What are the dangers of retinol? Exploring 5 potential side effects

Retinol, a powerhouse in skincare, has garnered immense popularity for its remarkable effects on aging and acne-prone skin. But like any potent ingredient, it comes with its own considerations.

This blog aims to highlight the lesser-discussed side of retinol – the potential side effects. Our skin, as unique as our personalities, reacts differently to various substances, making it crucial to understand both the benefits and risks of what we apply to it.

Our focus here is not to scare you away from retinol – far from it. Rather, it’s about arming you with knowledge so you can use this ingredient wisely and reap its benefits without unnecessary discomfort.

We will be exploring five common side effects, explaining why they occur, and offering tips to minimize them.

Whether you’re a seasoned retinol user or considering it for the first time, this information is crucial for a safe and effective skincare experience.

Are there any side effects to using retinol?

Understanding the potential side effects of retinol is essential for anyone integrating this potent ingredient into their skincare routine. It’s important to remember that while retinol can work wonders, it’s not without its risks.

Here, we’re going to walk through five common side effects of retinol, offering insights into why they occur and how you can manage them effectively.

1. Skin irritation and redness

One of the most common side effects of retinol is skin irritation, manifesting as redness, itching, or burning sensations [1].

This occurs because retinol accelerates skin cell turnover, which can be quite aggressive for the skin, especially at the beginning.

To keep this side effect under control:

  • Start with a lower concentration of retinol and use it sparingly, maybe once or twice a week.
  • Follow up with a good moisturizer to soothe your skin. Look for ingredients like ceramides or hyaluronic acid.
  • Your skin might take time to adjust. If the irritation is mild, give it a chance to settle.
  • If the redness or irritation is severe or persists, it’s wise to pause and consult a dermatologist.

Everyone’s skin reacts differently, so what might be a breeze for one person could be a challenge for another. It’s all about finding what works best for your skin.

2. Increased sensitivity to sunlight

Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, increasing the risk of sunburn. This sensitivity occurs because retinol thins the outer layer of the skin, reducing its natural protection against the sun.

Here are a few sun-safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Make sunscreen with at least SPF 30 a non-negotiable part of your daily routine, even on cloudy days.
  • During peak sun hours, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., try to stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Wear hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved clothing if you’re going to be outdoors for an extended period.
  • If you’ve recently applied retinol, be even more vigilant about sun protection. Your skin is more vulnerable at this time.

Remember, taking these extra steps doesn’t just prevent sunburn; it also helps you avoid the risk of long-term sun damage.

Increased sensitivity to sunlight

3. Dryness and flaking

Dryness and flaking are common as your skin adjusts to retinol. As retinol speeds up cell turnover, it can also strip away natural oils, leading to dry, flaky skin.

To manage this, here are some helpful tips:

  • Keep your skin moisturized. Look for products rich in hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin [2].
  • If flaking occurs, use a gentle exfoliator to remove dead skin cells. But remember, be gentle to avoid further irritation.
  • Apply a hydrating serum before your retinol to buffer its intensity and follow up with a good moisturizer.
  • Adding a humidifier to your room can also help by keeping the air moist, especially in dry climates or during winter.

A bit of dryness is normal when you’re starting out with retinol, but with proper care, your skin should adapt over time. If dryness persists, consider reducing the frequency of retinol use.

4. Peeling and blistering (in severe cases)

In some cases, particularly with high concentrations or overuse, retinol can cause peeling or even blistering of the skin. This is a sign that your skin is reacting strongly to retinol.

If you find yourself facing these symptoms, here’s what you should do:

  • First things first, give your skin a break from retinol. Continuing its use can exacerbate the problem.
  • Use gentle, soothing skincare products. Ingredients like aloe vera and chamomile can help calm your skin.
  • Stay away from other active skin ingredients like acids and scrubs, which can irritate your skin further.
  • It’s important to consult with a dermatologist, especially if blistering occurs. They can provide personalized advice and treatment options.

It’s crucial to remember that peeling and blistering are not the typical responses to retinol. If you experience these, it’s a sign to reassess your usage and consult a professional for the best course of action.

5. Potential long-term effects

Though not as common, prolonged use of high-concentration retinol may have some long-term effects on the skin, such as thinning or increased fragility.

Here’s what to consider for long-term retinol use:

  • Over time, high concentrations of retinol may thin the skin, making it more fragile.
  • Long-term use can lead to heightened skin sensitivity, making it more reactive to external factors.
  • Using retinol responsibly is crucial. It’s about finding the right balance that works for your skin without overdoing it.
  • Keep an eye on your skin’s health. If you notice any concerning changes, it’s worth discussing them with a dermatologist.

Skincare is personal. What works for one person may not work for another. It’s always a good idea to listen to your skin and adjust your skincare routine accordingly [3].

And when in doubt, a consultation with a skin care professional can provide clarity and direction.

How do you properly use retinol?

Using retinol safely is all about respecting your skin’s limits and understanding how to introduce this powerful ingredient into your routine without causing irritation.

Here’s how to ensure you’re getting the most out of retinol while keeping your skin happy and healthy:

  • Start slow: If you’re new to retinol, begin with a lower concentration. Apply it once or twice a week, and observe how your skin reacts. Gradually increase frequency as your skin becomes more accustomed to it.
  • Apply at night: Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s best to apply it in your nighttime routine.
  • Use sun protection: This can’t be stressed enough. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning to protect your skin from UV damage, which can be intensified by retinol use.
  • Moisturize: Follow up with a good moisturizer. Retinol can be drying, so keeping your skin hydrated is key.
  • Patience pays off: Don’t expect overnight results. Retinol works over time, so consistent patient use is important [4].
  • Layer wisely: Be cautious when using retinol with other active ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, or Vitamin C. It’s usually best to use these on alternate nights to avoid irritation.
  • Patch test: Before fully incorporating retinol into your routine, do a patch test to see how your skin reacts.

Most importantly, listen to your skin. If you experience significant irritation, step back and consult with a dermatologist. They can offer guidance tailored to your skin’s specific needs. 

How do you properly use retinol?

Who is retinol not suitable for?

While retinol can be a fantastic addition to many skincare routines, it’s not for everyone. Certain people should steer clear of it or at least approach it with caution.

Here’s a rundown of who might want to avoid retinol or seek professional advice before using it:

Pregnant or nursing mothers

This is a big one. Retinol and other Vitamin A derivatives are generally advised against during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It’s always best to opt for safer alternatives and consult with a healthcare provider.

Those with certain skin conditions

If you have eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis, retinol might exacerbate your symptoms. It’s best to have a chat with your dermatologist to assess if retinol is suitable for you.

Extremely sensitive skin

If your skin is particularly sensitive, retinol might be too harsh [5]. You could try gentler alternatives or use retinol sparingly, but always monitor your skin’s reaction.

People using certain medications

If you’re on prescription medication for acne, like Accutane, or using topical treatments that are already quite drying or peeling, adding retinol might be too much for your skin.

Those with a history of allergic reactions

If you’ve previously had allergic reactions to Vitamin A derivatives, it’s best to avoid retinol.

Always remember that skincare is personal and varies from one individual to another. If you fall into any of these categories but are still interested in retinol, it’s worth discussing with a dermatologist.


Retinol is a powerful player in the skincare game, offering a multitude of benefits, from anti-aging to improving acne. However, its strength also means it should be used with knowledge and caution.

The key to successfully incorporating retinol into your routine is understanding how it works, knowing the potential side effects, and using it in a way that suits your skin’s unique needs.

Finally, if you found this information helpful, feel free to share this article with friends or family who might be contemplating retinol. Spreading knowledge helps everyone make more informed, safe skincare choices.


Can retinol be harmful?

Retinol can be harmful if overused or used incorrectly, leading to skin irritation, increased sensitivity, and in severe cases, peeling or blistering.

Is it bad to use retinol every day?

Using retinol every day can be too intense for some skin types, especially initially, and may lead to irritation; it’s best to start with less frequent application and increase gradually.

Who should avoid using retinol?

Pregnant or nursing mothers, individuals with certain skin conditions like eczema or rosacea, and those with extremely sensitive skin or allergies to Vitamin A derivatives should avoid using retinol.

When should I stop using retinol?

You should stop using retinol if you experience severe irritation, peeling, blistering, or if you become pregnant or start nursing.

What skin type should not use retinol?

Individuals with extremely sensitive skin or those suffering from skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis, should either avoid retinol or use it with extreme caution, as it can exacerbate these conditions.

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/retinol-burn
[2] https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/hydration-moisture
[3] https://blog.reneerouleau.com/change-your-skincare-routine/
[4] https://theskinspot.com/blogs/the-edit/5-main-benefits-of-retinol
[5] https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/is-retinol-safe

Photograph: vadymvdrobot/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.