Retinol Side Effects
What They Are and How To Deal With Them

Retinol side effects - Retinol is one of the best ingredients you can use to improve your skin...

But, like all active products, some side effects can be expected. This article will show you how to deal with any side effects to lessen their impact.

Retinol Side Effects

The right Retinol product, used correctly, can seriously change your skin - so read on to find out exactly what to do!

Quick Note: Retinol Is Different To Retin A

Confusing..... Retinol is one of the Retinoids, or derivatives, of Vitamin A.  

Retinol is one step 'down' from Retinoic Acid chemically. It's not as strong so it can be tolerated easier. It delivers similar benefits, but takes longer to work, and is available over-the-counter. 

More details on the difference between the Retinoids here >>>

Retinol is still active and still effective - hence, it can still cause side effects and needs to be used properly. So let's get on with it!

Common Retinol Side Effects -
What to Expect 

It all depends on how your skin reacts - but if you're using a quality product (the Retinol is in the right dose and formulation so it's able to be delivered to the skin), you can expect at least some of the following:

*Important* These side effects are temporary, usually improving in 2 - 6weeks depending on your skin. As long as you build tolerance up properly with the right product, you will get the benefits!

How to build up tolerance correctly is below.

Common Retinol Side Effects and How To Deal With Them:

  • Redness - usually accompanied with a 'windburn' feeling or hotness. This can start right after you apply it, or may develop later after you've used it a few times.

To lessen this, don't apply your retinol cream right after a hot shower or when your face is still hot from exercise. Hot rooms and extremes in temperature can make this worse, so try to avoid those as much as possible while your skin is getting used to it.


  • Slight flaking and dry skin - Retinol increases turnover of skin cells, so the top layer of your skin is also turning over at a faster rate. These dead skin cells stay on skin's surface and cause the flaking, or 'dusting'. 

This is sometimes thought of as exfoliation. But technically it's not exfoliating, as the dead skin cells aren't removed (as they are in actual exfoliants such as Salicylic Acid which dissolve the cells).

Continued use improves this. Don't be tempted to use any harsh exfoliants at the same time, as this will irritate skin further.

A hydrating mask used 2 or 3 times a week helps. A good day time moisturizer is important - one that's hydrating and protecting.

A thin layer of Vaseline applied right before bed (after the Retinol product has had time to dry and soak into skin) does wonders. Don't be afraid of Vaseline blocking pores, this is a myth! It's molecules are too big..... so as long as you cleanse your face properly in the morning it can seriously help with dryness and flaking.


  • Uncomfortable tightness - uncomfortable because tight feeling skin isn't always a bad thing :) This side effect generally feels as though your skin has been pulled in, and accompanies the 'windburn' feeling above. 

This can also be relieved by applying Vaseline at night or a soothing moisturizer over top. 


  • Itching - you can get slight itching, particularly on the cheek area. This comes from the speed up of cell turnover, kind of like how a wound itches when it's healing. Not unbearable, but not fun either. 

I'm not good at ignoring an itch, but make sure you don't scratch roughly as skin is already sensitive. I sometimes use my finger tips if it really needs it.... Again, a thin layer of soothing moisturizer over top can make a difference.

If it's really bad, a cool wash cloth held to your skin for a few minutes will relieve it. 


  • Breakouts/pimples - not everyone experiences this. But this 'purge' can happen when skin cell turnover and sebum production increase - which can lead to blocked pores...

If you normally have acne - which may be why you're using Retinol in the first place - you may be more likely to experience this.  Even if your skin is clear, don't be surprised if one or two breakouts come to the surface when you first start using it. 

It can just be some 'underlying' breakouts coming to the surface, made faster by the action of Retinol. Keep using the product and know that this is temporary. Once skin is more balanced, it will be clearer over all. 

When Side Effects Are Not Normal -
What To Do

Some side effects are more severe, and with these you may like to reassess your use of Retinol. They can be similar to the above but more extreme, with severe redness, irritation and sensitivity. 

  • It may be that your skin just doesn't tolerate Retinol. In fact, some people have more luck with the prescription Retin A than over the counter Retinol!
  • If you're using a good Retinol product and building it up slowly and carefully, but find your skin really can't tolerate it, consider speaking to a dermatologist. They will be able to help determine if a prescription Vitamin A would work better for you. 
  • Irritation to the eyes can also happen. Stop using the product and see your doctor. Always make sure you don't apply the product to the eye area - go no higher than the orbital bone. 

How To Use Retinol For The Best Results:

The following tips will help you get the most out of using Retinol by building up your skin's tolerance correctly, so you can experience the benefits while lessening the side effects:

  • It's highly recommended to do a patch test before using it the first time. Put a small amount of cream behind your ear, just underneath your jaw or the inside of your arm and leave for 12 - 24hours. If there is no reaction, continue use on your face.
  • Apply to cleansed and dry skin. Use a mild cleanser at least in the first few weeks of use. An exfoliating cleanser may make your skin more sensitive.
  • For the first one to two weeks, apply it 2 or 3 times at night.
  • For the next two weeks, apply it every 2nd night. Decrease to every 3rd night any time you feel it's too much.
  • After 4 - 6weeks of use, you should be seeing benefits already and have a good idea of how your skin is tolerating it. If it's tolerating well, increase usage to nightly application.
  • It's ok to decrease usage any time you need to. Once skin's tolerance is built after about 8 - 12 weeks, it is fairly easy to use nightly. And this is when the real results start to show! 
  • Don't use it more than once a day, and always at night. Doubling up daily dosage doesn't double the results, but probably will double the side effects. Plus the Vitamin A molecule is very sensitive to sunlight, so it's best to use it at night anyway.
  • Morning routine can include - a hydrating moisturizer, a glycolic or salicylic acid, or an oil free moisturizer, depending on your skin's needs.
  • While your skin is getting used to Retinol in the first 4weeks, stop using any AHA's or BHA's. After this time or longer (you will be able to tell when your skin is able to handle it) you can then reintroduce these products. Use them in the morning to lessen irritation. 
  • Once you've used Retinol for at least 3months plus AHA/BHA's in the morning, some people like to apply the exfoliant directly before using Retinol. This can increase the benefits. Be careful with this approach, go slowly and monitor your skin.
  • Always wear sunscreen. New, vulnerable skin cells are coming to the surface faster and it's vital they are protected from the sun.

Retinol is an amazing product, and almost everyone should use it. But, it is vital to use it properly to maximize the results and to lessen the side effects. 

It may seem a bit scary, but it's not - used correctly it can do amazing things for your skin! Just remember some side effects are expected with such an active product. Use caution and take your time - trying to 'push through' any side effects won't get you the results faster! 



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