Question: Can I exfoliate while I'm on retinoids?


You can exfoliate your skin (manually or chemically) while using retinoids, but it's generally not a good idea.

Retinoids already provide a good amount of exfoliation for both the inside and outside your skin. Adding a washcloth, scrub, AHA, or other chemical/physical exfoliant will only increase irritation.

But, people tend to want to exfoliate while they are on retinoids for two reasons:

  1. Flaky skin
  2. They feel like they need some extra oomph

Flaky and dry skin while on retinoids

If the retinoid you are using is giving you dry, flaky skin, that's a sign that your skin is already being exfoliated. It's also a red flag to be more gentle with your skin, not to scrub away at it. Understandably, skin flakes can look really embarrassing and they are impossible to cover up with makeup, right?


So, if you are experiencing this common side effect of retinoids, don't exfoliate to get rid of the flakes because that will only cause more flaking and more dryness. If you try to scrub away the flakes, you might end up scrubbing your skin raw and making it sting when you use something simple like water.

The best thing to do is to leave your skin alone while it adjusts to the retinoid (this can take anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks), but to moisturize around the clock with a good moisturizer that won't break you out. Using a moisturizer won't make all the flakes disappear, but it will help minimize them and make your skin feel less taut. Alternatively, cut back on how often you use the retinoid to give your skin more recovery time in between each application.

The second best thing to do to get rid of flakes is to gently massage an oil into your skin for a few minutes. I like to use Albolene (my skin loves mineral oil), but any oil can work, provided the oil is something that doesn't break you out (which unfortunately is largely individual). You can check here for a list of generally acne-prone safe oils and here for a list of comedogenic ingredients.

The idea of using an oil to "exfoliate" is that the oil moistens whatever loose flakes are on your skin and encourages them to shed without irritating your skin. You're not "scraping" the flakes off as you would with a washcloth, but are merely "coaxing" the flakes that are ready to come off to come off a wee bit earlier.

If you don't want to risk breaking out your skin by using a questionable oil, here's something else I like to do:

Some days when I don't feel like getting my hands, face, and hair all greased up with Albolene, I stand in the shower and let the water run over my face for about 5 minutes. This gives my skin enough time to absorb the water and soften (skin that is wet and damp is easier to shed than skin that is dry). Then, after the dry flakes on my skin have been moistened, I use the palms of my hands and gently rub my skin in circular motions with very light pressure. I do this under running water (to keep my skin soft and any flakes moist and to wash off any dead skin as it loosens) and as you do it, you can feel gritty things gathering under the palms of your hand.

You can do this for as long as you like, but I wouldn't rub for more than a minute. The idea is to help the "ready" flakes shed and to encourage the other ones to shed as well, not to rub your face raw. If you overdo this "palm massage," your skin may turn red and sting when you put on moisturizer, so be careful! When it comes to skin, it's always safer to under-do something than over-do it.

Making a retinoid stronger

If you want to exfoliate while you're on retinoids because the particular retinoid you're using isn't strong enough, then you should probably bump up to the next percentage strength (if that strength ends up being too much, you can always jump back down). If you don't want to move up in strength, you can give your retinoid some extra oomph by using a BHA or AHA product immediately before applying your retinoid.

The acidity of the BHA or AHA will help increase a retinoid's penetration, but it does depend on the formulation of the product. For example, if you use a lotion, the emollients in the lotion might end up buffering the retinoid more than the AHA or BHA help to increase its penetration.

Again, everything depends on your skin. You can manually or chemically exfoliate when you are using retinoids, but you just have to see if it's something your skin tolerates. If you choose to exfoliate, do it very gently for a short amount of time, in the morning or on off days (if you use retinoids every other day) and limit exfoliation to 1-2 times per week.

Last updated: September 27, 2012

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