So you've read all these articles, and hopefully, you're excited to get started. How do you start? The only right answer is "slow and steady." If you don't know how sensitive your skin is to things like AHAs and retinoids, do a skin test: Pick a small area on your neck behind your ear and put some on. Wait 12-24 hours and see what happens. Now you know how sensitive you are. As you start to apply the product, continue to pay attention to what your skin is telling you. If it gets more irritated, back off. Of course, sometimes it's not easy to figure out what's going on with your skin.
Purging or Breaking Out?
Some products will cause your skin to flare up suddenly. Believe it or not, this might not be a bad thing. "Purging" happens when your skin is adjusting to the new product. In that case, sticking with it will make your skin better. Or it can be because your skin is reacting badly to the new product. In this case, sticking with it will make your skin worse. It can be hard to tell the difference.
Pimples form when a pore gets clogged, usually with dead skin cells. The dead cells form what's called a microcomedone. You can't see these, and sometimes they go away on their own. Other times they turn into a whitehead, blackhead, pimple, or worse. It can take up to eight weeks for all this to happen. Products that speed up skin turnover (the rate at which skin gets replaced) accelerate this cycle. Already existing microcomedones will turn into pimples faster, and you get a whole bunch of ugly blemishes. It would have happened eventually anyway, but not as fast. But as the product starts to work, fewer microcomedones should form, and your skin should improve.
Or the product could be causing new clogged pores or increasing irritation and making the situation worse. How can you decide what's going on? Retinoids and AHAs increase skin turnover while cleansers and moisturizers don't. So if you're trying a new Retinoid, it might be purging. If you're trying a new moisturizer, it is probably a breakout.
Purging should last about a month. If it goes on longer than 6-8 weeks, it is a breakout and not a purge.
Strategies for Starting SlowFirst of all, consider all the products you are using. Remember that every product you use will bring you closer to crossing your skin threshold. Consider the impact all your skin products are having on the skin, not just the acids.
Use a lower concentration and build up.
Hopefully, you picked a product that already suits your skin type. Don't start with a highly irritating product if you know you have super sensitive skin. If you've never used any of these products before, start with the lowest concentration you can find. If you need to, you can lower the concentration even further by applying a layer of oil or moisturizers first, then adding the acid. The oil helps with dilution and probably will give a bit of a time-release effect to the acid since it has to diffuse through the oil layer to get to the skin.
Don't apply every day.
You can apply every other day or even every third day, working slowly towards daily application over a month or so.
If you are highly sensitive, you can use even low concentrations like a mask. Apply the product and leave it on for 30 minutes or an hour, then wash it off.
Always apply to dry skin.
Wet skin makes it easier for ingredients to penetrate, so wait 15-30 minutes after washing your face to apply any acids.
Avoid Sensitive Areas
The skin just below your eyes is the thinnest on your entire body. It's probably a good idea to avoid putting harsh acids there. Some people have redness and irritation at the base of the nose. It's hard to work around your nose so if you have this problem, consider placeing a small amount of vaseline there to protect those areas.
Speaking of sensitive areas, let me just say:
Eye Creams are a Rip-off
You can purchase special eye creams, but they are very expensive. The primary difference between eye creams and other creams is that eye creams contain smaller amounts of the active ingredient. It's easy to see why this makes them less irritating, but why does it make them more expensive? I think this is a classic marketing rip-off. Instead of wasting money on eye cream, consider reducing the concentration yourself by applying oil or mixing the acids with moisturizer.
Example Beginner Routine for Sensitive Skin
You're a beginner and have never used AHAs or Retinoids before. And you have super sensitive skin. Here's one way you might start. As always, pay attention to what your skin is telling you. If you try this and end up with a problem, then even this slow-motion approach may be too much for you!WEEK 1: Apply like a mask
Cleanse face and wait 30 minutes for it to dry. Apply vaseline to protect sensitive areas of your face as needed. Apply a small amount of product to your face and leave for 30 minutes. Wash off with a gentle cleanser. Apply a gentle moisturizer.WEEK 2: Oil Underneath
As always, cleanse your face and wait 30 minutes. Apply vaseline if and where you need to. Every second day, apply moisturizer or skin oil to your face, then use a small amount of product on top of that. You can also moisturize after adding the product if you want. Leave it on overnight, unless you get a bad skin reaction. On your off days, wash and moisturize.WEEK 3 And 4: Bare skin, every third day.
Cleanse skin and wait 30 minutes. Apply vaseline if and where you need to. Apply a small amount of product directly to the skin, still using caution around the sensitive areas below your eyes and around your nose. Moisturize afterward.Week 5: Bare skin, every second day.
Routine as above, every second day.Eventually: Bare skin, every day
If your skin seems to be handling this well, then in Week 6 or 7 or 8, move to an everyday application. Hey, you're there!
If you've made it to a daily skincare routine you are happy with, consider doing more. One obvious way to up your game is to move to higher concentrations. Of course, you might need to return to an ever-other-day or every-third-day application for a while.
Another way to get better results is to rotate products. For example, you might apply Retinoids one night and AHAs the next night. Or you could have a Retinoid night, an AHA night, and a Vitamin C night.
My Current Skin Routine.
For what it's worth, here's what I do:
Cleanse face with a 2% salicylic acid cleanser. I'm currently using Neutrogena's "Oil-Free Acne Fighting Face Wash". I then use a La Roche Posay moisturizer with a rating of SPF 50 to moisturize and carry some sunscreen with me throughout the day.
At night, I use the same 2% salicylic acid cleanser. Twice a week, I use the Ordinary's 30% AHA + 2% BHA acid peel. It stings like crazy when it's on, but it is fine otherwise. I leave it on for 10-minutes, no more, and then wash it off. If I'm tired, I then apply moisturizer and go to bed. If I have more energy, I wait for about 30-minutes and then use a retinoid (see the next step).
All the other nights, I wash my face with the cleanser and then apply a retinoid. I am currently using The Ordinary's Retinol 1% in Squalene, which is the highest concentration they have. I sometimes (pretty often, actually) also use this on the nights I use the AHA/BHA acid peel.
I don't moisturize after applying the Retinols because the squalane formulation is plenty moisturizing. It takes a while for the squalene to soak into my face, so I try to start early enough for that to happen before I go to bed.
I've been extremely pleased with the results this has brought me, but of course, I want more. I was inspired by writing this series to get a couple of bottles of the Granactive Retinoid 5%, which I will try next. I might try the emulsion product after that. I'm so glad this series has taught someone something.
Eventually, I will probably exhaust the OTC market's possibilities and go to a dermatologist to get higher concentrations. But for now, I am thrilled with the difference this routine has made in my skin.
Maybe I'll learn more and write more down the road, but that's it for now. I hope I've inspired you to give skincare a try. I wish I had started much earlier, but I've learned it's never too late. If you have comments or questions, please send the nice ones to me! To do that, you can message me on Twitter