Ask a Derm: Rethinking your cleanser, and Retinols with Acids?


Hi everyone! It’s been a while. I’m going to work my way through the backlog of your submitted questions. I chose two frequently asked questions that might be especially helpful for the summer.

Q. My skin has been feeling really dull, and almost suffocated. There isn’t bad congestion, but I always feel that my skin is tired, dehydrated, and close to a break out at the same time. I wash my face with water during the day, a milk cleanser a night (if I wear makeup, I use a makeup removing oil first), then a face mist, vitamin c serum, followed by an oil, and a moisturizer (sunscreen during the day). I acid tone two times a week, and use a clay mask, my skin responds to it all, but it still feels kind of off. What should I do?

This is a pretty common question, and concern. On the surface, it looks like you’re using all the right things: sunscreen, moisturizers, oils, vitamin c, cleanser, and then also acid toning and clay masking. So what could be the problem? It’s most likely your cleanser.

I know many swear by either not cleansing their skin in the morning, or just giving it a rinse with water. While I understand the concern that over-cleansing could strip the skin, let’s remember the goal is to give our skin a clean canvas. There are many things that accumulate overnight such as oxidized sebum and dead skin cells, that can form a film over the skin, and congest the pores. In the summer especially, our pores are more active overnight, as we produce more sweat and grime. This is why serums feel less powerful, and nothing really feels like it’s going into the skin. Your skin is getting less of the nutrition and actives in your routine, and the deeper layers are slowly degrading in quality.

I really like a good gel cleanser, and there are many modern ones that are beyond the stripping cleansers of days past.

I like gel cleansers because they’re water-based, work deeper down, and if formulated correctly, do not strip the skin. Two of my favorites are Biossance Cleansing Gel, and YULI Halcyon Cleanser if you’re looking for something fancier (this is more like a cleansing serum due to really high concentrations of botanical actives, peptides, and Vitamin C). Cleansing gels have the performance to break away that film, and these two cleansers in particular don’t contain sulfates, or harsh ingredients that strip the skin. If I were to compare, they both offer great cleansing performance, but Halcyon does take the edge in being more gentle, and therefore more forgiving for drier skin types.

You can use even just half the recommended amount in the morning, and then once more at night. While cleansing milks, balms, and oils can work well, I would not recommend it as the sole cleanser in a a longterm routine because they tend to be more oil-emulsion based which doesn’t really give that true clean. I give the example of washing dishes, while the theory is that oil will pull on oil, you wouldn’t use olive oil to wash your dishes, you use a water-based soap. The milk-creams also tend to work primarily on the skin surface, so you never really give your skin that deep cleanse which is why it’ll feel worn down over time.

My picks:
Biossance Cleansing Gel is a good mainstream option, and is a clean product. YULI Halcyon Cleanser is a fancier upgrade with more advanced actives, and is a green product (formula requirements are more stringent than clean products). Youth to the People also has a good Superfood gel cleanser as well with Kale and Spinach (it’s literally green colored), it’s a little bit stronger than the others, but should work for those with a little more oily complexions in the summer. Incorporate a good gentle gel cleanser, I think this change will make the most positive impact, and make your skin feel more ’alive’ again.

Q. My skin loves retinols and acid toning. Can I use my retinol in the same routine as my acid toner, or is it too much?

The general consensus is to proceed with some caution as both are strong active products. Too much of either or both can impair the skin barrier, create irritation, and cause damaging inflammation. If your skin is generally sensitive, and easily reddened, I would avoid using both in the same routine. Of course, I’m talking about products that use actual retinol (not rosehip oil, or bakuchiol), and an acid toner that uses an actual acid like glycolic acid, lactic acid, or salicylic acid. If overused or misused, they have the potential to serious ‘burn’ through your skin barrier which will take time to recover, and create textural issues as well. Also, keep in mind that both products can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, and we’re literally a week away from summer solstice.

There are acids and retinols of different strengths. If you do want the benefits of acid toning and retinols together, my advice would be to tone down at least one of them, either use a weaker acid or a weaker retinol. Weaker doesn’t mean less beneficial for the skin, and stronger doesn’t mean it’s better for the skin. Ultimately, it’s about giving your skin what it needs. For retinols, I particularly like The Ordinary’s Retinol 1% in Squalane, which gives a clinical 1% of retinol that is buffered in squalane solution which is skin-nourishing, so you won’t feel some of the known irritating and drying side-effects of retinols. If you want something fancier, Sunday Riley’s Luna is a luxury face oil with retinol, in addition to more nutritional plant oils.

For acids, I like Ren’s Ready, Steady, Glow Daily AHA Tonic which uses lactic acid, my favorite acid because it is in my opinion the gentlest of the major acids at the same concentration, and also helps to plump and hydrate the skin. This is what I consider to be one of the gentlest acid toners, and it’s beneficial for both mature skin, and acne-prone skin. If you want something fancier, I like CosMedix Defy which has Lactic Acid, Malic Acid, and Tartaric Acid buffered in a solution of olive oil, aloe vera, and chamomile to soothe the skin, and relieve potential irritation. It’s a very effective formula.

If you have any other questions, send them to here!

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