An excellent way to minimize irritation from retinoids is to mix and buffer them with moisturizers or skin lightening products. Mixing retinoids with skin lightening products specifically, produces a synergy since exfoliants enhance the efficacy of skin lightening actives. I personally employ both buffering and mixing of retinoids with various skin lightening products, and reap wonderful results.
For those who do not know how mixing or buffering a retinoid works, I will explain below.
Mixing a retinoid refers to diluting it with a moisturizer or a skin lightener. This can be done by mixing the two agents in the palm of your hand, and then applying the concoction to your face with your fingertips.
Why would one mix/dilute a retinoid with another product? The answer is two fold. Retinoids (especially Rx retinoids) are quite harsh on the skin. There is a certain trepidation that is required when using retinoids, since there is a high risk for excess irritation, dryness, and skin peeling. Mixing a retinoid with a moisturizer (bland or with skin soothing actives) lessens the absorption of the retinoid, which can reduce the chances of irritation. Moisturizers can also soothe the skin, and retain epidermal water content, which enhances the skin’s barrier function.
The pairing of skin lightening ingredients with retinoids offers unique benefits. Since retinoids exfoliate the skin, they allow for greater penetration of skin lightening ingredients in the skin. Certain skin lightening ingredients such as niacinamide, n-acetyl glucosamine, sepiwhite, arubtin, licorice extract, rumex extract, chamomilla extract, and adenosine work beautifully with retinoids.
Buffering is a method that is similar in purpose to mixing, but different in execution. The purpose of buffering is to compromise the absorption of the retinoid by creating a barrier to the skin with a moisturizer or skin lightener.
With buffering, a moisturizer or skin lightener is applied to bare skin first, and then after a brief waiting period (I will explain this in detail below) a retinoid is layered on top.
The type of moisturizer (or skin lightener) you use does make a difference. If your skin is highly prone to irritation, use moisturizers with moderate to heavy occlusive ingredients (petrolatum, shea butter, jojoba oil, mineral oil), and emollient ingredients (ceramides) which attract and seal in moisture. For skin that is not excessively prone to irritation, humectant ingredients (hyaluronic acid) and lighter occlusive ingredients (niacinamide) are fantastic buffering/mixing options (I find CeraVe does a great job).
Certain active ingredients should not be layered (or mixed) with retinoids. Benzoyl Peroxide is one ingredient that has been shown to degrade the effectiveness of retinoids, and therefore should not be used at the same time. Other ingredients are less definitive in their relationship with retinoids. These include vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids, and beta hydroxy acids.
There are a myriad of opinions floating around on the internet regarding these ingredients, and their role with retinoids. Many individuals employ a ‘waiting time’ in between layering products, in order to maximize efficacy of ingredients. Personally, I have been using AHA and BHA lotions alongside Rx retinoids for years, without any waiting time, and have not experienced any drawbacks. Having said that, there are some conflicting opinions out there, and it is best to make your own informed decision. I strongly suggest reading this article by Nicki (FutureDerm) which discusses the do’s and don’ts of retinoid (specifically retinol) combinations.