Skin, Lip and Body Care

7 Ways to Deal with Retinol Side Effects

+ CV Skinlabs Team

If you’re interested in anti-aging, most likely you’ve tried retinol at some point. But what if instead of making your skin better, it actually made it worse?

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that’s designed to help the skin. It was first used to treat acne, because it can unclog pores. But then scientists discovered that it could also help in other ways.

Turns out retinol attacks aging from many angles. Here are just a few of them:

  • Enhances collagen and elastin production, helping to slow sagging and bagging
  • Increases the appearance of firmness
  • Improves uneven skin tone
  • Fades fine lines and wrinkles
  • Smoothes and refines the surface of skin
  • Helps increase cell turnover to reveal younger-looking skin
  • Helps improve acne
  • Gives skin a youthful glow
  • Reduces the look of pores

With all these benefits, it’s easy to see why most people want to use retinol, or other ingredients like it. There’s actually a group of “retinoids” that includes retinol, Retin-A (considered the most powerful and available only by prescription), and retinaldehyde. But unfortunately, some people experience side effects when they try these products.

Typical Retinol Side Effects

Retinol can irritate the skin, which is why practitioners recommend you start with a very low amount and apply it only once or twice a week until your skin gets used to it. How the skin reacts, though, depends on the person. Some people are fine starting out with stronger concentrations, but others have trouble with it.

Some possible side effects from retinol use include:

  • Burning, warm feeling
  • Tingling
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Dryness
  • Irritation
  • Peeling
  • Skin discoloration

Most products will warn about these potential effects, and suggest that if you experience them, you stop using the product. But that doesn’t fix your problem, really. You want to use retinol because of its benefits, so how can you do that if you’re experiencing irritation or redness?

Seven Ways to Manage Retinol Side Effects

To manage the side effects without having to quit using retinol, try these tips.

1. Start Out Slowly

Particularly if you have sensitive skin, or if you’ve never used retinol before, get a product with a low level of retinol in it (they’re usually labeled for “sensitive skin”), then use a small amount—like the size of a pea—just once a week or so until your skin builds up a tolerance to it. Then slowly begin increasing frequency, to two times a week, for example, and then three. Eventually, you can try using a product with a higher concentration of retinol.

If your skin doesn’t get used to it, try a different product. Different brands may use different types of “retinoids,” and your skin may do better with another kind.

2. Protect Your Eyes

Sometimes the eyes may become irritated with retinol use, even if you’re not applying the product around the eyes. The natural oils in your skin can cause the product to migrate toward the eyes. To avoid irritation, protect the eyes with another moisturizer before applying your retinol. Simply apply a little bit of your regular eye cream around the eye, then avoid the eye area while applying the retinol.

If you want to use a retinol product under the eyes, use very little, and start out very slowly until your skin gets used to it.

3. Be Patient with the Breakouts

Increased acne breakouts are common in the first few weeks of new retinol use. These may be caused by a worsening of the acne you already have, or by an allergic reaction. If you have clogged pores already, or small whiteheads, and they get worse, that’s all about your acne. If you notice breakouts in tiny, red clusters in unusual areas of your face, that could be an allergic reaction.

If it’s acne going on, give it some time. Your skin should calm down within a couple weeks. Also, consider getting gel-based retinol products rather than cream-based, as they will be less likely to clog pores. If it’s an allergic reaction, talk to your dermatologist, and then consider trying a different retinol product.

4. Apply It at the Best Time

If you’re suffering from redness or a warm, burning feeling with your retinol product, don’t worry—this is common and will likely fade with time. To lessen it, make sure you’re applying the product when your skin is cool and comfortable. Don’t apply it after a hot shower, for instance, or after you are hot and sweaty from a workout.

5. Hydrate Flaky Skin

Retinol can sometimes cause skin to dry and flake. Some people call this the “dusting” period, and may think it’s because of exfoliation, but retinol doesn’t remove dead skin cells. Instead, it simply helps increase turnover of skin cells, which does result in an increase of dead skin cells sitting on the skin’s surface.

This side effect, like most, will go away with time, so don’t be harsh or rough on your skin. Avoid irritating it further with nut or crystal scrubs. Instead, try counteracting the dryness with a soothing, hydrating mask applied two or three times a week. (Our Calming Moisture works great!)

6. Soothe Itchy, Tight Skin

The faster skin cell turnover can result in itching and tightness, particularly on the cheeks. If you’re experiencing this, make sure you’re using a quality, daily moisturizer. Otherwise, be patient—it will diminish. You can also put a cool washcloth over it to relieve the itch.

7. Talk to Your Dermatologist

In rare instances, you may experience more severe side effects, including severe redness, irritation, sensitivity, or allergic reactions. If so, talk to your dermatologist about the type of retinol you’re using, and about your symptoms. He or she should be able to help, and may have a better option to recommend.

Does retinol irritate your skin?

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