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  • Lily Bradbar

Foundation Flaking from Tretinoin? Try This!

Updated: Jan 8

A still from the movie Death Becomes Her. Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are depicted as immortal, undead bodies with paint peeling off their faces.

When I started tretinoin, it had been my plan to slowly reduce my dependence on makeup. I will stick to my usual routine for now, I thought, but maybe as my complexion evens out I will be able to try out some lighter-coverage products.

Nothing could prepare me, however, for the shock I had in my first week of treatment.

One morning, after only two applications of 0.025% tretinoin earlier that week, I began to stamp on my Smashbox foundation over thoroughly moisturised and sun-protected skin. What I saw next haunts me to do this day.

In place of the velvety, buildable veil of coverage I had grown to expect was... something else entirely. Flakes and crust I had no idea were even there soaked up product while the odd smooth surface all but repelled it. The effect immediately reminded me of Death Becomes Her (pictured above), and as iconic as Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep's performances may be, I was not especially interested in looking like a corpse with a no-longer-fresh lick of paint.

As instructed, I had been easing my skin into the treatment, sandwiching with moisturiser, and avoiding other actives. I had been doing everything right, but, at that point, I did not realise what I was experiencing was — for some, at least — an unavoidable side effect of treatment.

Upon realising the challenge my makeup routine was up against, I sought advice from every corner of the internet. Some suggested a moisturising primer. Some suggested squalene or hyaluronic acid. Some offered the foundations that worked for them. Some suggested to wait it out, assuring me a few months were all it would take for my old routine to work for me once more.

Alas, all the king's primers and all the serums couldn't put my complexion together again.

There were times I would see my old foundation on my dresser and consider quitting tretinoin so I could return to the simplicity of my old routine. Another Redditor, struggling with the same thing, said she, too, was close to trading the benefits of tretinoin for the simplicity of her old makeup routine.

Despite temptation, I persisted. After years of trial and error — and lawdy me, I wish I was exaggerating — these are the solutions I have found. I share these with the hope that I can save someone else the torment of a single smile undoing the hour spent anxiously applying the false promise of a crease-free, hydrating foundation.

Sleeping Packs

A photo of two sleeping packs. On the left is Purito's Dermide Cica barrier Sleeping Pack. It is a purple tube with white text. On the right is Skin1004's Madagascar Centella Hyalu-Cica Sleeping Pack. It is pale blue with a white label and black text.

I know I said moisturisers weren't enough to stop my skin from visibly flaking under makeup, and I stand by this. At the same time, they remain an integral part of mitigating tretinoin's determination to make a mosaic of your dermis. More than this, if you're using tretinoin as a part of an acne-control regimen, it's quite possible that the lighter, oil-free moisturisers you've used before may no longer be enough.

This is where a sleeping pack can come in handy. While I do not advise the use of just any sleeping pack, especially those with actives like retinols or AHAs, sleeping packs from certain South-East Asian beauty brands offer a cheap, cruelty-free alternative to La Roche Posay's Cicaplast Baume, revered by the tretinoin subreddit for its deeply moisturising, soothing, barrier-repairing properties.

Purito's Dermide Cica Barrier Sleeping Pack with squalane and panthenol is a personal favourite of mine and probably the best dupe for La Roche Posay's pricier, potentially animal-tested product. Like La Roche Posay's product, Purito's sleeping pack contains centella asiatica, an ingredient with a long history that modern medicine can actually vouch for. A review of the existing evidence from 2014 confidently states 'C. asiatica herb can be useful in the treatment of skin diseases, especially in wound healing', adding that there is also 'promising' evidence of an 'anti-psoriatic effect' that future research can strengthen. Centella extracts are abundant in this formula with a soothing, barrier-repairing blend of madecassoside, asiaticoside, madecassic acid, and asiatic acid. Bolstering the soothing properties of this plant extract are skin-identical lipids like ceramide NP and the anti-angiogenic and anti-inflammatory addition of green tea, making this a great choice for Tretinoin users managing acne or rosacea.

This sleeping pack also, like any heavy-duty moisturiser, contains a rich blend of occlusives, emollients, and humectants, like panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, caprylic triglyceride, butylene glycol, and hypoallergenic plant oils like jojoba and sunflower seed oil. For cracked, reddened skin crying out for a long sip of water, you really can't do any better.

If you're not ready to make the leap to a moisturiser with the thicker, balmier texture of Purito's, Skin1004's Madagascar Centella Hyalu-Cica Sleeping Pack would be my recommendation. With the cooling, refreshing feel of a water gel, but a slightly thicker consistency, this product is ideal for those babystepping their way toward occlusion and emollience. Despite the lighter texture, this product contains no shortage of soothing, moisturising ingredients. Like the sleeping pack from Purito, this product contains centella asiatica, panthenol, ceramides, and sodium hyaluronate, along with other more common, but equally valuable moisturisers like butylene glycol, glycerin, and cetearyl olivate. Skin1004's formula is not merely a lightweight Purito, however, offering the novel additions of polyglutamic acid (akin to hyaluronic acid); arginine (a soothing, moisturising skin-identical amino acid); the anti-inflammatory adenosine; and the underutilised antioxidant melatonin, which promotes healthy ageing of the skin. We also see some niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that has great synergy with the restorative effects of the aforementioned pro-vitamin B5 panthenol. As it warms up here in Australia, I have started reaching for this one more than the Purito. Most nights, I put a bit of the Purito sleeping pack on the driest parts of my face and neck and the Skin1004 everywhere else.

Peeling Gels

A (photoshopped) image of COSRX's Low pH Good Night Soft Peeling Gel. It is a white tube with a yellow and purple label and black and white text.
Excuse the PhotoShop. I couldn't find the bottle.

Now, while a patchy foundation may have us reaching for a pumice stone or some other manual exfoliant, the last thing dry or reddened skin needs is a firm slap with a cheese grater. This is where peeling gels come in handy.

Peeling gels are technically a manual exfoliant, but they are much more gentle (and some say more effective) than what you would normally think of when you hear 'manual exfoliant', like a walnut or apricot scrub. Instead of using sharp, jagged edges to lift up dead skin, peeling gels use soft fibres like cellulose or carbomers that create a kind of stringy, goopy texture that loosens dead skin without scratching it in the process.

I enjoy (and may have to replace) this one from COSRX, which combines its gentle exfoliating function with brightening, hydrating niacinamide as well as other ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and propanediol, which help to return moisture back to the skin. The product's manual exfoliation also receives a little help from a small amount of lactobionic acid, which is a chemical exfoliant that is much gentle than glycolic or salicylic acid.

A potential concern with COSRX's product is the inclusion of lavender water and damask rose water. While these kinds of ingredients are more diluted (and, therefore, safer) than undiluted plant oils, they still pose some risk to sensitive skin with minimal potential benefit. This risk was not considerable for me, and I personally appreciate the whisper of a floral scent these ingredients lend the product. If this risk is not worth it for you — if you have an established lavender allergy, for example — this peeling gel from Pyunkang Yul contains a more streamlined ingredient list suitable for the most sensitive of skin.

A word of warning, however: While peeling gels are suitable for sensitive, retinised skin, you don't want to overdo it. If you find this is the only thing that allows you to wear makeup, it may be sensible to keep your skincare routine as simple as possible on days when makeup isn't required or personally desired.

Powder Foundation

A photo of two powder foundations. On the left is Flower Beauty's Light Illusion Perfecting Powder. It is a white compact with gold accents and white text. On the right is Antipodes' powder foundation. It has a silver lid with the brand name in black across the top.

You're probably about to close this window after seeing this one, but hang with me. Powder foundations are obviously known for having a matter finish than liquid foundations, with many of us even using powder foundations to tone down the dewiness of an overly glowy liquid complexion product. I can say from experience, however, that powder foundation can be a godsend for retinised skin.

I was about to cancel plans one night when my liquid foundation was not cooperating. Close to tears, I went over everything with a powder puff and my Flower Beauty Light Illusion Perfecting Powder, and, to my surprise, everything started to look so much softer and more skinlike. Soon, the combination of a slightly too dewy sunblock (like Naked Sunday's Collagen Glow 100% Mineral Perfecting Priming Lotion) and this Flower powder became my go-to complexion combo.

And, when you think about it, the benefits of a powder formula for flaky skin aren't all that surprising. It's like painting on a cracked surface. A wet-to-dry medium will slip into the cracks, or sit on either side of them, bringing them into sharper relief. A powder pressed over the surface will work to soften the cracks by dusting over the space between. Individual powder particles are also better able to move apart and come together without obvious lines of demarcation forming between them.

Still, the powder of choice does seem to play a role here. I had great success with the Flower powder but limited success with Fenty's. The Antipodes powder also worked well, but the shade range wasn't ideal. A comparison of these formulas suggests that the Flower formula likely contains a higher percentage of emollient ingredients than Fenty's. Given the Fenty foundation is specifically marketed as mattifying, it may be sensible to look for powders that promise at least some amount of creaminess or glow.

It may take a little bit of trial and error to find a powder foundation that works optimally for you, but, from my experience, most powders are going to be more reliable than nearly any liquid or cream product. A glance at Reddit suggests I am not alone with this.

Setting Sprays

A photo of Lunar's Moisture Setting Spray. It is a white and blue bottle with black text. The bottle contains 100mL.

Part of the problem with tretinoin and makeup is the way tretinoin increases cell turnover. While this is great news for your skin, whether that be a reduction of acne or the prevention of skin thinning or loss of elasticity, it is bad news for your foundation, which, in the interests of looking skin-like, wants the skin it was applied to in the morning to be the same skin sitting at the train station after work.

While an occlusive base under your foundation — like a waxy, moisturising SPF and a silicone primer — can help create a more predictable surface to apply your makeup on top of, you are sadly limited in what you can do afterwards, save washing off your makeup and reapplying it, which would be impractical and likely leave your skin feeling a bit worse for wear.

This is where a dewy setting spray can come in handy. As the sort of product you can put on your desk or in your handbag/satchel/tote/whateveryoucarry, it has the benefit of being something that can help to moisturise your skin on an as-needed basis. A hydrating spray may also have the benefit of helping to revive foundation that is starting to reach its extremely visible breaking point. I've been using this one, but I don't have any firm recommendations here.

With an increasing number of spray SPFs hitting the market, a moisturising formula (like MCoBeauty's Super Glow Invisible Face Mist SPF50+ or, for those sensitive to avobenzone, Ultra Violette's Preen Screen SPF50+ Reapplication Mist) may even offer a way to do double duty, both reviving your foundation and giving you the sun protection your sensitive skin needs now more than ever.

Tinted SPFs, BB creams, and CC creams

A photo of two tinted SPFs and one BB cream. The first tinted SPF is from Natural Instinct. It is called the Tinted Face Natural Sunscreen SPF 30. It is a pale yellow tube with dark brown text and a dark brown lid. The second tinted SPF is from Ethical Zinc. It is called the Daily Wear Tinted Facial Sunscreen SPF 50+. The tube is white with pink text and a pink brand name. The BB cream is Purito's Cica Clearing BB Cream. The shade I have is called #13 Neutral Ivory, which leans more yellow than neutral in my opinion. The tube is white with black text and an approximation of the product colour behind the brand name.

If you're someone who considers a full-coverage foundation a non-negotiable, this may not sound like the most appealing option. You are where I was three years ago, and I have two things to tell you.

Firstly, there are BB creams that offer a pretty shocking amount of coverage. This one from Purito is fragrance free, offers an extra layer of SPF, and is extremely affordable. (It is also, like all products I mention, vegan and cruelty free.) As someone who used to wear the Hourglass Vanish Pro Stick just to check the mail, I can also attest to the stunning amount of buildable and blendable coverage it offers. In fact, as someone who now mainly relies on colour correction instead of foundation (see my next tip!), I find the coverage in this product is good enough for me to use it the way I would've once used a concealer.

For my second point: Even if you're not there right now, you may find as you focus on your skin treatment that full-coverage foundation might stop feeling like a non-negotiable stage between waking up and leaving the house. Another tretinoin user told me this very thing three years ago, and I didn't believe it. I thought, 'Maybe for you, but my skin is an entirely different beast.' For about two years, I stood firm in my dependence on at least some foundation, but with time, I've grown to actually love how a sheer product like a tinted SPF looks. I love seeing the natural patina of my skin. I love feeling as though makeup is a creative way to offer more of myself to the world rather than reducing myself to only as much as I assume others will allow. More than that: I love the flexibility of touching up my sun protection without needing to lean over my made-up reflection the way a conservator-restorer might lean over 17th century oil painting one wrong move away from costing a gallery millions.

Colour Corrector

Two colour correcting products are pictured. The first is the Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment. It is a green jar with a white label and lid. Beside it, is NYX's HD Photogenic Concealer Wand in a colour-correcting green shade. The tube is clear with black text and a black lid.

As any architect will tell you, often the limitations imposed upon you by a project will produce your greatest innovations.

Okay. That might be a bit dramatic. It's not as if I invented colour correction, but I can say that I am so thankful I stuck with tretinoin. Not just because of its benefits for the health of my skin, but because it forced me to rethink how I was doing my makeup, and... I actually prefer the fresh, healthy glow of my base now over the perfectly sculpted and uniform base of my past.

Of course there is nothing wrong with the pinpoint precision of a face full of contour and pigment-rich foundation. Still, I am so glad I moved beyond the belief that barely-there complexion products were only for off-duty models. Shocking, I know, but you don't need to be scouted by agents as a prerequisite to shopping at Glossier or Milk Makeup. I also discovered that so many of the things that I was using full-coverage foundation to neutralise (namely my rosacea and post-inflammatory erythema) could be neutralised with far less of a strategically applied colour corrector. I really love the Dr Jart Cicapair Tiger Grass Colour Correcting Treatment, but sadly, it is not cruelty free like I thought. (Moreover, the box I bought didn't include beeswax in the ingredients list, but based on their website, it seems to now.) Thankfully, I've had success with this product from NYX, which works well as a more traditional colour corrector. I've also heard good things about the SPF50 Second Skin Tone Up Base from Hince, which comes in three colour-correcting shades (I explain picking the right colour corrector in this post). I intend to purchase and review this product for an article on rosacea soon.

Concealer as Foundation

This is Rose Inc's Softlight Luminising Hydrating Concealer. The tube is clear and the lid is white. Please note, it is much more matte than the name makes it sound.

This is a discovery I made during the peak of my retinisation when I was working a customer-facing job and the most desperate I had ever been for my makeup to cooperate.

Concealers, which typically contain more pigment than foundation, may allow you to achieve the effect you want from a foundation while using less product. The benefits of this approach are twofold. One: By applying where you desire the most coverage and blending outwards, you may find a uniform application of product is unnecessary, allowing you to skirt areas more prone to flaking. Two: A thin layer of a highly-pigmented product can work like more a veil than a mask, camouflaging the uneven effect that can occur when dry skin soaks up more product than oiler, or less dry, areas. More than ensuring a smoother application, this can also safeguard against some of the more visible signs of wear. It's like the difference between a thick layer of mud drying and cracking versus the smooth, even appearance of a thin layer of paint. I photographed the Softlight Luminous Hydrating Concealer from Rose Inc here because it is hydrating and extremely pigmented while also offering a shockingly matte finish (the name is, in my view, a bit deceptive) compared to other products in this category. I did, however, find that the Kosas Revealer Concealer played extremely nice with retinised skin, and, if I weren't a Purito BB cream convert, this is the one I would be most likely to repurchase.

Pull a Pamela

A make-up free photo of Pamela Anderson at Paris Fashion Week. She is wearing a pale peach dress with a yellow-green and black splattery print on it.

I end here not because it's the least valid option but because I understand people searching for this article probably have some resistance to going makeup free, whether personal preference or professional obligation. Still, I love this photo of a barefaced Pamela Anderson looking radiantly beautiful at an event where some amount of makeup is an expectation. In an interview during the event, when asked what her biggest beauty secret was, she replied, 'These days? Don't do anything. Whatever is happening is happening.'

As someone who still wears at least a little makeup any time I leave the house, I recognise how understandable it is if some of us aren't there yet. There's no escaping a world that will weaponise any arbitrary standard at its disposal to make us feel like we matter less, and applying a bit of makeup is an easier battle than changing the hearts and minds of those who see said standards as unchangeable or, in many cases, profitable.

At the same time, having committed wholeheartedly to doing the daily inner work of devaluing and disempowering these shallow, status-oriented 'rules of beauty' that once felt like scripture, I have seen a shift. I'm not invincible, but, at the very least, I am at a point I never thought I would reach: applying a tinted SPF and maybe a little mascara and being on my way. Do whatever you need to survive in a world that cares far less than it should, but don't forget there is power in valuing your body by disavowing the idea that it can ever be wrong.


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