What To Do If You Have A Retinol Burn

Like rugs and summer slides, retinol can give you a good burn. Here’s how to deal.
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Apr, 2023
how to treat retinol burn

How to treat retinol burn? What’s the deal, retinol? You’re supposed to give us the best skin of our lives, but you’re so irritating.

We all know retinol is a skin superstar for anti-aging. But like many great things about life, it’s not without its downsides. People who are new to retinol can experience redness, irritation, or sensitivity, aka “retinization” and sometimes dubbed the “retinol uglies”. These can both be classified as what’s commonly called retinol burn.

Despite its fake-sounding names, retinol burn is real. And the higher concentration of retinol you use, the more irritating its effect can be on your skin. If you’re using an over-the-counter (OTC) retinol product, you’ll be at less risk for retinol burn, but you can still experience it. 

Let’s have a closer look at the signs of a retinol burn as well as how you can avoid it. And how to treat retinol burn so YOU can get your gorgeous skin back!

What Are the Signs of a Retinol Burn?

What Are the Signs of a Retinol Burn

If you’re experiencing a retinol burn, your skin could be flaky and dry, but it could also be red, irritated, or even discolored.

YOUR skin may begin peeling or be so irritated that it stings when you try to put anything on it. It may feel itchy, inflamed, and be more sensitive to the sun. (It’s worth noting that retinol makes skin more sensitive to the sun anyway. So using sunscreen is essential when using retinol products.)

People who suffer from acne and have retinol burn may also experience more breakouts, which can be frustrating since retinol is supposed to help acne!

Why Retinol Burn Happens?

Why Retinol Burn Happens

Retinol is supposed to help your skin, so why is it hurting it?!

To understand this, it’s crucial to know how retinol works. Retinols help speed up the process of cellular turnover, which is a natural process in your skin, but it slows down with age. With retinol, cells renew themselves faster, like they did when you were younger.

So when cellular turnover is all of a sudden happening at a faster rate, there may not be enough time for your skin to produce new cells, even though the old ones are gone. The result can be extra peeling, stinging, redness, and sensitivity—classic signs of a retinol burn.

It’s pretty much very normal for people who are new to retinol—especially people who are more prone to skin sensitivity—to experience signs of contact dermatitis such as redness, dryness, and itching. However, if your skin is beyond just a little irritated, you could be seeing a retinol burn, which is nothing to play around with.

A retinol burn typically happens within 24 hours of using a new retinol product. Especially the burn is a prescription-strength one, and the effects can take a bit to go away. Potentially it takes a week or even longer, depending on how you take care of your skin and your skin type.

How to Treat Retinol Burn and Get Your Skin Back

Get Your Skin Back

How to treat retinol burn basically boils down to babying your skin for the next week. The good news for you is that eventually, your skin will go back to normal. It’ll just take time. Fortunately, there are still a few things that you can do on your skin to help it heal faster.

  • First, stop using all products that contain retinol. You’ll need to avoid retinol while your skin is going back to normal.
  • If your retinol burn is severe, you can apply ice.
  • Don’t use any harsh skincare products, such as peroxide, AHAs and BHAs, acids, exfoliators, and fragrances. Don’t exfoliate while your skin is healing. Only use the most gentle of skincare products!
  • If you’re experiencing a retinol burn from a prescription product, call your prescribing doctor and let them know your symptoms.
  • When your skin is all healed, don’t just go back to using the same retinol product you were that caused the burn in the first place. You need to start retinol at a lower dose and allow your skin to adjust before working your way back up to the retinol product with the higher concentration.

Tips to Avoid Retinol Burn 

Tips to Avoid Retinol Burn

Instead of wondering how to treat retinol burn, it’s important to know what to do to prevent it in the first place. And even more important especially if you’re thinking about introducing a retinol product to your skincare routine.

Here’s the list of things that you can do to avoid a retinol burn:

  • Don’t start strong—prescription-strength products are much more likely to cause retinol burn. If you want to use a prescription product, consider starting with an OTC retinol product first and then increasing the dose over time. OTC products are ones that contain a .03% concentration of retinol.
  • “Buffering” is a popular technique to prevent retinol burn, which is applying retinol at the same time as your moisturizer (provided it doesn’t contain any ingredients that you shouldn’t mix). Applying retinol with your moisturizer can help you build a tolerance to retinol better than using retinol on its own.
  • Always make sure to use sunscreen during the day to help prevent any irritation or damage that exposing retinol to sunlight can cause.
  • When starting a retinol routine, make sure your skin barrier is in good shape beforehand. The skin should be hydrated and not irritated or dry.
  • Don’t apply retinol every day when starting. Trying using it every other day or even every third day if your skin is sensitive. And you can work up to every day over time.

Have You Had a Retinol Burn Before?

If YOU’VE had a retinol burn before, let us know in the comments below! How to treat retinol burn is an essential thing to know. But it’s also good to know how to prevent it so you can protect your skin while you’re adjusting to a new routine!


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  1. I applied a new strong retinol eye cream under both eyes, but only have redness under ONE of them–anyone know if that’s normal for retinol burns? Maybe it’s something else.

    • Hello! Yes, it’s normal to have a retinol burn or redness in one area on the face and not the other. It’s possible to have sensitive skin in one area and not the other. That includes the skin underneath the eyes as well. The skin underneath your eye that’s red may be sensitive. This actually happened to me before on the skin underneath the right side of my eye.

      Use a lower percentage of retinol in the area on the face that’s sensitive. Also, you can try using a retinol alternative called “Bio-Retinol”.

      Read these articles to learn about retinol alternatives.



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