When you know something is good for you, it’s tempting to use as much of it as possible in order to reap its maximum benefits. It was this ideology that informed the 12-step routines that dominated the skin-care conversation five years ago, and why people are constantly on the hunt for maximum concentrations of active ingredients in their serums. But in the case of our complexions, “more” doesn’t always equal “better.” And as consumers have smartened up to this fact, it’s begun to inform the way they’re using their products, giving rise to a trend called “microdosing” in skin care.
You may be familiar with the term “microdosing” as it relates 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 one’s overall sense of wellbeing.” In the case of skin care, the phrase—which picked up buzz late last year—refers to using lower concentrations of an active ingredient or less of a product to improve its tolerability. With a bit of experimentation, it can help you find the perfect amount and strength of product for your skin. Keep reading for what you need to know.
How ‘microdosing’ came to be
“For a while, people had been sort of [subscribing to] this idea of ‘more is more,’ thinking that the higher the concentration and the more active ingredients they were putting on their skin, the better the results,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “But what people started to realize, as we recognized the importance of the skin barrier and preserving it, is that that actually isn’t very good for the skin.”
When you’re using super high concentrations of active ingredients, you can damage your skin barrier to the point that your skin becomes sensitized, meaning its “unable to defend itself against many other surrounding influences that it would typically be able to withstand,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Skin barrier searches have climbed over the past year, and skin cycling, a method of skin-care application 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 that.
“These days, dermatologists are sort of guiding people through this process of peeling things back, incorporating things at a lower concentration and maybe not as often as a way to still 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 potent skin-care ingredients, like retinol and certain hydroxy acids, come with the highest risk of irritation. Though these actives are effective for resurfacing your complexion (retinoids do it by stimulating cell turnover, while AHAs and BHAs chemically exfoliate), if you’re too aggressive with them, you’ll wind up stripping your skin—and ultimately won’t give you the radiant results you’re after.
“The idea behind microdosing is essentially giving people with all skin types an opportunity to try all of these different ingredients and recognizing that even those with the most sensitive skin may be able to tolerate things if it’s done slowly and built up over time,” says Dr. Garshick.
One way to start microdosing is to use lower concentrations (or strengths) of these active ingredients. Instead of going all in with the strongest concentrations a few times a week, this method has you using weaker iterations at more regular intervals—which will give you comparable results. Amir Karam, MD, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon and founder of KaramMD skin care, likens it to exercise. “If you do a 10 or 15-minute workout every single day, that’s way better than doing a 30-minute workout once or twice a week,” he says.
Aside from switching up the strength of your actives, you can also microdose the products you’ve already got by applying less of them with each application. Take retinoids for example. They’re known for causing irritation in the early days of use so many ease in by using them a few 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 cut down on irritation, she advises using small amounts of product and applying it only where your skin can handle it. “If anything feels red and sensitive, you can skip it on those areas,'” she says. Other derms recommend mixing your 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’s tolerability.
One thing to keep in mind: If you get a strong burning sensation or feel like you’re having a reaction when you apply a certain product, microdosing will not make that go away. And trying to power through the discomfort can lead to more harm (read: sensitization) in the long run.
“If you do introduce something, and you find your skin immediately either burns or stings, or the next day you experience redness or dryness or flaking, or you just feel like your skin is developing some kind of reaction, it may seem as though you’re probably not meant 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 can simply be a waste. “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 so much 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 always unclear when they say ‘Use a pea size. Use a dime size. Use as much as needed. Use a liberal amount,'” says Ford. “The benefit of microdosing is if you don’t notice a change in the performance, then you’ve found that golden ratio of how much product you should be adding to your face so you can get your money’s worth versus adding more and getting the same benefit.”
Let’s go back to that retinol example. Say you love your retinoid and are getting great results, but you hate having to repurchase it every two months. Try using smaller amounts of it for a few weeks and see if you notice any difference in your complexion. “For some people, if they find that 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 make sure you’re still using enough to get a thin layer all over the face. “A lot of the times, when we look at the efficacy of certain ingredients, there is this idea that you do want to have a sufficient skin layer of application,” says Dr. Garshick. “If you’re not getting an even coat on all of your skin, and that could be as a result of maybe not applying enough, it’s possible your results may be impacted by that.”
Ingredients you should (and shouldn’t) microdose
When it comes to ingredients that are meant to enhance your skin, like exfoliants or retinoids, feel free to dabble in microdosing.
“Some degree of irritation and dryness and burning and stinging can be normal, especially in those beginning stages of introducing a new active ingredient,” says Dr. Garshick. “The challenge with applying an active ingredient when the skin is already compromised is you’re going to end up in this cycle where it becomes less and less easy to tolerate.” By using low concentrations from the top, you can avoid getting stuck 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 sort of slack in the amount of sunscreen that you’re applying each day because that obviously has, we know, a standard amount that needs to be applied to maintain the efficacy,” says Dr. Garshick. With antioxidants like vitamin C, “the idea that it is protecting your skin throughout the day, you do want to have enough of it on to actually have that benefit. Now, it doesn’t need to be too much, and I think there’s definitely a balance there, but you want to make sure you’re getting a thin layer everywhere to provide adequate protection to all of your skin.”
All in all, microdosing is about listening to your skin and taking the Goldilocks’ approach to application. You don’t want to apply so much that it’s wasteful or irritating or so little that it’s not doing anything—you want to get it just right. Play around with your actives and listen to your skin throughout the process, and you’ll ultimately find what works for you.
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