Whether you’re a retinol newbie or a well-seasoned user, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Retinol is an amazing ingredient for your skin. It has the unique ability to fight fine lines, boost collagen, even pigmentation, fade dark spots, and can even help to combat acne. However, there are some not-so-fun retinol side effects that can come with the ingredient if you accidentally overuse it.
"People are eager to start a new retinol and think more is more, but that is not the case—you have to be super careful when introducing it into your skincare routine," says skincare expert Dr. Shereene Idriss. "Overuse or incorrect use can be either using the product too often/in the wrong spots on your face or starting off with an intense formula that is too strong for your skin. Less is more with retinols and it’s important to listen to your skin during the adjustment period."
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Shereene Idriss is a board certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in NYC. She is the creator of the #Pillowtalkderm series on Instagram.
- Dr. Mervyn Patterson is the medical director of Woodford Medical and has over 20 years of experience in the aesthetic medicine field.
Retinol irritation got you feeling extra sensitive? Read on for expert advice on how to rehab your skin after retinol burn.
Signs You May Have Retinol Burn
The telltale signs of retinol burn include skin that is red, irritated, flaky, inflamed, sore to the touch, and/or shedding. "You could also be experiencing breakouts or inflamed acne that is not usual for your skin," adds Idriss.
These symptoms may sound vaguely similar to any skin irritation or dry dermis woes, but there is a stark difference when it comes to retinization. "With a retinol burn, skin is going to be more and more raw, more irritated, and more 'angry,' whereas other skin conditions don't necessarily have those symptoms," says Idriss. "I also think history is super important for you to really think back about when you used the retinol and when your skin started becoming dry and irritated because this is where history is everything."
What Causes Retinol Burn
"Retinol encourages cell division in the deepest (basal) layer of cells," explains Patterson. "Too much retinol will produce too much cell division, causing large numbers of immature cells to rise up to the surface without the proper bonds to hold them together." When too many cells rise up to the surface, the skin can start to peel, as the lipids and bonds that are needed to hold them together haven’t yet formed. Without these protective bonds, other skincare products are also able to penetrate deeper than they’re supposed to, resulting in skin sensitivity, stinging, and redness. On the skincare spectrum, retinol naturally leans toward the more irritating meaning overuse or incorrect use can quickly lead to a negative reaction and if you're part of the sensitive skin club you may react faster.
"If you have extremely sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, or another inflammatory skin condition and still want to use retinol, apply to dry skin after applying a moisturizer to act as a buffer," advises Idriss who cautions against using any additional exfoliation on the same night.
Go-To Retinol Burn Treatments (According to an Expert)
If you're experiencing retinol burn, start by paring back your skincare. "Cut out all exfoliating acids for risk acuity and stop using any sort of other retinol alternative," says Idriss. "If your skin is really red and angry, you could use a topical over-the-counter steroid for a few days—a few days being key because you don't want to overuse steroids on your skin." The topical steroids will reduce the inflammation and allow the body's natural healing process to take over.
Your grandmother's favorite do-it-all skincare staple does it again. "You want to protect your skin barrier," says Idriss. "Honestly, Vaseline is your best bet." Petroleum jelly, the primary ingredient in Vaseline, is an occlusive that creates a barrier on top of the skin to protect the agitated area from further irritation and keeps bacteria from getting in. While the product won't help add moisture, it will lock moisture in to support healing.
Preventing Retinol Burns
When it’s time to reintroduce retinol into your routine, consider starting with a lower-strength product and building up the potency (and your tolerance) gradually over time. "My number one tip is consistency over intensity," says Idriss. "Using the least intense form of retinol over weeks, months, or even years will allow your skin to adjust more seamlessly to the product and will limit irritation so skin will be nourished, firm, and at rest to receive all of the best benefits."
A good starting point is 0.3 percent retinol. Only use it twice a week at first, and slowly build your tolerance over time. You just need a thin layer (a dime-sized blob is enough for treating the face) and avoid any sensitive areas like your eyes (especially the eyelids!) and the creases around the sides of your nose as the product tends to gather here and can worsen flaking. "If the retinol is too strong, go for a retinol ester instead. If a retinol ester is too light, go for a retinal followed by a retinoic acid and then go for a prescription," says Idriss. "You want to treat your retinols as if they are caviar—less is more. When used correctly, they help to even out pigmentation, help support collagen production, and help smooth out fine lines."
For the sensitive mouth, upper lip, and chin region, Idriss advises moisturizing the area first and applying the thinnest layer of retinol on top.
How to Combat Retinol Side Effects
So what do you do if you’ve overdone it with retinol? Don’t panic. Be mindful that anything you use on your skin now has the ability to penetrate much deeper than usual, so try and avoid anything fragranced and look for calming products and ingredients like aloe and cica. Cica balms have been used for centuries to treat burns, cuts, irritation, and redness, so they're perfect at calming and soothing sensitized and irritated skin.
Retinol also makes your skin way more sensitive to UV rays, so it’s important to wear an SPF 50 daily and try to keep your skin out of the sun as much as possible while it heals.
As for makeup, try to avoid applying it until pain and redness have reduced. When it comes to foundation and concealer, look for products with a silicone base, as they won't penetrate or react with the skin at a deeper level.
Retinol burn usually lasts about three weeks, but can linger based on severity or lack or proper treatment. Duration may vary depending on skin type and will be prolonged if retinol usage isn't suspended.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there about retinols thinning out your skin, which it does not," says Idriss. "However, if you're extremely sensitive and retinols inflame your skin, having inflamed skin every single day over time is not a healthy alternative."(Video) BEST RETINOL FOR YOU | Doctorly Favorites
According to Idriss, an allergic reaction to retinol is an instantaneous response where the skin is immediately more red, inflamed, irritated, and even itchy. It should quickly calm and dissipate after suspending retinol use.
"A retinol purge is really just a temporary adjustment period in which, after starting a new retinol, your skin can get a little bit worse before getting better and it should only last about three weeks," explains Idriss. The irritated, bumpy, or inflamed skin of a purge will get better over time, whereas a reaction will not. "Some people believe these negative effects are all of the toxins coming up to the surface wanting to be released from your body, but this is not true and skincare is not an exorcism," adds Idriss.
Incorrect retinol usage can cause drying, flaking, shedding, redness, and irritation of the skin as well as exacerbated acne. Retinol will also increase skin sensitivity to UV rays.(Video) What you need to know before using retinol
How do I recover from too much retinol? ›
If your skin gets red or discolored and inflamed to the point where you are in pain, ice the area or apply a cold compress to help soothe your skin. Keep your skin routine as basic and gentle as possible while your skin heals from retinol burn, rinsing with cool water once per day and skipping makeup if you're able to.How do you survive the purge in retinol? ›
Keep Your Face Clean
Touching your face or allowing oil or bacteria to build up can also increase the side effects of the tretinoin purge. Only touch your face with clean hands and leave your skin to do its thing. Also try not to pick at flaky or dry skin caused by the purge. The dryness will dissipate over time.
Can Retinol Damage the Skin? You may have heard that extended retinol use can cause the skin to thin and the skin barrier to degrade as a result of increased cell turnover, but Shah says that's a myth. You don't need to worry about retinol causing permanent damage, Schlessinger says.How long does retinol burn take to heal? ›
Typically, skin irritation with retinol occurs for the first few weeks and then subsides as skin normalizes and the anti-inflammatory effects of treatment kick in. In cases of minor skin irritation, you can try waiting it out for 2–3 weeks and see if symptoms improve (Leyden, 2017).What does a retinol burn look like? ›
Symptoms of retinol burn appear as some redness on the skin. The redness is, again, a sign of some simple irritation which subsides in time. Another common reaction to the retinoid is skin peeling. However, this skin peeling subsides over time.How long do retinol uglies last? ›
However, Green notes that the side effect should clear up within two weeks, saying, "These symptoms typically last five to ten days, depending on your skin type and the concentration of the retinol. Once your skin is done purging, your skin should be smoother, clearer, and brighter than it previously was."What does retinol purge look like? ›
Think redness, new pimples, blackheads, and small bumps. According to Dr. Farber, it typically occurs in areas where you're already experiencing a breakout under the surface. That said, it's important to differentiate between a purge and a new, unrelated breakout.What to do if your skin is purging? ›
A person experiencing skin purging should continue using the products and adhere to their skin routine unless they have a severe allergic reaction. It may take some time for the skin to adjust to the new regimen and show improvements.How long does a skin purge last? ›
Generally speaking, dermatologists say purging should be over within four to six weeks of starting a new skin care regimen. If your purge lasts longer than six weeks, consult your dermatologist.Should you keep using retinol if your skin is peeling? ›
If you're experiencing excessive dryness and peeling from using retinol, stop using the product and consult a dermatologist. They may suggest a gentler formula or recommend that you limit your use of the ingredient (every other night or even just twice a week).
Why does my skin look worse after using retinol? ›
Skin purging happens when new ingredients, like retinol, promote increased cell turnover, which causes clogging and worsening breakouts. This is particularly the case as oil and debris that is trapped deeper underneath the skin comes to the surface.Should you use retinol under eyes? ›
Should you use retinol under your eyes? Yes, definitely. While it is true that retinol – a form of vitamin A – is a powerful ingredient and the skin under your eyes is delicate, there's no reason why you should miss out on the amazing benefits of retinol.Can you use Vaseline on retinol burn? ›
“I would not put anything occlusive over something that can irritate or peel the skin since this would help the [occlusive] last longer,” says Dr. Markowitz. You wouldn't want the Vaseline to intensify the side effects of retinol and make flaky skin worse.Can I put moisturizer over retinol? ›
Regardless of your skin type or which product you use first, a layer of moisturizer should always be applied after retinoids.What does an allergic reaction to retinol look like? ›
Signs of an allergic reaction, like rash; hives; itching; red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin with or without fever; wheezing; tightness in the chest or throat; trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking; unusual hoarseness; or swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat.Does aquaphor help retinol burn? ›
Aquaphor Healing Ointment: This ointment will quickly address any overly dry and red skin caused by powerful retinol. It is fragrance free, won't clog your pores, and can address any retinol burn practically overnight.How long will retinol make my skin peel? ›
The side effects of retinoids typically last around a month to a month and a half. This range of 4-6 weeks varies from person to person as the skin accustoms itself to the new product. If you're experiencing peeling that lasts longer than this period, please reach out to your provider.Can retinol make you look older? ›
“This will make your skin look older and accentuate wrinkles” — which is probably not what you're going for when you start using the stuff. And there's no question that retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun.Should I wash off retinol in the morning? ›
It's light sensitive so apply it at night before retiring. Wash it off in the morning then apply your other skin care products.What does retinol purging look like? ›
Most people who introduce retinol to their skin, experience severe breakouts, dryness, itchiness, and redness. The immediate side effects of retinol treatment can take the form of a surge in acne, blackheads, whiteheads, and rashes. This is termed retinol purging.
What does an allergic reaction to retinol look like? ›
What does an allergic reaction to retinol look like? According to Idriss, an allergic reaction to retinol is an instantaneous response where the skin is immediately more red, inflamed, irritated, and even itchy. It should quickly calm and dissipate after suspending retinol use.Why does my skin look worse after retinol? ›
Skin purging happens when new ingredients, like retinol, promote increased cell turnover, which causes clogging and worsening breakouts. This is particularly the case as oil and debris that is trapped deeper underneath the skin comes to the surface.Can you put too much retinol on your skin? ›
If you use too high a strength or apply retinol more frequently than you should, you may experience further irritation, like itchiness and scaly patches. Some people have noticed acne breakouts after using retinol, though this is a rare side effect.Should I keep using retinol if my face is peeling? ›
If you're experiencing excessive dryness and peeling from using retinol, stop using the product and consult a dermatologist. They may suggest a gentler formula or recommend that you limit your use of the ingredient (every other night or even just twice a week).How long does a skin purge last? ›
Generally speaking, dermatologists say purging should be over within four to six weeks of starting a new skin care regimen. If your purge lasts longer than six weeks, consult your dermatologist.How do you stop your skin from purging fast? ›
How to treat skin purging. “If the skin barrier is compromised when you see purging then start ingredients which help with barrier repair, such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid in a non-comedogenic formulation. If you are using a treatment or product continue with a slower approach.”Can I put moisturizer over retinol? ›
Regardless of your skin type or which product you use first, a layer of moisturizer should always be applied after retinoids.What can be used instead of retinol? ›
As Dr. King mentions, peptides make a great retinol alternative. Versions such as copper peptides, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, and hexapeptides increase skin elasticity and firmness, stimulate cell regeneration, and diminish creasing, respectively, making them extremely versatile when it comes to antiaging.Can retinol cream burn your skin? ›
Retinol burn occurs after you use skin care products that introduce your skin to high amounts of retinol. Retinol burn typically occurs within 24 hours.
“This will make your skin look older and accentuate wrinkles” — which is probably not what you're going for when you start using the stuff. And there's no question that retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Can you put retinol under eyes? ›
Should you use retinol under your eyes? Yes, definitely. While it is true that retinol – a form of vitamin A – is a powerful ingredient and the skin under your eyes is delicate, there's no reason why you should miss out on the amazing benefits of retinol.Should I wash retinol off in the morning? ›
Overnight you've loosened up dead skin cells with your glycolic acid or retinol products, making the morning a perfect time to brush them off.How do you dilute retinol? ›
For starters, you can add a small amount of the vitamin A derivative in with your facial cream to dilute it, or you can use what Marchbein calls "the sandwich technique." The latter involves applying a layer of cream to the skin, using your retinol of choice on top of that, and then slathering on even more moisturizer ...Is retinol burn normal? ›
Retinol burn may also occur depending on the formulation you're using and how often you're applying it. "Over-the-counter retinols tend to cause less irritation than prescription retinoids," says Chang. "It can take weeks for your skin to get used to them, so it's important to ease your way in.What happens if I use retinol every night? ›
Is it safe to use retinol every day? For most people, yes — once your skin is used to it, that is. That said, there are some people who may not want to use it frequently or at all.