Retinoids - Side Effects and Precautions

Side effects and precautions associated with retinoid use |

The most common side effect of retinoids is irritation. Retinoids exfoliate your skin from the inside-out and during the process, your skin can become extra sensitive. It can peel, turn red, flake, randomly flush, and grow dry. Many people also purge, or experience acne flares, during their initial use. However, side effects from retinoids can be minimized.

Keep reading to learn more about the side effects associated with retinoids and what measures you can take to minimize certain types of side effects.

Side Effect: Irritation, redness, and dry skin

Irritation from retinoids comes in many forms. When people say their skin is irritated by a retinoid, they usually mean the retinoid makes their skin red and more sensitive. Retinoids turn my skin a pinkish shade, especially immediately upon application, and they make my skin feel prickly for one to two days afterwards. My skin does seem to be a little more sensitive than the average person, but when I was using Differin, it made my normal moisturizer and cleanser (sometimes even water) sting. I had redness, almost to the point of itchiness, under my eyes and around my cheekbones. My skin would also randomly flush red and hot and then disappear.

You can tell if something is irritation versus an allergic reaction if the symptoms subside once you stop using the retinoid. I had to give my skin breaks every few days to recuperate and after a day or two of not using retinoids, my skin went back to normal.

Aside from redness and sensitivity, another common side effect of retinoids is dry skin. Your skin may peel, flake, and be all kinds of ugly (regardless of how much moisturizer you slather on) until it gets used to the retinoid. From personal experience, my skin looked horrible under foundation when I was first using Differin. There was nothing I could do to smooth out the skin-colored flakes, but after I got used to Differin, the dryness gradually subsided.

Solution: The key to minimizing this kind of side effect from using retinoids is to use the retinoids slowly. Use a small amount, infrequently, until your skin builds up tolerance. You might even want to use a weaker type of retinoid to get your skin acclimated to the treatment before using something stronger. Sometimes giving your skin a break from the retinoid and then starting up again a week later can help calm your skin down. Though if it doesn't calm down after taking a few days off, then your skin probably just doesn't like that particular retinoid. Also, it may be a better idea to start retinoids in the summer time instead of winter, as cold winter air can exacerbate the irritation and dryness side effects.

Side Effect: Irritation around the eyes

Retinoids should not be applied to your eyelids, but they can be used under your eyes. When using retinoids around this delicate area, you have to be careful because the skin there is already thinner and more sensitive than other areas of your face. I received an email from a reader saying that her eyelids got swollen after every time she applied a retinoid, even though she wasn't putting the product anywhere near her eyes. One reason could be because the natural oils on her face caused the product to migrate. If your eyes are extremely sensitive, I would suggest putting a layer of Vaseline around your eyes to protect them from any treatment products, retinoids or otherwise.

Solution: To reduce irritation around the eyes from retinoid use, protect your eyes with something emollient like petroleum jelly. Using a retinoid around the eye area can make fine lines look worse before they get better, so make sure you use retinoids slowly, give your skin a break when it feels irritated, and keep your skin well moisturized.

Side Effect: Initial breakouts and purging

Initial breakouts are another common side effect of retinoids. To tell if you are purging or simply breaking out from the product (ingredients-wise), take a good look at where your breakouts are occurring.

Purging is usually the worsening of already-present acne symptoms. So, for example, if you have clogged pores, they may turn into bigger pimples. If you have small whiteheads, they may turn into inflamed whiteheads. If you are experiencing breakouts in areas of your face where you normally don’t break out or are experiencing breakouts that occur in tiny, red clusters, you may be suffering from an allergic reaction instead. Whatever you do, consult your dermatologist to see if you should stick through with the acne flares or if you should switch to a new product.

Solution: Most prescription retinoids are prescribed with an antibiotic to help minimize any potential purging. Using a retinoid slowly and using gentle, non-comedogenic products will help as well. Additionally, gel-based retinoids may be less problematic for acne-prone and congested skin types than cream-based retinoids.

Side Effect: Sun sensitivity

Retinoids increase your skin's sensitivity to sunlight, making it more vulnerable to harmful UV rays. Some researchers have also shown that natural retinoids can break down and turn toxic (though more has to be studied) in daylight. While retinoids can help repair sun damage, not protecting your skin from the sun while using retinoids can potentially cause you to get more sun damage.

Solution: When you are using retinoids, you should try to stay out of the sun. Whenever you do go outside, or even when you are inside (because UV rays can still penetrate through windows), you should always wear a good sunscreen. Not only will sunscreen protect you from getting further sun damage, it will also prevent your skin from getting worse because retinoids do make you more sensitive to the sun. If you absolutely can't wear sunscreen, try to stay out of the sun whenever possible, wear big floppy hats, giant sunglasses, and get your windows UV tinted for extra protection.

Retinoid use with other products

It's also a good idea to avoid using any exfoliants while you are on retinoids. Chemical or manual exfoliation could cause your skin to be even more sensitive and irritated. Retinoids offer a hefty amount of exfoliation on their own. However, if you feel like your retinoid is not strong enough, you can use AHAs or BHAs for extra exfoliation.

Some people believe that AHAs and BHAs can help increase a retinoid's penetration. However, it will depend on the formulation of the product. For example, if you use a BHA lotion, the emollients in the lotion may decrease penetration more than the acid would increase penetration. But if you use a BHA liquid or something alcohol-based, it may enhance penetration.

Retinoids during pregnancy

Lastly, do not use retinoids while you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive. Retinoids, like all other skin care products, are absorbed into the body through your skin. Since there haven't been enough studies done on how retinoids affect developing fetuses, it's best to go the safe route and not use them at all.

Using retinoids means dealing with the side effects, but if you use retinoids the right way and take the proper precautions, many of these side effects can be minimized. If retinoids agree with your skin, you will find that the short term side effects are worth the long term benefits.

Last updated: October 9, 2012

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