Everything You Need to Know About Retinoid Side Effects

Perfect skin requires a smidgen of suffering—unless you read this.
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Oct, 2022
Everything You Need to Know About Retinoid Side Effects

Yes, seemingly every dermatologist, esthetician, and beauty editor alive seems to rave about retinol like it’s ice cream, but that’s like showing off your washboard abs without talking about the sweaty pain involved. If you know about the amazing effects of retinoids, chances are you know about their side effects too. Retinoids, such as retinol and its various forms, can cause skin irritation and peeling, especially when first using the product.

Although we know retinoids can be a game-changer when it comes to skincare, it’s essential to educate yourself about a product, including how it can affect your skin and how to use it properly before going all in.

So, what are some retinol side effects on the skin, and why do they happen? Here’s everything you need to know about retinol side effects and how you can minimize the risks.

Why Do Retinoids Cause Side Effects in the First Place?

Why Do Retinoids Cause Side Effects in the First Place?

Retinol, which is derived from vitamin A, as all forms of retinol are, causes changes to your skin that can help reduce the signs of aging. However, since it can positively impact your skin’s appearance, the positive changes it causes aren’t without their side effects.

Before diving into retinol’s side effects on the skin, it helps to understand how retinol works. Retinol accelerates the process of skin cell renewal. A process often referred to as cellular turnover. This process naturally decreases as you age, which means sun damage, wrinkles, and dark spots can accumulate faster. 

However, when introducing retinol, this superstar skincare ingredient helps speed up the process once again. The result is increased collagen production, healthier and younger-looking skin, and fewer signs of aging. 

This is why retinol can do everything from help clear up acne to minimize pores, increase collagen production, minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation and keep those wrinkles under wraps. And let’s not forget retinol can improve skin tone and texture

But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)

Since retinol accelerates cellular turnover, your skin is getting rid of more skin cells than usual. While your skin adjusts to this process, there’s a period when dead skin cells are gone, but new ones have yet to take their place, which can cause the peeling, itching, redness, and burning that some call a retinol burn or the retinol uglies. Some people may even have tender skin or experience breakouts as part of retinol side effects. 

Retinol Side Effects You May Experience

Retinol Side Effects You May Experience

So what are some retinol cream side effects? Whether you’re using a cream, serum, or lotion, some retinol side effect you may experience include:

  • Burning
  • Dryness
  • Itching
  • Peeling
  • Redness
  • Scaly skin

These retinol side effects generally happen within the first few weeks of using the product. The risk increases if you use a prescription-strength product or a higher concentration of retinol.  

Are There Risks to Using Retinoids?

Are There Risks to Using Retinoids?

There are some risks to using retinoids outside of the visible side effects they can cause. While retinoids are considered to be safe to use—even long-term—there are a few things to be aware of. 

First, retinol is not safe for use during pregnancy. This means if you are actively trying to conceive or are already expecting a little one, hold off on using retinol. Prescription retinoids, such as tretinoin, are riskier than OTC options, but avoiding retinoids completely during pregnancy is recommended. 

Another risk to be aware of is the increased risk of sun sensitivity with retinol use. If you are already at higher risk for skin cancer, you need to be extra cautious when using retinoids.

Minimizing Retinol Side Effects (And Choosing the Best Retinol for Your Skin Type)

Minimizing Retinol Side Effects

You can minimize skin peeling with retinol and retinol side effects on the skin by easing retinol into your skincare routine. Newbie retinol users should never start out by using retinol every day. Only use retinol twice a week to allow your skin time to adjust to it.

If you’re still having a hard time adjusting to retinol, it may be time to consider switching to a different type of retinoid or a different product. Some forms of retinol and some concentrations can be too harsh on the skin, depending on your skin type and tolerance.

Always use retinol at night, whether or not your skin has adjusted to it. Retinol can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it should not be applied in the morning or during the day, particularly if you are spending time outside. And remember to always use sunscreen to protect your skin from sun damage, especially when using retinoids.

How else can you minimize retinol cream side effects?

Minimize retinol cream side effects
  1. Choose a retinoid for your skin type 

Remember that prescription-strength retinoids (which include tretinoin, adapalene, and tazarotene) can be much harsher on the skin than OTC retinoids. So, if you’re using a prescription-strength product, always follow your derm’s instructions.

If you’re like the rest of us looking for an OTC retinol, retinol is a good consideration for normal or oily skin types, while dry or sensitive skin types may need a milder version, such as retinyl palmitate. Retinaldehyde is the strongest form available OTC for those who can tolerate it. However, all forms of retinol can have some beneficial effects. 

2. Use with a moisturizer 

You can minimize retinol side effects on the skin by using it with a moisturizer. For example, don’t apply a product with retinol directly to your skin—layer it with a moisturizer to help your skin adjust, especially if you have a darker skin tone. Retinol irritation is more likely to trigger hyperpigmentation for those with darker skin tones. 

3. Don’t use too much 

Applying a generous amount of product to your face is tempting but hold off on doing this when getting started with retinol. You want to use as little product as possible at first to allow your skin time to adjust.

4. Avoid mixing ingredients 

Although you can use retinol with different skincare ingredients, certain combinations can be too harsh for the skin, especially other exfoliating ingredients such as AHAs and BHAs.

Find Out Your Skin Type With Our Free Quiz

Have YOU seen skin peeling with retinol or other retinol side effects even after giving your skin time to acclimate to the product? If so, it may be time to switch to a different product. Knowing your skin type can help you choose the right products, so take our free skin type quiz now!

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