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What are Retinol Side Effects?

Whitney Coy
Whitney Coy

Some people experience retinol side effects when they get too much of the chemical through their diet, supplements or health and hygiene products that contain it as an ingredient. These commonly include peeling skin and dryness, as well as increased sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Using it with other medications or drugs can cause a large number of symptoms, such as thinning of the blood. At high levels it can become toxic and cause problems such as nausea, liver damage or even coma, and some experts believe it causes birth defects.

About Retinol

Dry or peeling skin is a common side effect of too much retinol.
Dry or peeling skin is a common side effect of too much retinol.

Retinol is a form of Vitamin A — it's the kind people get when they consume animal products like eggs or milk. In the body, it is necessary for good vision, as well as for healthy soft and skeletal tissues. It can penetrate the skin, repairing cells and restoring elasticity.

In the fight against aging, retinol is a major player. Manufacturers include it as an active ingredient in acne products, pore minimizers and wrinkle creams. Some companies also use it to treat sun damage or as a lip plumping agent.


Retinol interacts with various medications.
Retinol interacts with various medications.

Peeling skin is one of the most common retinol side effects. The compound encourages a higher rate of cell turnover, getting rid of older or dead cells and letting new ones come to the surface, so in essence, getting at least some degree of exfoliation is exactly why people use retinol in the first place. First-time users usually see an especially high rate of peeling in the first two months, however, because their skin isn't used to the chemical and, therefore, reacts with some mild irritation and cell damage. This side effect should go away on its own as the skin adjusts, and medical professionals usually recommend restricting use to once every two days until the symptom goes away. People who have very sensitive skin might need to use a lower dose if the problem persists, however.

Dryness, Redness and Itching

Retinol increases an individual's sensitivity to ultraviolet light.
Retinol increases an individual's sensitivity to ultraviolet light.

The dead and dying skin cells in the extreme outer layer of the skin can have a dulling effect in terms of appearance, and they often clog pores, but they also are helpful to some degree, because they form a protective barrier against the environment. Exfoliating with retinol exposes deeper, more sensitive cells and makes it easier to lose moisture, so individuals sometimes find that their skin dries out and becomes red and itchy. Using a good moisturizer is one way to fight this, but another trick is to use products that have added humectants, which are substances that attract or hold water.


Retinol cream.
Retinol cream.

In some cases, the higher cell turnover rate retinol causes can result in more clogged pores and acne if a user doesn't thoroughly wash their skin. The dryness and irritation also can cause blackheads and pimples — the skin overreacts, making more oil than necessary to protect itself, and inflammation can cause pores to tighten so that they're harder to clean. Applying a cool cloth can reduce the inflammation, and using a natural moisturizer such as aloe vera gel can keep the amount of oil under control. In fact, aloe is one of the most common ingredients paired with retinol in skin care products because of its soothing, hydrating, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Sun Sensitivity

Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially targeted toward aging skin.
Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially targeted toward aging skin.

Retinol increases a person's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, so it often is easier to get a sunburn after using it. Putting on a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 can help, but not everyone is able to layer products without further irritating their skin or risking a ingredient interaction. Medical professionals recommend cool, flowing clothes, hats and parasols for added protection or when wearing sunscreen isn't possible. Individuals also simply can limit their time outdoors.

Drug Interactions

At high levels, retinol can become toxic and cause problems such as liver damage or even coma.
At high levels, retinol can become toxic and cause problems such as liver damage or even coma.

A wide range of drugs interact with retinol, including anticoagulants, tetracycline antibiotics, hepototoxic or liver damaging agents, orlistat and oral medications. The side effects of a combination depend on the exact medication involved, but they can include liver and kidney problems, nausea and vomiting, unwanted thinning of the blood and a decrease or increase in the amount of Vitamin A the body absorbs. An increase in pressure in the fluid around the brain can occur, as well.

General Toxicity Symptoms

It is not common for a person's retinol levels to reach toxic amounts, but it is possible, and certain drugs, such as those used to control cholesterol, can make overdose more likely. Symptoms of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, skin and appetite changes, pain in the joints and liver damage. In extremely high doses, the chemical can cause diarrhea, confusion, loss of consciousness and coma, mood changes and vision problems. Swelling of the eyes and headaches also have been reported, as has bulging fontanelles in babies.

Birth Defects

Even though a fetus needs Vitamin A to develop and be healthy, medical professionals think that retinol might cause birth defects when used in amounts exceeding the recommended daily allowance (RDA). According to the National Research Council, the RDA for a pregnant woman is 1,000 retinol equivalents (RE), which is the same as 3,300 International Units (IU) as retinol. It recommends that women who want to have a baby or who already are expecting look at their diets closely before supplementing in any way or using retinol products.

Discussion Comments


I too have come to the conclusion that the incredibly stuffy nose and sinuses, and occasional hay fever-like allergy symptoms I have been experiencing this winter are due to my having started using 2.5% retinol serum on my face. I am thinking that it may be due to the fact that retinoids activate the DNA in cells to make them "renew" themselves and create more collagen and elasticin. I certainly hope it is not because the retinol has made me extremely sensitized to allergens. What if I cannot reduce the sensitivity?

I never before have had any type of allergy symptoms during the cold, snowy winter months. They are certainly not due to pollen, and I doubt they are due to dust mite droppings as the really bad times when I experienced full blown allergy symptoms were in such different environments.

I have read that tretinoin, another retinoid, can cause hay fever like allergy symptoms. So I am thinking that retinol is probably the culprit. Too bad as I has wanted to see if it would help with the dark circles and wrinkles/fine lines under and around my eyes.


Has anyone experienced hay fever-like allergy symptoms from using topical retinol? I am trying to figure out why during the winter months, when I have never before had any type of allergies during the cold and snowy months, I have had over 3 months of hay fever like allergies. These allergy symptoms seem to coincide with me starting to use a 2.5% retinol serum every night. So I wanted to ask if anyone else has ever had an experience like this.


I just used a Retinol product for about four days plus Vitamin C creme. My face was swollen and creased with deep lines not too far from lips--indentations due to age made it worse. I will now stop Retinol and perhaps take an antihistamine for allergies. Will not use until swelling and lines start disappearing, if that is the case.

I also been using on top of this Trilane moisturizer and not sure that should have been used at the same time as a moisturizer.

Any suggestions? Thanks, Robbie


I'm curious. What are the side effects of retinol for a person with breast cancer surgically treated? Is there a chance of recurrence or metastasis?


Two weeks ago I began using Roc Retinol Night Cream. I never dreamed anything so strong could be bought over the counter. I woke up to a swollen eye and a crushing headache. I powered on and used it the next night. I looked in the mirror and my face was like, five years younger! But my eyes were red and very sore. I waited three nights and used it again. I felt a little weak the next day with a headache and very red, sore eyes. I didn't put it anywhere near my eyes but it travels.

Well, because of the results I thought maybe it's Roc so I bought Neutrogena Retinol. To my surprise, it was stronger. My eyes watered all night and I had to go to the doctor yesterday to see if this was causing eye damage. Now I have been two days free of Retinol and I am using eye drops. My skin is looking great but my eyes are so red. I'm not sure where to go from here.

My doctor told me I could still use Retinol, but only once a week until I adjust. Nobody talks about eye damage with Retinol and that's what I need to find out. I find nothing when I Google eye damage and Retinol. Blurry vision, joint pain and headache would be consistent with Vitamin A toxicity. I called Roc and they gave me my money back and suggested I might be allergic to Retinol. So I am getting a lot of conflicting information. I am going to try once a week until I can adjust.

I am amazed that the majority of reviews of Retinol are without problems. I have no peeling or burning. I look great but feel terrible! I’m 58 and in good health.


I had a severe reaction to retinol after only using it for two days. I almost blacked out while driving and have experienced dizziness, vertigo, and confusion for the last week. These are symptoms for severe toxicity, but I don't see how that is possible after only a few days of use. I have stopped using it since I have discovered the cause of my symptoms and they have slowly lessened.


I've also experienced breakouts with retinol use and I'm not a breakout person -- haven't been for over 40 years.


@anon304640-- Oh no! How often did you use it? I don't think retinol should be used more than once a week in the beginning or it causes such severe side effects.


@feruze-- Yea, that's actually a common side effect. I had cystic breakouts with retinol in the beginning too. It just means that your skin is still not used to it, you need to give it more time I think.

A lot of people quit retinol early on because of this side effect. It can do more damage than good on some people. I was about to quit too but suddenly my skin adapted and improved.


I've been having a strange reaction to retinol and I've been using it for more than one month. The first week I just experienced dryness and I wasn't worried because I know that usually happens with retinol. But then, the second week, I also started to break out! I got five pimples on my face!

Since then, I've been having phases of dryness and phases of breakouts. I only use the retinol once every three days.

Are the breakouts normal? Or am I having an allergic reaction?


I think Retin-A burned my skin. I have a red patch where the cream was and it is not going away.


I think it's funny most people get wrinkles around their eyes, but you can't use retinol in that area. I guess that's why they make so many specific creams and serums just for the area around the eyes!


Retinol is a really great product. I think it's one of the few things that are sold as anti-wrinkle products that actually does what it's supposed to do! I think a lot of face creams moisturize, but don't really help with wrinkles.

Anyway, if you're going to use retinol (or Retin A, which is the same thing, but stronger) you should definitely be using a sunscreen on your face. Luckily, a lot of daily facial moisturizers come with SPF 15 already in them. I like these moisturizers better than sunscreen that's meant for use at the beach or pool.


@Monika - Those are great suggestions. I'd also suggest people read the ingredients list in all their face products. I had a friend who ended up with really severe redness and peeling from retinol because she was using a night cream and a day cream that each contained retinol.


I've been looking into using retinol, and one of my friends who already uses the product had a really good suggestion. She told me to test it out on a small patch of skin under my jawbone. That way, if I have any severe side effects, it won't be all over my face, just on a small part.

She also suggested to start with a product that has a small amount of retinol in it, and work my way up. As the article said, you don't know how you're going to react to retinol til you actually use it, so it's better to start off with a small dosage.

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    • Dry or peeling skin is a common side effect of too much retinol.
      By: Konstantin Kulikov
      Dry or peeling skin is a common side effect of too much retinol.
    • Retinol interacts with various medications.
      By: amenic181
      Retinol interacts with various medications.
    • Retinol increases an individual's sensitivity to ultraviolet light.
      By: Lulu Berlu
      Retinol increases an individual's sensitivity to ultraviolet light.
    • Retinol cream.
      By: picsfive
      Retinol cream.
    • Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially targeted toward aging skin.
      By: picsfive
      Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially targeted toward aging skin.
    • At high levels, retinol can become toxic and cause problems such as liver damage or even coma.
      By: Claudio's Pics
      At high levels, retinol can become toxic and cause problems such as liver damage or even coma.