When you know something is good for you, it’s tempting to use as much of it as possible to reap maximum benefits. It was this ideology that influenced the 12-step routines that dominated the skincare conversation five years ago, and why people are constantly seeking maximum concentrations of active ingredients in their serums. But in the case of our complexion, “more” does not always equal “better.” And as consumers have become aware of this fact, it has begun to influence the way they use their products, giving rise to a trend called “microdosing” in skin care.
You may be familiar with the term “microdosing” in relation to recreational drugs, which (as we previously reported) involves “taking small doses of psychedelics on a semi-regular schedule to help manage pain, trauma, depression, or low one’s general”. In the case of skin care, the phrase, which became popular late last year, refers to the use of lower concentrations of an active ingredient or less of a product to improve its tolerability. A little experimentation can help you find the perfect amount and strength of product for your skin – read on to find out what you need to know.
How ‘microdosing’ came about
“For a time, people had been sort of [subscribing to] this ‘more is more’ idea, thinking that the higher the concentration and the more active ingredients they put on the skin, the better the results,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.” But what people started realizing, when we recognized the importance of the skin barrier and its preservation, is that that’s actually not very good for the skin.”
When you use super-high concentrations of active ingredients, you can damage your skin’s barrier to the point where your skin becomes sensitized, meaning it’s “unable to defend itself against many other surrounding influences that it would normally be able to resist,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Searches for skin barriers have increased over the past year, and skin cycling, a skincare application method that prioritizes barrier repair, is trending on TikTok. Now, many people are looking to tone down their routines, and microdosing is one way to do it.
“These days, dermatologists are walking people through this process of peeling things off, incorporating things at a lower concentration and maybe not as often as a way to allow the skin to tolerate these ingredients without experiencing too much irritation,” says Dr. Garshick.
How microdosing can prevent sensitized skin
Some of the most powerful ingredients in skin care, such as retinol and certain hydroxy acids, carry the highest risk of irritation. While these actives are effective at rejuvenating your complexion (retinoids do this by stimulating cell turnover, while AHAs and BHAs chemically exfoliate), if you’re too aggressive with them, you’ll end up stripping your skin and ultimately won’t budge. the radiant results you seek.
“The idea behind microdosing is essentially to give people with all skin types the opportunity to try all these different ingredients and recognize that even people with the most sensitive skin can tolerate things if they’re done slowly and build up with the time,” he says. Dr. Garshick.
One way to start microdosing is to use lower concentrations (or potencies) of these active ingredients. Instead of going for the strongest concentrations several times a week, this method forces you to use weaker iterations at more regular intervals, which will give you comparable results. Amir Karam, MD, board-certified facial plastic surgeon and founder of KaramMD skincare, compares it to exercise. “If you do a 10- or 15-minute workout every day, that’s much better than doing a 30-minute workout once or twice a week,” he says.
In addition to changing the strength of your actives, you can also microdose the products you already have by applying less of them with each application. Take retinoids for example. They are known to cause irritation in the first few days of use, so many get used to using them several times a week and working up to daily use. But Deidre Hooper, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New Orleans, Louisiana, recommends that her patients use retinoids daily from the start.
To reduce irritation, she recommends using small amounts of product and applying it only where your skin can handle it. “If something feels red and tender, you can skip it in those areas,” she says. Other dermatologists recommend mixing retinoid with moisturizer to dilute its strength, or creating a “retinol sandwich” (a layer of moisturizer, followed by a retinoid, topped with another layer of moisturizer) to improve skin tolerability.
One thing to keep in mind: If you have a strong burning sensation or feel like you are having a reaction when a certain product is applied, microdosing will not make it go away. And trying to overcome discomfort can lead to more damage (read: sensitization) in the long run.
“If you put something in and find that your skin immediately burns or itches, or the next day you experience redness, dryness, or flaking, or you just feel like your skin is developing some kind of reaction, it may seem like you’re probably not cut out for that ingredient.” says Marisa Garshick, MD. “Not all ingredients have to be used on all skin types.”
Microdosing can also extend the life of your products
Even if using too much of a certain ingredient doesn’t sensitize your skin, in many cases, it may just be wasteful. “Just because you’re adding more doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to benefit your skin more,” says cosmetic chemist Javon Ford. “If you use too much, you’re wasting that money.” In other words, your body can only absorb a limited amount of an active, and microdosing with smaller amounts of a product is a great way to see if you can get away with using less.
“If your skin feels just as good using less, then use less. The instructions are never clear when they say ‘Use a pea size. Use a dime size. Use as much as needed. Use a liberal amount.’ Ford says. “The benefit of microdosing is that if you don’t notice a change in performance, you will have found the golden ratio of how much product to add to your face so you get your money’s worth instead of adding more and getting the same benefit.
Let’s go back to that retinol example. Let’s say you love your retinoid and are getting great results, but you hate having to reorder every couple of months. Try using smaller amounts for a few weeks and see if you notice any difference in your complexion. “For some people, if they find they don’t need to use as much and can still maintain the potential benefit, I think it’s certainly reasonable to use less at a time,” says Dr. Garshick.
Just be sure to keep using enough to get a thin layer all over your face. “A lot of times when we’re looking at the effectiveness of certain ingredients, there’s this idea that you want to have enough application layer on the skin,” says Dr. Garshick. “If you’re not getting an even layer all over your skin, and that could be because maybe you didn’t apply enough, your results may be affected by that.”
Ingredients you should (and should not) microdose
When it comes to ingredients meant to improve your skin, like exfoliants or retinoids, feel free to dabble in microdosing.
“Some degree of irritation, dryness, burning, and stinging can be normal, especially in the initial stages of introducing a new active ingredient,” says Dr. Garshick. “The challenge of applying an active ingredient when the skin is already compromised is that you’re going to end up in this cycle where it becomes less and less easy to tolerate.” By using low concentrations from above, you can avoid getting caught up in this cycle that ends in sensitized skin.
What you don’t want to skimp on is protective ingredients, like sunscreen or antioxidants.
“You don’t want to loosen up on how much sunscreen you’re applying each day because you obviously have, we know, a standard amount that you need to apply to maintain effectiveness,” says Dr. Garshick. With antioxidants like vitamin C, “the idea that you’re protecting your skin throughout the day, you want to have enough to really have that benefit. Now, it doesn’t need to be too much, and I think there’s definitely a balance there, but you have to make sure to get a thin layer everywhere to give the proper protection to all of your skin.
In general, microdosing is about listening to your skin and taking the Goldilocks application approach. You don’t want to apply so much that it’s wasteful or irritating or so little that you’re not doing anything, you want to get it. single Correct. Play around with your assets and listen to your skin throughout the process, and you’ll eventually find what works for you.
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