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What Is Skincare Microdosing and Does It Work? An Explainer

Photo by Artem Varnitsin / EyeEm/Getty Images

Those with sensitive skin know the deal: All those popular active ingredients in skincare sound great in theory, but when they touch your skin, dryness and flaking are the unfortunate result instead of the bright, clear skin promised to you. Whether it’s a prescription-strength retinol, a vitamin C serum, or a more gentle lactic acid, it doesn’t make too much of a difference. A damaged skin barrier is in your future. But there is hope! Enter: skincare microdosing.

No, we’re not talking about a psychedelic situation here. We’re talking skincare ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Those with sensitive skin might want to skip the usual directions on the label and give microdosing a chance. It’s all about a lower concentration so you can reap the benefits over time without the side effects. Make sense? For a little extra help, allow the pro to explain.

About the Expert: 

Anthony Rossi M.D., FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the creator and founder of Dr. Rossi DermMD skincare.

Skincare Microdosing 101

“Skincare microdosing is utilizing lower concentrations of certain ingredients to mitigate the irritation and sensitivity that may come along with certain ingredients,” board-certified dermatologist Anthony Rossi M.D., FAAD, explains. “It can be helpful for those with sensitive skin or inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea.”

You might be thinking, why use less when something works so well? Well, it’s not just about using less product; it’s about finding a lower-concentration sweet spot to reap the benefits (such as increased cell turnover) while still keeping your skin barrier healthy and strong. At the end of the day, healthy skin is good skin. Skincare microdosing might take a little trial and error to find the right amount of active ingredients for your unique skin type. For example, instead of going for the highest-strength retinol (usually 2%), you’ll look for a .3% formulation. That way, instead of going through the “retinol scaries” and being uncomfortable with dry and flaking skin, your skin will tolerate the lower concentration when used daily so you’ll, in theory, receive the same benefits over time.

Does Microdosing Really Work?

“The idea is to not irritate the skin or further sensitize it with certain ingredients,” Dr. Rossi says. It makes sense that using a weaker version of an ingredient would keep skin from being overly sensitized. Skincare microdosing can also allow you to incorporate a product you wouldn’t otherwise tolerate well. And when used more often and with less downtime, the same skin-brightening, pore-clearing benefits can occur.

Those with deeper skin tones might benefit even more from microdosing. That’s because darker skin is prone to hyperpigmentation. These less concentrated doses will keep skin from being inflamed, which can lead to dark spots and too much pigment.

Does this mean you need to go buy all new skincare? Nope! You can actually mix a higher dose of an ingredient with your favorite moisturizer to cut the concentration. You can also invest in boosters, which are single-dose daily ampoules used for a short amount of time. They give skin a hit of a must-have skincare ingredient like vitamin C, antioxidants, or exfoliating acids like a mini treatment at the salon—but in your bathroom.

What Skincare Ingredients You Should (and Shouldn’t!) Microdose

First, are there any big no-nos in the world of skincare microdosing? Yes! But only one: sunscreen. Dermatologists agree that SPF30 is the lowest concentration of sunscreen you should use, and you should reapply often. This isn’t where a lower concentration is helpful.

Otherwise, other active ingredients can be added into your skincare routine at lower concentrations. “All of the below are great to microdose because starting slow with all of these can help the skin to acclimate and adjust,” Dr. Rossi explains. For example, “while retinol has many advantages, it is not for everyone and too much can cause irritation or retinoid dermatitis.” No one wants that. The below ingredients get a big yes on microdosing from the dermatologist. 

  • Vitamin C

Fans of vitamin C swear by its skin-brightening power. It’s one of the best anti-aging ingredients because it promotes collagen production, reduces the appearance of under-eye circles and hyperpigmentation, and can help prevent skin sagging. It’s tolerated by many, but those with hypersensitive skin may experience irritation. That’s why choosing a 5% to 10% concentration can be helpful, even though a 20% concentration is most common.

BEAUTYSTAT Universal C Eye Perfector contains 5% pure and stable vitamin C to help prevent the signs of aging without irritation. LA ROCHE-POSAY Vitamin C Serum contains 10% ascorbic acid to leave skin looking brighter and more hydrated. 

  • AHAs 

Alpha hydroxy acids are key for reducing the appearance of pores, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation like age spots and melasma. It’s best for those with oily, combination, or acne-prone skin types, but they can be too strong for some. For example, a 10% glycolic acid at-home peel can seriously exfoliate skin, but using something with a lower concentration, such as PAULA’S CHOICE Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA, may be more gentle on the skin.

You can think of lactic acid the same way. Though it’s often even more tolerated than glycolic acid, for skincare microdosing, you’ll still want to look for a low concentration for easier use. We love SUNDAY RILEY Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment (with about 5% lactic acid) and THE ORDINARY Lactic Acid 10% + HA for the addition of hydrating hyaluronic acid. 

  • BHAs

You probably know about the magic of salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid that helps unclog pores and decreases redness and swelling. But if you’ve tried the ingredient in an acne treatment, you know it can cause some serious damage to the skin barrier even when it banishes breakouts. Two percent is the maximum amount the FDA allows in over-the-counter salicylic acid products, so to microdose, you’ll want to look for closer to 0.5% or 1%.

We love both PAULA’s CHOICE Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant and GLOSSIER Solution with .5% salicylic acid for banishing breakouts without causing peeling skin. 

  • Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) 

This trending ingredient is popping up everywhere these days. It’s stellar at treating hyperpigmentation and sun damage, as well as regulating oil and calming the inflammation in breakouts. Some may tolerate the common 10% formulation, but dermatologists recommend those with sensitive skin or a skin condition like eczema start with a low concentration of 2% to 5% niacinamide. We recommend trying GLOSSIER Super Pure Niacinamide + Zinc Serum

  • Retinol (Vitamin A) 

Retinoids are some of the hardest ingredients to tolerate, but they also reap the biggest reward. Many say using vitamin A has kept them from trying Botox—that’s how well it can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, while also banishing acne. Pretty major. The most common retinol is a 1% concentration, which can come along with some irritating side effects. For more gentle exfoliation that still does the job, look for .25% to .5%. (Just don’t forget moisturizer!)

Try THE ORDINARY Retinol 0.5% in Squalane and L'ORÉAL PARIS Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum.

Any Side Effects

Even when microdosing, irritation can occur after incorporating any new skincare product. Dr. Rossi recommends that those with sensitive skin try products on their inner forearm to see if they react to it before applying it over the entire face. Plus, adding hydrating ingredients and heavier moisturizers can combat many of the dry and irritating side effects. Otherwise, microdosing is generally well-tolerated and better than not using skincare at all.

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About the author
Elizabeth Denton
Elizabeth is a freelance beauty writer. Previously, she was a beauty & fashion editor at Time Out New York, Seventeen, & Allure. She has more than a decade of experience in the beauty and fashion world, writing for Nylon, StyleCaster, Cosmopolitan & more.
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Article Last Updated December 17, 2021 12:00 AM