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Retinol Burn: Why Does Retinol Burn

Retinol, everyone wants in. With its promises of blemish-free, glowing skin that repels sun damage and remains wrinkle-free, who wouldn’t want in.

I hear rumours that retinol can burn. What? Why would you want to put retinol on your face if it burns? This can’t be true. I did some investing to ask …

Does Retinol Burn?

Retinol is known to irritate the skin due to its powerful exfoliating and cell renewing ability. Retinol burn is also known as retinol rash, retinol uglies or more commonly skin purging. Irritation and stinging can be a normal reaction to retinol. But retinol burn is an extreme reaction and it can largely be avoided.

Must we always suffer for beauty? When it comes to retinol, maybe.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is the scientific name for Vitamin A. In the 1960’s it was discovered that a topical treatment for acne Retin A, had other beneficial side effects.

Some of those beneficial retinol side effects are:

  • Diminished fine lines and wrinkles
  • Hyperpigmentation lessend
  • The skin took on a radiant glow
  • Acne cleared without leaving scars

Retinol was far more than just a treatment for acne it would seem. Realising the huge marketing potential of a product that could do all these great things to skin was not lost on large cosmetic companies. Eager to create skincare that could, in essence, reverse ageing was and still is a multi-million dollar industry.

But, there were also problems with retinol. Retinol is the umbrella term for compounds that are derived from vitamin A. These compounds are called retinoids. They vary in strength from the weakest retinoids called retinyl esters to the strongest Retinod, called Isotretinoin.

This chart below shows you the strength of retinoids

Retinol/Retinoid Strength

How Does Retinol Work?

Retinol is a master at speeding up cell renewal. It’s this accelerated cell turn over that causes the retinol burn. Retinol also has the ability to penetrate the top layer of your skin and interact directly with it.

As well is making cells renew faster, retinol also stops collagen from breaking down, repairs sun damage and keeps pores clear of sebum and acne-causing bacteria.

This can be an intense process for your skin so it is very normal for new users to experience tingling, redness and dryness when you start using retinol.

Can I avoid Retinol Burn?

In most cases yes you can. Here are a few simple steps that can help your skin not freak out when you start using retinol.

  • Start slowly – Use retinol 2 x a week in the beginning. As your skin gets used to retinol you can add it into your nighttime routine every second night and then every night.
  • Start with low strength retinol –  Retinol products come in varying strengths from as little as 0.01% all the way to 2.0%. Never start with a retinol over 0.05% if you are new to retinol. The low and slow approach is better when it comes to retinol.
  • Wait 30 minutes after cleansing before applying retinol – Cleansing can be one of the most irritating things we do to our face. Even if you double cleanse gently its a good idea to wait 30 minutes to let you skin calm down before applying retinol.
  • Apply a small dose of retinol – Less is definitely more when it comes to retinol so apply it sparingly. Retinol is not a moisturizer so don’t apply a palm-full!

When do I apply moisturizer when using retinol?

The safest and gentlest way to get retinol to work for you is to apply moisturizer before your retinol. Let your moisturizer dry and sink in then apply retinol.

The moisturizer forms an additional barrier to the retinol slowing down it’s penetrating ability. If you do moisturize before retinol you will need to apply moisturizer after using it as well.

Retinol comes in many formulations what one is best for me?

We hear you it can be overwhelming! We find that if you’re introducing a ‘new’ ingredient into your skincare routine it’s best to get a simple version of the product.

Rather than starting with a product that tells you it does lots of things, choose one that is basically retinol.

You can’t buy just retinol as it needs to be added to other carrier and preserving ingredients but buy one that is simple retinol formulation.

One of the most common formulations and my favourite is serum. These can range from very watery and clear to a thicker ‘oily’ consistency.

Retinols also come in cream and lotion preparations. We recommend you start with cream-based retinol if your new as these have more hydrating and moisturizing ingredients and may help avoid the retinol burn or purge.

Personally, I prefer serums as they are taken up but the skin almost immediately, but I have been using retinol for years.

If your skin is used to ‘active ingredients’ then you can try starting with a serum.

Where does retinol go in my skincare routine?

Only use retinol at night only. This is because retinol can make your skin very sensitive to the sun.

It’s also very important to wear sunscreen every day when using retinol. That is so important I am going to write it twice!

Always wear an SPF 30 sunscreen every day.


How long will the retinol burn or skin purging last?

Your skin does have an adjustment period when it comes to retinol, this can be very gentle and barely noticeable all the way up to a flakey, red, itchy hot mess.

You get to choose at what level you would like to introduce retinol. It’s not advisable to go in to hard with retinol as you can actually make your skin worse. If you want to get benefits faster and are prepared to put up with some mild irritation that’s also ok.

I always recommend caution. We all want the good stuff fast, I get it. When it comes to your skin slow results can have advantages.

The less you irritate your skin in the long run the better. Pushing your skin through a purge is not necessary. If you have an important event and you want great skin fast – a retinol or skin purge is not the answer!

Retinol can take up to 6 weeks before you see the benefits and those benefits are accumulative.  The more you use retinol the better your skin will get and the more you will delay the effect of ageing.

Retinol is not a sprint to the finish, it is part of your daily self-care and maintenance.

What if I can’t tolerate Retinol?

If you just can’t get along with retinol you can use products that contain weaker retinoids, such as the retinyl esters. Use the same technique when applying them as you would when applying retinol.

Start slow and low, wait for 30 minutes after cleansing, use a moisturizer before applying and always wear sunscreen.

Who shouldn’t use retinol?

If you are pregnant or nursing you shouldn’t use vitamin A containing products. Vitamin A has been shown to cause birth defects and while some dermatologists think that retinol is okay to use while pregnant, tretinoin definitely isn’t so why take the risk.

If you have rosacea or severe acne or inflamed dermatitis you should consult a dermatologist before using a retinol product. Retinol might be something they recommend but you will need to be monitored by a medical professional.

What are the best Retinol Products?

That depends on your skin type, what you are wanting to achieve and your budget.

We have written many articles on retinol. We have tested and reviewed over 25 retinol and retinoid products so we have a pretty good idea of what is good, great and bad in the retinol world.

If you want to learn more about the retinol products we love and recommend you can go here.

Some of the products we recommend are affiliate links. This means that we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you choose to buy through our links. If you do thank you very much and if you don’t that is also perfect!

Retinol Rash