Dealing with Retinol Flakiness? These Are the Exfoliators to Use with Retinol

Exfoliators to Use with Retinol

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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. 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 and salicylic acid work on the surface of the skin. They soften and dissolve dead skin cells. 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 that even though her retinoid was stronger than mine, her flakiness was significantly milder than mine.

You may not be on a prescription retinoid. But it’s the same with an over-the-counter retinol. Some 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 Choose 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.

Best Exfoliators to Use with Retinol

1. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA - 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.

Size: 1 oz/30 ml
Formula: Oil-free, fragrance-free, vegan, cruelty-free

2. First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads - Best Exfoliator to Use with Retinol

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 pads are made with lactic and glycolic acids to remove all that flakiness from the skin’s surface and help your retinol dryness phase. They also contain 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.

Size: 60 pads
Formula: Fragrance-free, vegan, cruelty-free

3. Clinique Clarifying Lotion 3

Clinique Clarifying Lotion 3 - Best Exfoliator to Use with Retinol

If you’re using retinol mainly because of acne, a salicylic acid exfoliator is the better option. Salicylic acid is super effective in treating and preventing acne and cleaning up pores. That’s why this exfoliant is perfect for pairing with your retinol, especially if you have oily skin.

This is a toner that I still use as a spot treatment for acne on my face and my body. It works like magic and visibly calms acne overnight. The non-drying formula is fragrance-free, which is always a plus. But it’s made for combination/oily skin. And it contains an astringent, witch hazel, which can be irritating for some. So keep that in mind.

Size: 6.7 oz/200 ml
Formula: Fragrance-free

4. The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) Gentle Exfoliating Toner

exfoliator with retinol - The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) Gentle Exfoliating Toner

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.

Size: 3.4 oz/100 ml
Formula: Fragrance-free, cruelty-free

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 remember to use sunscreen every day!

Read Next: Best Sunscreens To Use with Retinol

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