Save Your Skin After a Retinol Overdose

Dry, flaky skin ahead of your wedding is so not a good look

Blonde woman with moisturizer on face

Cheyenne Doig / Unsplash

Whether you’re a retinol newbie or a well-seasoned user, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Retinol is an amazing ingredient for your skin. It has the unique ability to fight fine lines, boost collagen, even pigmentation, fade dark spots, and can even help to combat acne. However, there are some not-so-fun retinol side effects that can come with the ingredient if you accidentally overuse it.

"People are eager to start a new retinol and think more is more, but that is not the case—you have to be super careful when introducing it into your skincare routine," says skincare expert Dr. Shereene Idriss. "Overuse or incorrect use can be either using the product too often/in the wrong spots on your face or starting off with an intense formula that is too strong for your skin. Less is more with retinols and it’s important to listen to your skin during the adjustment period."

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Shereene Idriss is a board certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in NYC. She is the creator of the #Pillowtalkderm series on Instagram.
  • Dr. Mervyn Patterson is the medical director of Woodford Medical and has over 20 years of experience in the aesthetic medicine field.

Retinol irritation got you feeling extra sensitive? Read on for expert advice on how to rehab your skin after retinol burn.

Signs You May Have Retinol Burn

The telltale signs of retinol burn include skin that is red, irritated, flaky, inflamed, sore to the touch, and/or shedding. "You could also be experiencing breakouts or inflamed acne that is not usual for your skin," adds Idriss.

These symptoms may sound vaguely similar to any skin irritation or dry dermis woes, but there is a stark difference when it comes to retinization. "With a retinol burn, skin is going to be more and more raw, more irritated, and more 'angry,' whereas other skin conditions don't necessarily have those symptoms," says Idriss. "I also think history is super important for you to really think back about when you used the retinol and when your skin started becoming dry and irritated because this is where history is everything."

What Causes Retinol Burn

"Retinol encourages cell division in the deepest (basal) layer of cells," explains Patterson. "Too much retinol will produce too much cell division, causing large numbers of immature cells to rise up to the surface without the proper bonds to hold them together." When too many cells rise up to the surface, the skin can start to peel, as the lipids and bonds that are needed to hold them together haven’t yet formed. Without these protective bonds, other skincare products are also able to penetrate deeper than they’re supposed to, resulting in skin sensitivity, stinging, and redness. On the skincare spectrum, retinol naturally leans toward the more irritating meaning overuse or incorrect use can quickly lead to a negative reaction and if you're part of the sensitive skin club you may react faster.

"If you have extremely sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, or another inflammatory skin condition and still want to use retinol, apply to dry skin after applying a moisturizer to act as a buffer," advises Idriss who cautions against using any additional exfoliation on the same night.

Go-To Retinol Burn Treatments (According to an Expert)

Over-The-Counter Steroids

If you're experiencing retinol burn, start by paring back your skincare. "Cut out all exfoliating acids for risk acuity and stop using any sort of other retinol alternative," says Idriss. "If your skin is really red and angry, you could use a topical over-the-counter steroid for a few days—a few days being key because you don't want to overuse steroids on your skin." The topical steroids will reduce the inflammation and allow the body's natural healing process to take over.


Your grandmother's favorite do-it-all skincare staple does it again. "You want to protect your skin barrier," says Idriss. "Honestly, Vaseline is your best bet." Petroleum jelly, the primary ingredient in Vaseline, is an occlusive that creates a barrier on top of the skin to protect the agitated area from further irritation and keeps bacteria from getting in. While the product won't help add moisture, it will lock moisture in to support healing.

Preventing Retinol Burns

When it’s time to reintroduce retinol into your routine, consider starting with a lower-strength product and building up the potency (and your tolerance) gradually over time. "My number one tip is consistency over intensity," says Idriss. "Using the least intense form of retinol over weeks, months, or even years will allow your skin to adjust more seamlessly to the product and will limit irritation so skin will be nourished, firm, and at rest to receive all of the best benefits."

A good starting point is 0.3 percent retinol. Only use it twice a week at first, and slowly build your tolerance over time. You just need a thin layer (a dime-sized blob is enough for treating the face) and avoid any sensitive areas like your eyes (especially the eyelids!) and the creases around the sides of your nose as the product tends to gather here and can worsen flaking. "If the retinol is too strong, go for a retinol ester instead. If a retinol ester is too light, go for a retinal followed by a retinoic acid and then go for a prescription," says Idriss. "You want to treat your retinols as if they are caviar—less is more. When used correctly, they help to even out pigmentation, help support collagen production, and help smooth out fine lines." 

For the sensitive mouth, upper lip, and chin region, Idriss advises moisturizing the area first and applying the thinnest layer of retinol on top.

How to Combat Retinol Side Effects

So what do you do if you’ve overdone it with retinol? Don’t panic. Be mindful that anything you use on your skin now has the ability to penetrate much deeper than usual, so try and avoid anything fragranced and look for calming products and ingredients like aloe and cica. Cica balms have been used for centuries to treat burns, cuts, irritation, and redness, so they're perfect at calming and soothing sensitized and irritated skin.

Retinol also makes your skin way more sensitive to UV rays, so it’s important to wear an SPF 50 daily and try to keep your skin out of the sun as much as possible while it heals.

As for makeup, try to avoid applying it until pain and redness have reduced. When it comes to foundation and concealer, look for products with a silicone base, as they won't penetrate or react with the skin at a deeper level.

  • How long does retinol burn last?

    Retinol burn usually lasts about three weeks, but can linger based on severity or lack or proper treatment. Duration may vary depending on skin type and will be prolonged if retinol usage isn't suspended.

  • Can retinol damage skin?

    "There's a lot of misinformation out there about retinols thinning out your skin, which it does not," says Idriss. "However, if you're extremely sensitive and retinols inflame your skin, having inflamed skin every single day over time is not a healthy alternative."

  • What does an allergic reaction to retinol look like?

    According to Idriss, an allergic reaction to retinol is an instantaneous response where the skin is immediately more red, inflamed, irritated, and even itchy. It should quickly calm and dissipate after suspending retinol use.

  • What does retinol purge look like?

    "A retinol purge is really just a temporary adjustment period in which, after starting a new retinol, your skin can get a little bit worse before getting better and it should only last about three weeks," explains Idriss. The irritated, bumpy, or inflamed skin of a purge will get better over time, whereas a reaction will not. "Some people believe these negative effects are all of the toxins coming up to the surface wanting to be released from your body, but this is not true and skincare is not an exorcism," adds Idriss.

  • What are the negative effects of retinol?

    Incorrect retinol usage can cause drying, flaking, shedding, redness, and irritation of the skin as well as exacerbated acne. Retinol will also increase skin sensitivity to UV rays.

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