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Retinol has become a skincare all-star in recent years for its ability to combat signs of aging. Retinol helps boost collagen, improve wrinkles, reduce acne, and more.
Yet, for some people, all this may come at the price of seriously irritated skin, known as retinol burn. Here’s how to spot a skin reaction from retinol use and tips for avoiding it in the future.
What is retinol burn?
Also called a retinoid reaction, retinol burn is a term for severe skin irritation arising from retinol use. This skincare compound is considered less irritating than some other retinoids––a collective of broader class vitamin A-based compounds––but retinol can still be pretty irritating (Mukherjee, 2006).
Some people experience irritation and sensitivity when first using retinol. Irritation can be severe and result in redness, pain, and peeling skin. When side effects reach this stage, it’s called retinol burn (Buchanan, 2016).
Signs of retinol burn
- Excessive skin dryness
- Flaky or peeling skin
- Skin pain or sensitivity
- Redness or discoloration
Why does retinol make your skin peel?
These side effects have to do with the reason retinol is such a stellar skincare product in the first place: it prompts faster skin cell turnover. This is when you shed dead skin cells and create new ones (Leyden, 2017).
The downfall is that cell turnover sometimes happens faster than your skin can regenerate itself. This temporarily thins our protective skin barrier, causing skin sensitivity and irritation.
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Retinol burn treatments
Experiencing retinol burn after treatment can be disappointing—this was supposed to work anti-aging wonders on your skin! Fortunately, you can address retinol burn in a few simple ways.
1. Take a break
If your skin shows signs of injury or you’re experiencing severe pain, stop using retinol and let your dermatologist know. These prescription products can make skin vulnerable to damage, especially if you’re using them for the first time.
If you recognize signs of retinol burn, take a break and give your skin time to heal. Continue to practice good sun protection by wearing a high-SPF sunscreen. Stick with gentle cleansers that are hydrating and fragrance-free. Avoid exfoliating and wearing makeup, and keep your skincare routine as basic as possible.
Once your skin recovers, talk to your dermatologist about the right next step. It may be that you can restart your retinol treatment or switch to a milder concentration of retinol. It may not be the right product for you if you experience retinol burn from even the mildest forms of retinoids available (Mukherjee, 2006).
2. Pain relief
Applying ice to swollen or burned areas of your face can relieve retinol burn pain. Short-term use (less than two weeks) of topical corticosteroids like hydrocortisone cream can also help with swelling and discomfort.
Sometimes your pharmacy can combine a 1% concentration of hydrocortisone with your retinol product. Aloe vera is also widely available for temporarily soothing burned and irritated skin (Mukherjee, 2006).
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3. Watch and wait
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).
4. Adjust your retinol routine
There are several strategies clinicians recommend to minimize sensitive skin from retinol use, including (Leyden, 2017):
- Applying the product every other day
- Using a smaller amount (roughly pea-sized)
- Mixing moisturizer with retinol to soften the effects, sometimes called skin-buffering
- Trying the short contact method for the first few weeks, which means washing it off after 30–60 minutes instead of leaving on overnight
- Avoiding over-cleansing skin and not using antibacterial soaps on your face
How to prevent retinol burn
If you’re concerned about retinol burn, you can preemptively try some of the above strategies to minimize skin irritation. Here are three other ways to protect your skin and prevent a retinol reaction.
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1. Find the right retinoid for you
Retinol is a member of the retinoid family, and a wide variety of skin products stem from this group. Over-the-counter retinoid creams tend to be lower-strength and less irritating. Prescription retinoid creams and oral pills are stronger (and more effective) but may bother the skin more.
2. Start with a low dose
For retinol and other retinoids, it’s best to start with the “less is more” principle and work from there. Start with a low dose and topical product, and see if that works for you, then build up to something stronger like tretinoin (brand name Retin-A; see Important Safety Information) only if needed (an oral retinoid that is stronger than retinol) (Buchanan, 2016).
3. Know your skin type
Clinical studies have found that a history of sensitive skin is the best predictor of who will experience irritation from retinol use. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t use it if you have sensitive skin.
Give your dermatologist a full picture of your skin type and any sensitivities you’ve experienced, and let them know if skin irritation or pain resulted from specific products (Leyden, 2017).
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No matter your skin type, a healthcare professional can recommend the most appropriate dose and form of retinol to suit your skin. This way, you can work towards improved skin while lowering your chances of retinol burn.
- Buchanan, P. J. & Gilman, R. H. (2016). Retinoids: Literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, 9(3), 139–144. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.191653. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5064676/
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why topical retinoids are mainstay of therapy for acne. Dermatology and Therapy, 7(3), 293–304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28585191/
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, et. al. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: An overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 1(4), 327–348. doi:10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2699641/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.