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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.