I have ridiculously sensitive and dry skin. And I don't mean to say that occasionally, after rubbing it with acids and scrubs, my face gets a little raw—no, I mean that sometimes, just for fun, my skin erupts in a smattering of hives and stinging red marks, all because I dared to try a cream with ingredients harsher than water.
Basically, my face is a Fabergé egg. And that makes treating my hormonal breakouts and fine lines an impossible nightmare, because all retinoids (the umbrella term for vitamin-A derivatives, like the well-known retinol) leave my face burning and flaking for weeks, even when padded with multiple moisturizers and prayers.
So when, in the depths of Reddit, I discovered a magical way to use retinoids to treat acne without destroying your skin, my tiny, cynical heart rejoiced. Meet Short Contact Therapy (SCT), a method of using a potentially irritating product, like retinoids, as a quick, wash-off mask to give you the same overnight benefits, but without the irritation. And if my newly pristine skin says anything (it does), SCT really works.
But why use retinoids and not your classic salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide? Aside from giving you the added wrinkle-fighting bonuses, retinoids also work deep within your skin to help prevent acne from ever forming.
"Retinoids are an excellent long-term acne treatment, since they regulate the shedding of the cells that lead to clogged pores," says Yale dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD. "In situations where a retinoid is just too irritating, though, short contact therapy can be the perfect choice, since some contact is certainly better than no contact."
So how short is short? Anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes, according to the most well-cited SCT study, which tested 0.1-percent tazarotene gel (also known as Tazorac or Avage) on acne-prone patients for 12 weeks. Participants were instructed to apply the retinoid to clean, dry skin, once or twice a day, leaving it on for up to five minutes before rinsing it off.
Surprisingly, almost all patients, regardless of how long they kept the gel on their skin within the five-minute maximum, saw a significant decrease in acne by the end of week 12. In fact, the highest success rate was actually among the participants who used it only once a day for upwards of three-and-a-half minutes, with almost a 70-percent reduction in overall zits.
Of course, I feel the need to add the very obvious disclaimer that your mileage may vary, and your SCT will probably require some trial and error. Since I'm lazy AF, for example, I didn't want to get a prescription for tazarotene gel, so instead I grabbed an over-the-counter retinoid Differin (a 0.1-percent adapalene gel you can get at drugstores), which is about four-times weaker than tazarotene.
So every night four the last four months, I've had to convert the study's instructions to fit my weak gel, quadrupling application times and setting timers to remind myself to wash it off, while keeping notes on my phone. Yes, it sounds like a lot of effort, but if you have temperamental skin and a deep-hatred of acne, you feel me.
Plus, I just finished my fourth month of SCT, and my skin has seriously never looked smoother, and all of the random bumps and clogged pores on my T-zone have disappeared. For me, the extra hassle and basic mental math was totally worth it.
Although Dr. Gohara stresses that patients try to use their retinoids as prescribed ("at least two to three times a week to start, until you build tolerance," she says), SCT is still a viable option for anyone dealing with comedonal acne, like whiteheads and blackheads, or random bumps and rough patches, and can't handle typical acne medications or retinoids.
No, SCT won't give you the same hardcore anti-acne and anti-aging results that you'd get by leaving your retinoid on overnight, but it'll at least treat mild acne without destroying your skin, which is all this Fabergé-faced lady can hope for. Well, that and literally perfect skin, but hey.
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