on prescription retinoid. But it’s the same with over-the-counter retinol. Retinol creams and serums you find at Sephora also cause peeling on the skin. And there’s no reason for you not to exfoliate.
How To Chose an Exfoliator To Use With Retinol?
As long as you’re not using your retinol and exfoliant in the same routine, you can exfoliate with alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Chemical exfoliants make the best exfoliators for dealing with retinol flakiness.
You can try glycolic acid serums, toners, pads, as well as salicylic acid treatments. Physical exfoliants are out as they’re too harsh on normal skin let alone sensitized skin.
But remember to exfoliate only once a week until you have a clear understanding of how your skin reacts to it. Additionally, normal skin can experiment with different exfoliating acids in different concentrations and formulations.
But your skin is probably already sensitive at this point. So it’s best to stay safe and go for fragrance-free exfoliators to pair with retinol. It’s always best to have anti-inflammatory antioxidants in your products too.
They can help a lot if retinol makes your skin sensitive and red too. If you don’t know where to start, we’ve got some great exfoliators you can pair with retinol creams and serums.
The Best Exfoliators To Use With Retinol
Whether you need a toner or a serum, below are the best exfoliators to use with retinol.
This is all around the best exfoliator you can use with retinol. Lactic acid is one of the gentler alpha-hydroxy acids, so you won’t get a very aggressive exfoliation to begin with. And the concentration is gentle enough to use on sensitive skin. The fragrance-free solution is also ideal for skin that’s sensitized from retinol.
Use the peeling solution once a week to pick up after retinol, so to speak, and get rid of retinol flakiness. Plus, lactic acid is also an excellent humectant. Combine that with hyaluronic acid, the exfoliant hydrates the skin and keeps it plump too. So if you’re also dealing with retinol dryness, this exfoliant can help bring your skin back to life.
These are exfoliating pads you can use depending on your preference. You can choose to exfoliate with them once a week or a few times a week. As they’re soaked in exfoliating acids, they’re leave-on products. So a good way to maximize the effects would be to use them in your evening routine when you’re not using retinol.
The exfoliating pads are made with lactic and glycolic acids to remove all that flakiness from the surface of the skin and help your retinol dryness phase. The fragrance-free exfoliant also contains a blend of anti-inflammatory antioxidants. Feverfew, oatmeal, green tea, and licorice extract calm irritation and help manage redness. So whether you’re using retinol for wrinkles or blemishes, this is an overall practical exfoliator to use with retinol creams and serums.
If you’re using retinol mainly because of acne, then using a salicylic acid exfoliator would be the better option. Because salicylic acid is great for treating and preventing acne, cleaning up pores, and reducing inflammation. It’s great for oily skin. Combining retinol with salicylic acid in your weekly routine is the best way to improve your overall complexion and reduce your skin concerns.
This is a lotion exfoliant. It’s like a very light face moisturizer. It’s super gentle in case you have very sensitive skin or if your skin can’t afford to deal with another active ingredient. It contains 1% salicylic acid to unclog pores and clear up pore-clogging flakes. And it has a combination of skin-calming allantoin, green tea, licorice extract, and oat extract to minimize redness and avoid irritation.
Similarly, this is another salicylic acid exfoliant you can use when you’re using retinol. It says lotion, but it’s actually a liquid like a toner. I still use this as a spot treatment for acne on my face and on my body. It works like magic and visibly calms acne overnight. And it’s not drying at all.
The formula is fragrance-free, which is always a plus. But this toner is made for combination/oily skin mind. So it contains an astringent, witch hazel, which can be irritating for some. If you’re readily dealing with very dry skin or dryness from retinol, stick with the lotion above as this can be too much.
OK, the best thing about this exfoliant is that you can use it together with retinol. That’s the thing with polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). They are incredibly gentle on the skin. PHAs like gluconolactone, lactobionic acid, and maltobionic acid can actually be paired with retinol quite literally.
We talked about how not to mix AHAs and BHAs with retinol. PHAs are the only exception to this rule. Even though some PHA products contain additional acids, that would make them too strong. So I chose a product you can use and pair with retinol every day. This is a toner. And it’s made with 3% gluconolactone. And it has aloe to soothe redness and niacinamide to support the skin barrier. It’s gentle enough to pair with any retinol product.
Mandelic acid, an exfoliant we need more of in our products. This is gentler than lactic acid. Mandelic acid is also anti-bacterial, which is great for oily and acne-prone skin or congestion. So you can gently exfoliate without damaging or dehydrating oily skin.
But not to leave you, or those dead skin flakes hanging, the exfoliant also contains 2% salicylic acid and 1% gluconolactone for a thorough sweep. And that’s not all, antioxidant-rich green tea, kale, spinach, and licorice extract help to maintain a healthy, resilient skin barrier. Aloe and vitamin B5 hydrate and soothe, leaving your skin smoother, brighter, and radiant. And the scent is just a treat for the senses.
So these are some of the best exfoliators you can use with retinol. Retinol makes the skin prone to sunburn. So do chemical exfoliants. So at this stage, it’s really important that you remember to use sunscreen every day.
Read Next: The Best Sunscreens To Use with Retinol