Dear Daniela: If Skincare Tingles, Does This Mean It's Working?

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,
How can you tell the difference between a skincare product tingling because it’s working and something irritating your skin? I don’t think have super sensitive skin, but I definitely do get redness and a stinging sensation sometimes. I’m never sure if that’s part of the process or a sign I’m using the wrong skincare. Please help!
Martha, 31
Should skincare be sugar coated? I’m sure you’ve heard that old saying that the worse a medicine tastes, the more effective it is. Or when you choke down a really kale-heavy green juice in the hope that it will make you look like Gisele – it’s that kind of logic. Your question is such a brilliant one, and unlike a lot of skincare questions I get, it’s really a question of philosophy rather than science. Some experts would say you should always avoid anything that causes a reaction because it’s inflammation, and inflammation is bad for the skin. Then again, dermatologists up and down the country also offer chemical peels that leave you red raw for days, at which point you suddenly have the most fabulous skin of your life.
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I asked Megan Felton, who co-founded the skincare consultancy Lion/Ne, for her take. “It’s our opinion that skincare should not be painful," she said. "It might seem like a given but we do see people promoting the line of thinking that if a product stings or burns it must be working. That being said, some active ingredients (such as vitamin C) can cause a tingle if your skin barrier function is compromised, so you have to taper those in gradually,” she explained.
Essentially, it’s a question of working out what’s a tingle and what’s a reaction. “We would define a tingle as a product that doesn’t make skin inflamed or cause a rash," added Megan. "But if something does tingle, it is likely a bit more active, so should be used in moderation. A burn will cause skin to feel hot, inflamed, and sometimes even bumpy, like a rash. If a product is doing this to your skin, it's best to stay away from it, unless you are having a professional peel or treatment."
Certain ingredients, like retinol, glycolic acid and other AHAs are prime candidates for this kind of reaction, which is why the advice is always to start on a low, slow concentration and work up. But your skin is as unique as a fingerprint in many ways and we all have certain products and ingredients it can’t tolerate. Personally, anything with oils in (especially essential oils) makes me red and blotchy, so I steer clear. I also go incredibly red and start to tingle after microneedling, but that goes down quickly and the device is meant to be causing an injury, so I persist there where I wouldn’t with oils.
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Megan adds, “If a product causes skin to have an inflammatory response or causes skin to feel more sensitive and delicate, stop. If a product makes a skin condition like rosacea, eczema, or acne worse, stop. If you don’t like the way a product feels, stop. There are enough products out there that don’t do this. It isn’t worth it!”
This is another reason why experts always advise to try new products in a rotation, not all at once. Especially if your skin is sensitive, it’s better to slot in a new skincare buy on a one-in-one-out basis, or you may wake up one morning with a reaction and have no idea what caused it. “It isn’t like putting on high heels and saying beauty is pain,” added Megan. “Your day-to-day skincare should be something you enjoy, not endure. Of course, the exception to this is if you are receiving a treatment like a peel or something like Botox with a certified dermatologist. But those treatments also would harm the skin if you did them on a daily basis.”
If you’re getting a big reaction to something, take a moment to go through the ingredients list. Is there a hidden alcohol in there, or a fragrance perhaps? You might find the irritant isn’t actually an AHA, but an artificial scent or drying alcohol denat, for example. By switching to another brand you may be suddenly able to tolerate twice-weekly exfoliation.
As a rule, something that’s causing major irritation should only be carried out by an expert like a dermatologist in a controlled environment with parameters in place. They should be able to tell you beforehand which side effects you may experience, what the downtime will be like, and what to do if you’re concerned after your treatment.
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Illustration by Olivia Santner
So what if you're getting a little bit of a sting after a salicylic or sulfur-rich clay mask? It's probably fine in moderation. A bit of redness after a weekly chemical exfoliation? Providing it’s from a reputable brand and you’re not cocktailing it with a handful of other actives and you have tapered use in gradually, also okay. But really having a painful reaction to every step in your routine, or trying to 'stick it out' when using a new product? That’s a sign it’s not right for you. That doesn’t mean it has to go to waste. Whenever I try something that causes a reaction on my face, I just use it on my body instead. And yes, I do have fabulously soft elbows, thank you very much.
It's also worth switching to a bland, fragrance-free cream or emollient cleanser to reduce dryness as a result of a reaction. And just in case you thought you’d get away without me saying this: wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF30 or higher every day, especially if you’ve been peeling!
Good luck,
Daniela
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email deardaniela@refinery29.uk, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to 'Dear Daniela' become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.
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