Active ingredient overdose is no joke.
High-tech anti-aging ingredients have been proven to stimulate cell turnover, brighten skin tone, and minimize wrinkles—but there can be too much of a good thing. If you’re experiencing redness, inflammation, and other signs of irritation (not exactly hallmarks of a fresh, youthful complexion), you may be guilty of overdosing on active ingredients. Read on for expert tips on using these heavy-hitter products to make your complexion work for you, not against you.
Like applying too many Instagram filters, indulging in multiple powerful anti-aging ingredients can have a negative (read: over-processed) effect on your complexion. “Retinols, AHA peels, and enzyme peels are known to even tone and boost collagen production, but can be aggressive if used incorrectly,” says New York City dermatologist Marina I. Peredo, MD. “All three may lead to redness and inflammation that can last a few days if your skin is sensitive.” In the long run, your complexion’s health and natural protection mechanisms could be compromised, leaving it “more susceptible to allergens and bacteria,” Peredo says.
That’s because the epidermis functions as your body’s outermost layer of protection against outside elements. “If you tamper too much with the barrier to speed up the exfoliation process, you’ll weaken its integrity,” says Los Angeles-based celebrity aesthetician Marianne Kehoe, whose clients include Liberty Ross and Agyness Deyn. The result? Irritated skin cells trying desperately to repair the damage. “It’s as if your complexion were reacting by sending out an army of soldiers to defend the tender layers underneath,” Kehoe says. “And when your skin looks unhappy, it probably is!”
Of course, that’s not to say that over-the-counter anti-aging treatments are the enemy. With retinols, AHAs, and peels—which all help to slough off the dull, dead layer of skin on the surface and minimize fine lines and wrinkles—“the key is to acclimate,” Peredo says. “Start at a low concentration every other night for over-the-counter products.” (We like retinol-infused Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night or Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads, since they are specifically formulated for at-home use.) Then, gradually work up to daily applications. “When your skin can tolerate a nightly dose, upgrade to higher percentage product,” Peredo says. “It’s normal to experience mild redness at first, but it will eventually go away as your complexion adapts.”
Time-released formulas, such as Murad’s Retinol Concentrate for Deep Wrinkles, deposit powerful anti-aging ingredients into the dermis slowly, which can save you from going overboard. “Some people apply too much product thinking that they’ll get better, faster results,” says Howard Murad, MD, a Manhattan Beach, CA dermatologist and founder of Murad Skincare. “But, in reality, you only need a tiny amount—potent formulas can do more harm to your skin than good.” Murad recommends following product instructions to a tee, and using high-performance topicals only at night. “Your body regenerates cells and produces collagen while you sleep, so your skin will really soak up these ingredients,” he says. “Plus, a side-effect of retinols and other exfoliating agents can be photo-senstivity, so you wouldn’t want to apply them in the morning.”
To maximize the results of your anti-aging regimen (without risk of irritation), incorporate a well-balanced combination of ingredients, just as you would with your food diet. “There’s no one-size-fits-all for everyone, which is why you need to look for things that your skin reacts positively to,” Murad says. If you’re trying a retinol, for example, you probably won’t need daily enzyme peels or alpha hydroxy acid treatments as well (AHA-laced scrubs and cleansers—which dissolve dead cells on the surface—can complement a retinol product, as long as you use them only once a week and scrub gently).
Instead, Murad suggests supplementing wrinkle-busting topicals with ones that contain soothing antioxidants (such as vitamin E), anti-inflammatories (like chamomile and cucumber extract), and emollients (jojoba seed oil and shea butter are good ones) to nourish your complexion while you’re targeting fine lines and dark spots. “How each formula works together as a whole is important,” Murad says. “You need a little bit of all of them to help protect and optimize skin health and reveal better results.”