Whether you’re an established enthusiast or a newbie to the skincare scene, chances are, you’ve heard of retinol. This popular anti-aging ingredient is celebrated for its ability to help improve the appearance of aging skin. But with its immense popularity also comes an abundance of misinformation about retinol side effects. While it’s true that there can be side effects of retinol use, the fact remains that it can be quite effective at reducing the appearance of fine lines and firming the skin—you just have to use it correctly.
To help you better understand what retinol is and what it can (and can’t) do, we’ve put together this guide. Read on to discover the truth about retinol side effects and learn how to use this powerhouse ingredient in your anti-aging skincare routine.
What Does Retinol Do?
First, a little background information. Retinol belongs to the retinoid family—a group of different ingredients derived from vitamin A. It’s available over the counter in different concentrations and is typically used in skincare products to help address the visible signs of aging. When applied topically, retinol helps encourage skin surface turnover to reveal a smoother, more even appearance. Over time, it can also help firm and plump the skin, visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and improve the skin’s texture.
Retinol Side Effects: Facts vs. Fiction
While topical retinol can help manage the visible signs of aging, it can also have side effects. Usually, these side effects are pretty minor and don’t last long, but nonetheless, a lot of misconceptions about retinol remain prevalent. Here, we’ll break down some common myths about retinol side effects on skin.
Retinol Can Have Side Effects
When you first start using retinol, it’s possible to experience minor side effects. Among the most common are dryness, peeling, redness, and discomfort. Usually, these retinol side effects are temporary and resolve once your skin gets used to the retinol product you’re using (this phenomenon even has its own name: the retinization period). Not everyone experiences these side effects, though, and using the right formulations can help minimize the risk of discomfort.
Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide
At Kiehl’s, we offer a retinol serum specifically designed to minimize potential side effects and discomfort: Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide. The creamy serum delivers a precise daily dose of pure retinol and helps encourage gentle skin surface turnover to reveal youthful-looking skin. The formula also contains ceramides, which are lipids associated with skin hydration, and peptide. The fast-absorbing serum is clinically-demonstrated to reduce wrinkles and firm the skin, and it delivers these results with minimal dryness, redness, or peeling.* Plus, the gentle formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used daily as part of your regular skincare routine. If you’re new to retinol, this is the formula we recommend starting with: It’s suitable even for first-time retinol users.
*Results based on expert grading in a clinical test for subjects showing improvement after 12 weeks of use.
If you’re an experienced retinol user and want something a bit more potent, we recommend Retinol Fast-Release Wrinkle Reducing Night Serum instead. Designed for use at night—hence the name—this powerful serum contains a higher concentration of retinol and rapidly delivers visible anti-aging results. It visibly reduces wrinkles and fine lines and helps firm the skin with continued use. Plus, it has a unique delivery system that helps ensure the retinol remains potent and effective.
For more help picking the right retinol, watch this TikTok from board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mamina Turegano.
Retinol Damages and Thins The Skin
It’s a common misconception that retinol can thin or damage your skin. In reality, over time, retinol can help thicken the skin (which is one of the reasons it’s such a great anti-aging ingredient). It can also help strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier, which is essential for healthy-looking skin. The belief that retinol damages the skin likely stems from the fact that it can temporarily cause dryness and peeling.
To help counteract these unwanted side effects and keep your skin looking (and feeling) its best, we recommend pairing your retinol with products that help hydrate the skin, such as Hydro-Plump Hydrating Serum. This lightweight serum, which you can use over or under your retinol serum, helps encourage the skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid, leaving your skin looking smooth, plump, and firm. The ultra-gentle formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night as part of your regular skincare routine.
You can also use your Kiehl’s retinol alongside an overnight mask for long-lasting hydration. Try Ultra Facial Overnight Hydrating Mask with 10.5% Squalane. Suitable for all skin types, this nourishing mask deeply hydrates the skin and helps prevent overnight moisture loss. It also helps strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier, making it more resilient against damaging external stressors that can contribute to dryness and discomfort. The balm-to-oil formula can be used three times per week as an overnight mask, or as needed as a quick one-minute mask to moisturize dry skin.
Retinol Can Cause Sun Sensitivity
Like other ingredients that cause exfoliation, such as alpha-hydroxy acids, retinol can cause sun sensitivity. This means that while using retinol, your skin may be more sensitive to ultraviolet rays and therefore more prone to sunburns and other signs of sun damage.
You Can’t Go In The Sun When Using Retinol
While sun sensitivity is very real, it doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself indoors or never go near your windows again. It’s all about taking the proper precautions. In addition to following standard sun-safety measures, like avoiding direct sunlight and wearing protective clothing, you should complete your morning skincare routine every day with a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Our pick: Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+. The ultra-lightweight formula provides SPF 50+ protection against UVA and UVB rays and also helps defend the skin from free radicals. It’s suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin, and absorbs quickly, leaving behind a matte finish.
Retinol Is Gentler Than Other Retinoids
As we mentioned earlier, retinol is part of the greater retinoid family, which includes both natural and synthetic derivatives of natural vitamin A. There are a lot of different retinoids used in skincare, including prescription-only formulations like tretinoin. While the more potent retinoids may produce faster or more obvious anti-aging results than retinol, they’re also more likely to be irritating. Retinol is generally considered to be gentler on the skin, which is why it’s available to buy over-the-counter, sans a dermatologist’s prescription.
You Shouldn’t Use Retinol If You Have Sensitive Skin
This is a myth; there are skincare products with retinol that are suitable for sensitive skin. Those prone to sensitivity can familiarize themselves with retinol with our gentle Micro-Dose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum with Ceramides and Peptide, which is formulated for all skin types. If you still find that you’re experiencing retinol side effects like excessive dryness or irritation, consult a dermatologist for advice on how to proceed with your routine.
Kiehl’s Tip: Retinol isn’t the only subject of skincare myths. One oft-repeated misconception is that people with oily skin can’t use oils in their skincare routine. This, however, is not the case. Our Midnight Recovery Concentrate Face Oil can be a great addition to your nighttime skincare routine, even if you have oily skin. After applying your retinol serum and nighttime moisturizer, you can pat a few drops of the squalane-infused oil onto your face before hitting the sheets for a more radiant, supple appearance by morning.