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Serums & How to Use Them


Serums & retinol are just a couple of today’s most popular beauty buzzwords.  They aren’t just a trend, but actually contain active ingredients that could benefit your skin.  However, you can’t just go slathering them on willy-nilly and expect to wake up with a glowing complexion.  Serums & retinols aren’t a “one size fits all” situation, and you should only be using products that serve your skin’s needs.  When the skincare market is oversaturated with limitless product offerings, how are you supposed to know where to start?  Don’t worry, I got you.   Here’s a little info on the trendiest vitamins, acids, serums, and retinols.  Once you know what they actually do, you can decide if you need them.

Retinol is basically the Beyoncé of skincare ingredients these days.  It’s a vitamin A derivative that increases cellular turnover, which promotes collagen and smooths wrinkles.  For decades doctors have been prescribing retinoids to treat acne because they prevent clogged pores. Nowadays the good stuff is available OTC, so no prescription necessary.

Retinol is an antioxidant of many names, and not all retinoids are created equal.  Here’s what to look for on an ingredient list.  “Retinoic acid” is prescription grade, but you can see same results with OTC “retinol,” it might just take a little longer.  Other forms (i.e. retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate) are much weaker, and might be a good starting point for those with sensitive skin.  Most OTC products contain 0.25% - 2% retinol. The 0.25% end of that spectrum is the lowest concentration of retinol that’s still effective, and it’s a good amount to start with when you’re unsure of how your skin will react to the ingredient.

When first trying a retinol product, you might experience some peeling, redness, dryness, or purging (breakouts).  This is pretty common in the first 2-4 weeks.  One way to avoid this would be to start using retinol one night a week, and build up to more frequent use.  You also don’t need to use this ingredient more than a few times a week to see results.  While retinols seem like the perfect answer to your skincare woes, it can take 3-6 months for any noticeable difference.

Retinol offers many exciting benefits, and you might be tempted to apply larger amounts.  Stick to the pea-size portion that’s instructed on most retinol products.  Too much of this good thing can lead to dry skin and peeling.  Also, retinol and glycolic acid don’t mix.  They both do a lot of heavy lifting in the anti-aging department, so using them at the same time can lead to dryness and irritation.  Vitamin C, on the other hand, is retinol’s bestie, which leads us to…

Vitamin C Serum
Vitamin C is most famous for boosting your immune system and watering down your mimosas.   When it comes to skincare, it will even out your skin tone, reduce redness, and brighten your complexion.  It also protects from the sun.  And no, you can’t just put orange slices on your face.  Serums with a 5-20% of ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vit. C) are chemical engineered so that your skin absorbs it in an efficient way.  Any concentrations below 5% won’t make much of a difference, and any concentration north of that range will only be as effective as 20%.

Some people are under the misconception that you can’t use vitamin C if you’re already using retinol.  In actuality, vitamin C is an antioxidant with protective properties, and it also increases in the effectiveness of retinol.  Apply your vitamin C serum in the morning, and your retinol at night!

Salicylic Acid
Ah salicylic acid…a tale as old as time.  Chances are you’ve already incorporated salicylic acid into your skincare regimen at one point or another.  This BHA (beta hydroxy acid) is one of the MVPs of acne-fighting ingredients of the last several decades.  Now I could explain what BHAs are and why they’re important, but all you really need to know is that they are oil-soluble, and therefore able to penetrate beneath the skin’s surface and unclog pores on a deeper level.

You might not find the words “salicylic acid” in many product names, so check the ingredient lists for anything that claims to “clarify,” “perfect pores,” or “treat acne.”  If you don’t need a long term acne-fighting serum, plenty of salicylic acid-rich spot treatments are available for the occasional breakout.  You can actually this blemish-attacking ingredient in many forms, i.e. cleansers, moisturizers, body lotions, etc.  Pick the option that best suits your needs!

While salicylic acid is mild and effective in attacking blackheads and whiteheads, it can also be drying.  It’s important not to overuse this ingredient, and those with natural dry complexions might need to look at gentler alternatives when treating their breakouts.

Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid is essentially a chemical exfoliator.  By removing the top layer of cells, glycolic acid evens out hyperpigmentation, lessens fine lines and wrinkles, and prevents dead skin from clogging pores.  The process uncovers the fresh and radiant skin underneath the top layer.

The highest concentration sold OTC is 10%, but you might want to start with a lower dosage.  Like many of these potent skincare ingredients, too much too fast can cause irritation.  If you suffer from eczema, rosacea, or have sensititve skin, glycolic acid might be a bit harsh on your complexion.

Hydrating Serums
Any product that promises hydration most likely contains hyaluronic acid (HA), which is highly beneficial.  Our bodies naturally produce hyaluronic acid, and it supports our skin, joint, bone, and eye health.  As we age, we produce less HA, but we can find it easily in our fruits and veggies, and in beauty products.  In fact, your moisturizer might already contain the ingredient.  In that case, there’s no need to look for it elsewhere.  If you haven’t already integrated it into your routine, it’s easily available in a number of hydrating treatments, and it’s compatible with most other skincare products.

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