You may already be familiar with the concept of microdosing on hallucinogens, but for the past few weeks and months, the term has popped up in a variety of skin care tutorials. So, what’s the deal? Obviously, the journey to clear, healthy skin doesn’t come without passing through a sea of buzzy ingredients and products with promising claims. The problem often lies with the fact that the desire for a radiant complexion often comes with an overload of skin care actives and a “no pain, no gain” mentality, which can result in hyper-sensitized skin that presents itself as rashes, redness, breakouts, and peeling.
Don’t fret — this doesn’t mean you have to quit experimenting with performance-driven ingredients (or give up your tried-and-trues like retinol and vitamin C). That’s where this new concept of skin care microdosing comes in, wherein the primary goal is to allow the skin to reap the benefits of these celebrated skin care ingredients, minus the irritation. Although still fairly new, the concept is offering beauty buffs a far more manageable path to reach their skin care goals (especially since the influx of acid-based skin care products is still exceedingly popular).
Curious to learn more? TZR spoke to skin care experts to learn all there is to know about microdosing, including which skin type can benefit from it, how to do it, and what ingredients are best suited for this type of usage.
What Is Skin Care Microdosing?
To put it simply, skin care microdosing means not overcomplicating your routine with too many products containing too high a percentage of actives. It doesn’t nix using active acids and exfoliating ingredients altogether, it just involves using a small, controllable amount so as not to irritate the skin. “With so many recommendations and easy access to new products, overuse of products has undeniably increased,” says esthetician and founder of The OC Esthetician Geneva Stockdale-Shaw, who notes she’s seen an uptick in clients with skin care issues stemming from product overuse.
You may be thinking, ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, and retinol are still widely recommended by skin care professionals, so why would one need to use them in low doses? As Stockdale-Shaw tells TZR, the skin naturally exfoliates itself as new cells are being pushed closer to the surface, and yes, many products containing active ingredients can help speed up this process. But here’s where things can take a turn: if the acids are being used too often, the skin won’t be able to produce new, fresh cells at the same rate. This also poses a risk to the skin’s moisture barrier (the outermost layer of skin that’s responsible for sealing in the good things and keeping out the bad things out). This is because using too many products at too high of a concentration can strip the skin it of its natural oils and lead to redness, dryness, flaking, peeling, and sensitivity.
Besides these short-term effects, product overuse can also have long-term effects on the skin, which can include exacerbating or causing dermatitis, dehydrating the skin, and increasing the skin’s sensitivity to sun exposure, all of which can lead to premature aging, says Stockdale-Shaw. Skin care microdosing doesn’t discount the efficacy of these ingredients, it merely involves using a lower dose of active skin care ingredients as a way to not hit the skin so hard. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, this means using gentler forms of vitamin C, lower percentages of products with retinol, and lower percentages of acid exfoliators.
The Benefits of Skin Care Microdosing
“Skin care microdosing allows your skin to gradually experience the benefits of active ingredients while minimizing irritation and reducing the risk of compromising the skin barrier,” notes board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. Take retinol for example. The ingredient comes in many forms, some of which are more potent than others. Though it’s touted for its ability to smooth and renew the skin, it can increase skin sensitivity for all skin types. Rouleau notes that microdosing retinol by using a lower percentage makes the ingredient more tolerable, which is especially beneficial for those with fair, thinner skin.
In the case of exfoliating acids such as AHAs and BHAs, microdosing offers a mild approach that still offers the benefits of increased cell turnover and smoother, brighter skin — minus the peeling and flaking, says Dr. King. This is great for those with dry, temperamental skin as well as skin that’s prone to conditions like rosacea and eczema.
Bottom line: Stockdale-Shaw says that skin care microdosing gives your skin the time it needs to regenerate and accept the ingredient, all while minimizing the chance of sensitivity and irritation.
How To Skin Care Microdose
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to skin care microdosing: either purchase products that contain a lower percentage of actives, or use products with a higher percentage but use less than the recommended amount. Both Dr. King and Stockdale-Shaw recommend the former, as using lower doses more frequently allows your skin to benefit from the product without surface irritation. Essentially, more does not equal better when it comes to potency.
For salicylic acid products, Dr. King says to start with 0.5 to 1%, and for glycolic acid start with 2%. As for vitamin C, it’s been found to be most effective in concentrations of 10 to 20%, but if you notice a tingling sensation or irritation when using products containing it, Rouleau says to look for a version that doesn't rely solely on ascorbic acid as its main form of vitamin C.
For retinol, Dr. King recommends starting with 0.25 to 0.5% and increase to 1% or 2% after a month if it’s well-tolerated. One thing to note: while using a lower percentage of retinol means your skin will experience less dryness and sensitivity than if you were to use a stronger version, the tradeoff is that it’ll take longer to see results, Rouleau tells TZR. Regardless of the retinol percentage you’re using, consistency is key, but it’s important to do what’s right for your particular skin type, so start with a lower percentage of active ingredients, see how the skin responds, and increase as tolerated (not to the point of irritation).
Ready to try microdosing skin care for yourself? Below, five products with suitable potencies to minimize skin irritation without sacrificing quality.
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
0.5% salicylic acid may be the star of the show in these acne patches, but combined with aloe vera leaf extract, it offers a more soothing approach to banishing breakouts.
A supercharged retinol that doesn’t irritate the skin? That’s the goal of these gentle retinol drops from Night Watch, which offers all the benefits of retinol (think: stimulating collagen and balancing oil production) but without the sensitivity.
Renée Rouleau's Vitamin C & E Treatment is a brightening powerhouse you never knew you needed. Containing both lipid and water-soluble vitamin C, vitamin E, and licorice root, the serum lightens UV-related brown spots and lifts discoloration caused by acne scars to showcase a brighter complexion — no stinging involved.
Treating acne-prone skin can be difficult since this skin type is more prone to irritation. Cue this mask from Hppy Skin, which not only stays cool on contact (read: it feels ultra-soothing on active breakouts), but only uses 12 pure ingredients that won’t bug your skin.
Want the skin-glowing benefits of exfoliation without stripping your skin? Opt for lactic acid, an AHA loved for its mild, hydrating properties. It’s the hero ingredient in this exfoliator, along with antioxidant-rich hojicha powder, which activates when mixed with water.