Every time you buy a new skin care product, you inevitably sign yourself up for uncertainty. At the end of the day, it will either work for you or it won't. Frustrating, right? Knowing where to draw the line between a favorite and a fail could be quite a challenge, especially if you are really rooting for something to work for you. Admit it—you've given some products more chances than they deserved, perhaps because they cost you a lot of money or the glowing reviews you've read about them didn't live up to your expectations. We're guilty of this, too—we refuse to toss them out despite our suspicions that they may be breaking us out!
The situation becomes even more complicated with exfoliants that contain Alpha or Beta-Hydroxy Acids, Vitamin C and A. That's because using these exfoliating acids can cause a "purging" phase for your skin, wherein its outer layer is gradually removed, hence revealing the skin underneath. Depending on how sensitive you are, this might cause a bit of peeling, redness, or even breakouts. It's completely normal, provided that the purging is not severe. That said, exfoliating acids can still irritate your skin if what you're using isn't compatible with it or if you're using it the wrong way.
To enlighten us (and hopefully give us the will to say "no" to a product fail), we asked Dr. Anna Palabyab-Rufino of Beautique MD to teach us the telltale signs of skin irritation, a lesson on acid exfoliants and a crash course on over-exfoliation. Keep scrolling to learn more!
What are the usual signs of irritation that we might experience from a product?
"Always watch out for stinging, redness, drying and itching. You normally expect mild peeling from keratolytics but if you feel that it starts to become excessive, try to lessen the frequency of application. Only apply small amounts at a time. A pea-sized portion is usually enough for the entire face. Add a little more to include the neck."
Should those with sensitive skin avoid certain ingredients to lower the risk of irritation?
"I wouldn't say completely avoid certain ingredients because at the right potency and with proper application, people with sensitive skin can actually still benefit from keratolytics. Retinoids are very good anti-aging products; gradual use at lower strengths can help skin develop a tolerance to it. Start with the mildest form and apply it twice a week. Observe how your skin reacts and if you can tolerate it, increase the frequency to thrice a week and then every other day until you are comfortable applying it every day."
Why do exfoliating ingredients such as retinol, AHA and Vitamin C really cause our skin to purge before giving positive results?
"Most of these ingredients are categorized as keratolytics or ingredients that help speed up skin turnover. Most people use it for anti-aging because they help prevent and reduce fine lines, pigmentation and the formation of commedones (blackheads and whiteheads).
"After using products containing these, you may expect some peeling until your skin adjusts and develops a tolerance to it. People usually have different reactions to using these products depending on how sensitive their skin may be. Some people don't notice any improvements which is why they can either use a stronger version of the product or increase the frequency of application.
"There are products such as retinoic acid or tretinoin cream (a stronger form retinol) that are best prescribed by a dermatologist. AHA or glycolic acid comes in many strengths; [some] can be used as mild day creams bought over the counter [and some are] strong peeling solutions that should only be administered by your dermatologists."
How can we tell if our skin is purging normally or if it is actually being irritated by the product we're using?
"Usually, purging will just speed up the process of skin turnover. Previously clogged pores may turn into commedones (black or whiteheads), and possibly acne at a much faster rate. The skin is usually irritated or sensitive to a product when new lesions appear in new areas. If you are not sure, it is best to consult a dermatologist."
Any advice on how to exfoliate regularly without accidentally over-exfoliating?
"We don't advise patients to exfoliate every day. Dermatologists usually prescribe the products that are right for your type of skin, so be patient and wait for [the product] to take effect. Improvement doesn't happen overnight. Follow up with your dermatologist after two weeks of using a product so that they can adjust your regimen based on your response to it."
If our skin has already been irritated, what are some of your best tips for nursing it back to health?
"Stop whatever you think is causing it. Use a mild, soap-free cleanser to wash your face. Your dermatologist may prescribe some anti-inflammatories or moisturizers to help soothe it faster. Lastly, wear sunscreen to avoid further irritation from the sun."