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Skinimalism: microdosing skincare
Illustration Marija Marc

Should you be microdosing your skincare?

Using small amounts of ingredients like retinol and chemical exfoliants can offer a more consistent, affordable, and less wasteful beauty routine

Microdosing is having a moment. Whether it is magic mushrooms as a form of self-care or acid as pain relief, “little and often” is this year’s wellness mantra. But should you be microdosing your skincare?

If you have ever been on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok, you will have probably watched a skincare routine; on TikTok, for example, #skincareroutine has 12.2 billion views. Over the last few years, the Korean 10-step skincare routine has been widely adopted with people building expansive routines in the search for flawless skin. But now, skincare trends are beginning to look a little different. At the start of the year, Pinterest voted ‘skinimalism’ – a “more is less” approach that strips back beauty and focuses on sustainable consumption – as the top 2021 beauty trend.

An emerging branch of skinimalism is microdosing – applying small amounts or using low concentrations of the active ingredients that have become popular in skincare routines, such as retinol and chemical exfoliants. “Microdosing is about trying to cumulatively get active ingredients onto and into the skin so that over time there is a gradual improvement,” says aesthetic doctor and Selfridges resident, Dr Jonquille Chantrey.

“As soon as I learnt what microdosing your skincare was, I realised it is something I am already doing,” says Ngoc Bui, a 27-year-old from Pennsylvania. “I tried the 10-step Korean skincare routine when it was a big thing, but it was too time consuming and unsustainable for someone like me who doesn’t need every anti-ageing product out there.” Fed up of wasting expensive BHAs, and retinol creams that were too harsh to use regularly but reached their expiry dates before she could finish them, Bui began buying diluted retinol serums that can be regularly applied in small amounts. “It is more affordable, less harsh, and won’t cause breakouts if I skip a day or two in my routine,” she says.

A recent study commissioned by centre:MK found that the average UK adult spends almost £400 a year on skincare. The rise of microdosing encourages brands to create multi-functional products that dilute retinol concentration through the combination of ingredients and lower percentage products that can be used more frequently. This reflects an encouraging prioritisation of slower and more sustainable consumption across the beauty industry.

Retinol, a derivative of Vitamin A, is the most commonly microdosed skincare product. “Retinoic acid is a treatment for severe skin conditions such as pigmentation or acne, whilst retinol is used more frequently in the skin cosmeceutical world,” explains Chantrey, adding that both serve a similar purpose: “Retinol helps clear out the hair follicle, increase skin cell turnover and regulate oil gland production.” As a result, skin is less congested, helping to reduce breakouts, and looks brighter and clearer. Vitamin A derivatives can also impact skin wrinkles so retinol is often marketed as an anti-ageing product. 

“(Microdosing) is more affordable, less harsh, and won’t cause breakouts if I skip a day or two in my routine” – Ngoc Bui

Claudia Kildow, a 23-year-old from Florida, started using retinol after researching how to smooth textured skin. Kildow always microdoses anything new she is introducing into her routine, to reduce the risk of irritation. “After a week of putting a pea-sized amount in my moisturiser at night, I bumped it up gradually,” she says. “Now I’m able to put a full dropper straight onto my skin.”

“Skincare is all about patient compliance,” Chantrey tells Dazed. “Some patients are super motivated and skintellectual – if I give them a complex protocol they stick to it, but for the ones that aren’t as motivated, we microdose.” For Chantrey, the secret to skincare is dedication and regularity: “I would always rather a patient be on a lower dose and use it more frequently than a higher dose that just sits in the cupboard and is never used.” Microdosing helps cement your skincare routine, trading patience for long term results. 

Alexis B, a 28-year-old from New Zealand, suffers from adult acne, and initially started applying retinol every night with no microdosing period. After experiencing irritation, she tried slowly introducing the product to her skin instead. “This meant my skin could adapt to having retinol/Retin-A in my skincare routine without totally trashing my moisture barrier,” she says. “I still had some peeling and dryness but that eventually went away.”

In many ways, the rise of the skincare influencer has democratised skincare; products such as retinol that might otherwise have only been prescribed by expensive dermatologists are now easily accessible and widely used. While the benefits of making skincare more accessible are clear, introducing a product like retinol without the advice of an expert can increase the risk of a bad reaction. 

“I used a high percentage retinol for the first time at the beginning of 2020, and it completely ruined my skin and my skin barrier,” says 23-year-old Charlotte Gamage from London. As someone with dermatitis and sensitive skin, the experience put Gamage off retinol entirely. Then, she read about microdosing and decided to experiment with the ‘13 Dot Technique’ (putting 13 fingertip-sized dots of product all over the face to regulate product quantity). “Since I started microdosing my skincare, I’ve found my skin is less sensitised from acids and retinol and on its best behaviour,” she says.

Microdosing skincare and skinimalism are “part of a shift to more empowered consumers that want to simultaneously look after their skin, mental wellbeing and the state of the planet”, says Abi Buller, foresight writer at The Future Laboratory. The rejection of 10-step routines and excessive consumption of skincare products is a step in the sustainable direction and the migration of the term ‘microdosing’ suggests the advent of a more holistic approach to wellness in the years to come.

“If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have said that I'm a 10-step skincare kind of girl. But now, I feel like I am steering more towards skinimalism,” says Gamage. “Since discovering products that work for my skin, I've stripped my routine back and I don't need all the excess product.”