Your daily routine is chock full of all the ‘best’ ingredients skincare has to offer. Theoretically, that’s great. But how is your complexion tolerating all of those actives? For many, the answer is, well, not great. If you have sensitive skin or the ingredients in your regimen are having a sensitizing effect that leads to prolonged redness, irritation, dryness, or even breakouts, it may be time to consider a different approach.
Once upon a time, the only solution may have been to discontinue use of the irritant altogether, yet skin experts are increasingly preaching the virtues of an application technique that allows you to reap some of the benefits of potent products with less side effects. Enter short contact therapy — a method that helps the skin slowly adjust to the products you're using. Below, two dermatologists break down everything you need to know about the pros and cons of short contact therapy.
What Is Short Contact Therapy?
As its name suggests, short contact therapy involves shortening up the amount of time potent products and ingredients stay on the skin. It refers to “the topical application technique for potentially irritating products that helps improve the local tolerability of a product,” says Tiffany Libby, MD, a Rhode Island-based board certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon. As she explains, the idea is to apply the product for a short period of time — anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes (depending on the person) — and then rinse it off.
By limiting the contact with the skin, short contact therapy reduces the potential “for irritant contact dermatitis that is commonly seen with certain ingredients,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell. Some of the main culprits? Retinoids and benzoyl peroxide, she adds.
The Benefits of Short Contact Therapy
If you’ve ever used a rinse-off face mask, at-home chemical peel, or even a cleanser, then you’ve practiced short contact therapy. These formulas are specifically designed to deliver active ingredients into the skin quickly (i.e. in whatever amount of time the directions call for) to leave the complexion brighter, tighter, and/or more hydrated. This is true regardless of your skin type.
But the same rationale can be applied to any potent product — particularly if you are prone to sensitivity. For those with sensitive skin, short contact therapy can be a gentle and effective way to introduce potential irritants to your skincare routine. Applying the products in short spurts helps increase the skin’s tolerance. Over time, many people are able to increase the frequency and length of application.
Not only does this technique minimize irritation, but it also maximizes results. When the skin is irritated or compromised, products and ingredients often cannot work as intended. Healthy skin, however, can soak in all the benefits and allow them penetrate deeper into the skin. And then there is the fact that the application technique takes some of the guesswork out of product layering. “Short contact therapy leaves less residue on the skin, which may be helpful for someone who finds it difficult to layer on products or cosmetics after certain active ingredients,” Dr. Garshick notes.
What Short Contact Therapy Treats
“Technically, short contact can be used to treat any skincare concern that the specific product is trying to address,” Dr. Garshick says. As a result, you can try it with pretty much any formula or ingredient, but there are a few stronger actives that it makes a lot of sense for:
- Vitamin A derivatives (read: retinol and retinoids)
- Benzoyl Peroxide
- Vitamin C
- Hydroxy Acids (alpha, beta, poly)
Short contact therapy can be beneficial for all skin types, but Dr. Libby notes that those with mild to moderate acne benefit significantly from this method. Breakout-busting topicals are known to be drying and irritating, so those who are struggling to handle them or find it difficult to leave retinol on for a more extended period of time should give it a try, she adds.
As we mentioned earlier, most at-home peels and enzyme treatments practice short contact therapy, yet they still might be too aggressive for some. If that sounds like you, Dr. Libby suggests instead considering an active-packed cleanser that is designed to be used more frequently but for less time. “I often leave on the chemical exfoliating face wash on desired areas of treatment two to three times per week, rather than a stronger and potentially harsher peel once a week,” she shares.
Drawbacks of Short Contact Therapy
Even though short contact therapy reduces the chance of irritation, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you’re still experiencing sensitivity, take it even slower. “You may want to start with a shorter duration — like 30 seconds contact then rinsing off — and a lower frequency,” Dr. Libby says. “For example, try one to two times per week and build up from there.”
Patience is key when introducing any skincare product, but that’s especially the case with short contact therapy. “Theoretically, the shorter the contact, the potential for less clinical result,” Dr. Garshick cautions. Even so, you will likely still see results, just over a longer period of time.
We may be conditioned to think a product is only working if it is stinging or causing irritation, but that is simply not the case. In fact, that mentality can do more harm than good. If you know you have sensitive skin or if you are experiencing sensitization as a result of your skincare routine, talk to your board certified dermatologist to determine the root cause of the sensitivity and ask if short contact therapy may be right for you.
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