retinol side effects and how to deal with them

“I’m scared of retinol side effects. I know retinol is the best wrinkle-fighter out there, but I don’t want to deal with redness and irritation. What should I do?”

I hear ya. Irritation is no fun. But leaving retinol out of your skincare routine won’t do either. Mmm…

What if I told you you could get all the benefits of retinol without the side effects?

I’m not kidding. Retinol can be harsh AF, but for every problem it threatens to make, there’s a workaround that stops the damage in its tracks. Curious?

Here are all the possible retinol side effects and how to deal with them:

(P.S. I’m talking about retinol here but all the tips below apply to ALL forms of vitamin A.)

the ordinary retinol 1

Retinol Side Effects #1: Tight, Dry Skin

Retinol speeds up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process.

Technically, retinol is NOT an exfoliant because it doesn’t remove dead cells itself. It just helps the process happen faster.

Either way,  you’re still getting more exfoliation than usual. This disrupts the skin’s protective barrier, letting moisture evaporate into thin air. Less moisture = drier skin.

By the way, that tight feeling, like your skin’s being pulled in? Another symptom of dryness.

The Fix

  1. Stop exfoliating: I already recommend you alternate glycolic acid (or whatever other exfoliant you’re using with retinol at night – salicylic acid is the only exception). But if you’re new to retinol, it may be a good idea to stop exfoliation for a month. If you can’t do that, cut down exfoliation to once or twice a week.
  2. Moisturise: after retinol, slather on a rich moisturiser or oil. They create a film on the skin that keeps moisture it and help repair the skin’s broken barrier. Rosehip, squalane and marula are some of my fave (The Ordinary retinol products all have a squalane base 😉 ).

Best Picks:

Related: How To Use Rosehip Oil In Your Skincare Routine


peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Retinol Side Effects #2: Redness & Itching

Redness and itching are symptoms of inflammation.

It happens when your skin’s protective barrier breaks down. It’s a little wound that triggers inflammation, the body’s healing response.

It usually happens to women with sensitive skin. Retinol makes your skin exfoliates at a faster pace and your skin can’t take that.

It’s also common in women who use too much retinol too soon. Like 1% every day when you’re first starting out? That’s asking for trouble.

The Fix

  1. Start small: start with a low concentration of retinol twice a week and increase both dose and frequency gradually. I explain how to do this (and what products to use) in this post.
  2. Choose microencapsulated products: microencapsulation is a technology that releases retinol into your skin slowly, over a period of several hours instead than all at once. That makes retinol way less irritating. Still, microencapsulated products tend to contain high concentrations so upgrade when your skin is ready. Don’t use this as an excuse to use 1.5% retinol daily from the start.
  3. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise: dryness isn’t the only symptom of a broken protective barrier. But the cure is the same. Moisturise your skin well so you can restore that barrier, pronto!

Best products:

Related: What Strength Of Retinol Do You Need?


medik8 retinol 6 TR 01

Retinol Side Effects #3: Breakouts

Retinol can help you make your acne better… by making it worse! Let me explain…

Remember I just told you retinol speeds up the skin’s natural exfoliating process? Well, if you have some underlying breakouts, the faster speed of exfoliation will make them come to the surface sooner.

It’s usually oily and acne-prone skin types that experience retinol breakouts. But anyone can get a pimple (or three!) after they start using retinol.

The Fix

  1. Make sure it’s a purge: “purging” is when your skin is getting rid of all the underlying breakouts. It usually happens on your pimples-prone areas and lasts about a month. Until then keep at it. If you still have pimples after that, it’s likely a breakout. Ditch the product immediately! To figure out if you’re dealing with a purge or breakout, check out this post.
  2. Exfoliate with salicylic acid: I know I said go easy on exfoliation, but salicylic acid is the exception to the rule. This oil-soluble exfoliant gets inside the pores, removing all the gunk that accumulates in there and gives you pimples. As retinol purges your skin, salicylic acid helps you purge the purge.

Best picks:

Related: How To Tell If You’re Experiencing A Purge Or A Breakout


Retinol Side Effects #4: Sun Sensitivity

Is it me or all retinol problems stem from its “exfoliating” properties? (Again, technically, retinol is NOT an exfoliant, but you get what I mean).

Dead cells are there for a reason. They protect skin from UV rays and other skin enemies.

When you remove them, your skin gets smoother and brighter. But it’s also more exposed to sunlight. Potentially, that means more sun damage.

The Fix

  1. Use retinol at night: there’s no rule that says that retinol can’t be used during the day. But why risk it? Slather it on when the sun ain’t around.
  2. Wear sunscreen: even if you use retinol at night, those dead cells are off your skin anyway. That’s why it’s even more important to wear sunscreen every single day – rain or shine – when you’re on retinol. Skip it at your skin’s peril.

Best Picks:

  • Drunk Elephant Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 ($36.00): available at Sephora.
  • EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF47 ($25.00): available at Dermstore and Walmart
  • Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ WetForce For Sensitive Skin And Children ($42.00): available at Neiman MarcusNordstrom and Sephora

Related: Why Mineral Sunscreens Are The Best For Sensitive Skin


When Side Effects Are Not Normal

Are you experiencing the redness/itchininess/dryness on steroids?

Like, you have a burning stinging that hurts like hell instead than a gentle tingling. Or your skin’s been flaking for a month straight no matter what you do. Or your skin feels tight all day long even if you keep moisturising it.

All signs your skin does NOT like retinol. Some people just can’t take it. I know it sucks, but give it up.

Instead, try using a gentler form of Vitamin A like hydroxypinacolone retinoate or retinaldehyde. If even those are too much for your sensitive skin, don’t force it. There are plenty other anti aging ingredients you can use.

Related: What Form Of Vitamin A Is Right For You?

The Bottom Line

You can totally get the benefits of retinol without the side effects. Start small, moisturise, wear sunscreen and, if you’re experiencing breakouts, exfoliate with salicylic acid. Done.

How are you dealing with retinol side effects? Share your tips in the comments below.