Feeling let down by retinol’s grand promises? Instead of brand-new skin, you’re stuck with redness, irritation, and sensitivity. That’s what it’s called retinol burn, or “retinol uglies,” and it can happen to anyone, whether you’re using over-the-counter (OTC) products or venturing into the prescription-strength territory. Here’s what to do to soothe retinol burns and how to avoid them in the first place.
Signs of retinol burns
A retinol burn usually happens within 12-24 hours of using retinol, and you might start noticing the following signs:
- Excessive dryness and peeling of the skin
- Flaky patches
- Discomfort or sensitivity
- Persistent redness or discoloration
What causes retinol burns?
Most often, retinol burns are related to retinization, which is like a skin rollercoaster ride when you first introduce retinol into your routine. During this adjustment period, the skin undergoes some serious remodeling.
Retinol works by accelerating cell turnover. In essence, it speeds up the shedding of old skin cells and encourages the growth of new ones.
While retinol is busy pushing for this cellular turnover, it takes a bit of time for the new cells to reach the surface. During this transitional phase, the skin’s barrier function is left vulnerable, and your skin starts the peel off and becomes more susceptible to irritation, redness, and dryness.
Usually, we experience burns when we’re using retinol for the first time, and it’s more likely to happen with prescription-strength products like tretinoin. You can get retinol burns even if you’re an old-time user. It can happen if you do a retinol overdose and apply too much product or too often and don’t allow enough time for your skin to recover.
Environmental factors like the harsh weather of winter months or dry climates can increase the chances of retinol uglies. Exposing your skin after using retinoids to the sun without protection is also a contributing risk factor.
How to treat retinol burn on the face
Take a break from retinol
If you have retinol burns, the first step is to give your skin a break from the ingredient. Your skin needs time to heal, rebuild its protective barrier, and get back to its healthy state. So, take a break and wait until your skin is no longer dry, red, itchy, or peeling. Then you can gradually reintroduce retinol into your skincare routine.
However, this time apply a smaller amount of product (a pea size will suffice), opt for a milder concentration (0.1-1% retinol), or use it less often. This approach allows your skin to acclimate to the product more gradually and reduces the risk of experiencing another round of retinol burns.
Cut out harsh products from your routine
You need to treat your skin very gently until it heals. That said, avoid chemical exfoliants, scrubs, harsh cleansers (those with sulfates and drying alcohol), and products with high amounts of fragrances.
Hydrating your skin is an absolute must-do. Opt for a fragrance-free moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid, panthenol, and Centella asiatica, as they are some of the effective ingredients to increase and restore hydration to your skin. Aveeno Calm + Restore Redness Relief is a great moisturizer to soothe retinol burns because it’s hypoallergenic and works to restore the skin’s barrier and reduce redness and irritation.
Applying ice to affected areas is a proven method for soothing retinol burns and relieving discomfort. It constricts blood vessels to reduce inflammation and provide quick relief. Simply wrap the ice cubes in a cloth and press gently on the burn for a few minutes, four times a day.
Restore the skin barrier
Cica creams, ceramide creams, or any product that repairs the skin barrier can help your skin recover faster from retinol burns. We recommend Avène Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream, Cosrx Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream, and Aveeno Calm + Restore Triple Oat Hydrating Serum, or you can find more products and learn more about the skin barrier here.
If you don’t want to hit the store, this home remedy can help. In an old study, aloe vera gel reduced the healing time of burn wounds from 18 days to 12 days. It contains a whole host of compounds with anti-inflammatory and moisturizing effects that can help soothe the skin.
Try a hydrocortisone cream
Hydrocortisone is a topical medication often recommended by dermatologists for retinol burns. It belongs to a class of drugs called corticosteroids with anti-inflammatory properties that are effective in relieving inflammation, itching, and redness.
How long does retinol burn last?
In general, you can expect a retinol burn to last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on your skin sensitivity and the severity of the damage. When you start using retinol or increase its concentration, you may experience more intense side effects and a longer duration of recovery. However, as your skin becomes acclimated to the retinol and undergoes the process of retinization, the side effects tend to diminish over time.
How to avoid retinol burns
Retinol burns can be prevented by gradually increasing the concentration and frequency of the retinol product. In addition, make sure it’s compatible with everything else in your routine. You need a hydrating cleanser, a gentle moisturizer, and an SPF 30 sunscreen while using retinol.
Buffering retinol by applying it at the same time with your moisturizer is one of the best ways to minimize the intensity of the side effects.
You ask, we answer
- Can I use Vaseline for retinol burn?
In short, no. Vaseline forms a thick, occlusive barrier on the skin's surface that can trap dead cells. This can increase flaking and even cause breakouts.
- Are certain people more prone to retinol burns?
Yes, studies show that people with sensitive skin are about three times more likely to experience skin irritation due to retinol.
- What factors can increase the risk of retinol burn?
Using a high concentration of retinol or applying it too frequently are the most common factors that lead to burns. However, genetics, for example, if you have sensitive skin, environmental factors, concurrent use of harsh products, or a weak skin barrier, can also increase the likelihood of experiencing retinol burns.