Retinoids and exfoliants are both considered “active” meaning they have the potential to create physical changes in your skin. They’re both important tools in managing acne, working together but distinctly, to clear dead skin cells, regulate oil production, increase the rate of cell turnover (the creation of new skin cells) and stimulate collagen production. Here is a very, very abbreviated explanation of how:
For the most part, exfoliants work on the surface of your skin, whereas retinoids need to travel deeper into your skin to get started. Retinoids stimulate the production of new, baby skin cells, which travel up to the surface of your skin, over the course of a few weeks. As skin cells travel up, they mature and harden, forming your skin barrier. Exfoliants work to break down the bonds between these dead, hardened skin cells, allowing them to be sloughed off. This prevents the buildup of dead skin cells, which can contribute to clogged pores and rough, bumpy texture. (Many exfoliants offer additional benefits below the surface, too, but remember, we’re keeping it basic today.) So, put even more simply: retinoids create the new skin cells, exfoliants remove the old ones. Knowing this, it’s a bit easier to visualize how they might work together to prevent and manage acne. It's also important to note that some people may find success with managing their acne using just one or the other.
While these products can work together towards the same goal, when it comes to retinoids and exfoliants, more is not more. If overused, both products can be drying and compromise your skin barrier, making it harder for your skin to defend itself, disrupting the balance of natural oils and leading to dry, flaky skin that’s even more prone to breakouts. For this reason, you always need to balance your use of active products with repairing and nourishing ones.
If introducing an active product, always start low and slow. Think about running – you don’t start off running a marathon. You build up, mile by mile and overtime increase speed and strength. Going too hard too fast results in injury, or in this case, a damaged, flaky, irritated barrier. Retinoids in particular take a while to really start working, as they have to travel, build up concentration and get your skin moving at a rate it’s not used to. Patience is key to see results here.
The type and frequency of using retinoids and exfoliants vary from person to person, so it’s tricky to establish clear rules. But here are some general things to keep in mind:
Don’t start using both for the first time together. Let your skin get adjusted to one before adding the other.
Don’t use both at the same time. Alternate nights, or use an exfoliant in the morning and a retinoid at night.
Do add one night at a time. If you’re already using one and want to start incorporating the other, introduce the new product one night a week. Do this for at least 4 weeks before considering adding in a second night.
Do make sure you have dedicated nights to let your skin rest. Instead of an active product, use something like a reparative serum or overnight mask.
If you’re looking to add in an exfoliating product, check out our Balancing Act Serum! It’s gentle and safe for all skin types, even sensitive, but still remember to introduce it slowly.