Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Retinol?

Top dermatologists reveal the truth about the "miracle" skincare ingredient.


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Retinol is somewhat of a superhero skincare ingredient. Thanks to its ability to combat acne, banish wrinkles, and plump skin, we just can't seem to get enough — but can it be too much of a good thing? Some beauty experts have expressed concern over the long-term use of retinol, citing thinning skin and accelerated signs of aging as possible consequences of overuse. To learn more, we reached out to leading dermatologists to get their take on the multi-tasking skincare ingredient and whether too much retinol can actually do more harm than good.

Keep reading to find out what happens — if anything — when you use too much retinol.

What Is Retinol?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is a popular skincare ingredient that addresses concerns ranging from acne to anti-aging. "Retinol removes and exfoliates unnecessary dead skin cells, which causes the basal layer — or the stem cell layer of the skin — to produce newer and more healthy cells," says Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., founder of Icecreamwala Dermatology.

Is It Possible to Use Too Much Retinol?

The short answer is yes. "If you're overusing your retinol, or if you're using a retinol that's too strong for you, it can lead to peeling, irritation, and excessive dryness, which may have led to retinol's association with skin thinning," says Dr. Icecreamwala. "This will make your skin look older and accentuate wrinkles."

What Is Skin Thinning, Exactly?

Skin thinning essentially compromises the integrity of the skin, making it more susceptible to damage, Dr. Icecreamwala explains. This, in turn, accelerates the aging process, she adds. Your skin's thickness is partially determined by your genetics. "Those with more melanin in the skin tend to have thicker skin naturally," says Dr. Stacy Chimento, board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami. In other words, lighter skin tones tend to have thinner skin than darker skin tones. Melanin is also protective against UV damage which helps prevent UV-induced skin thinning.

However, genetics isn't the only factor that play's a role in your skin's thickness — and how soon and fast it thins. According to Dr. Icecreamwala, "Some people can develop thin skin over time through environmental exposures, such as ultraviolet radiation, and lifestyle choices, such as smoking," she shares.

"Sunburn causes skin thinning, so the only advice would be to protect your skin from the sun and use retinol appropriately," says Dr. Chimento. Try a light SPF for daily protection, like the Tatcha Silken Pore Perfecting Sunscreen.

Can Retinol Cause Skin Thinning?

"The idea that retinol thins the skin is false," asserts David Colbert, M.D., co-founder of the New York Dermatology Group. Dermatologists point to many clinical studies refuting the idea that retinol thins the skin — and that there's no danger in using retinoids themselves if you're adding them to your skincare routine safely.

"Retinol will not decrease the skin barrier if used in the correct dosage,'' agrees Dr. Icecreamwala. In fact, she says it can actually do the opposite: "Because retinol is collagen and elastin-boosting, it can actually help thicken the skin over time if used appropriately." "If the skin barrier is compromised by your use of retinol, you are using way too much of it and way too strong a dose," she continues. "That's why it's so important to find a retinol dose that is right for you, under the guidance of a dermatologist."

What Are Possible Side Effects of Retinol?

Signs that your skin is not tolerating retinol include redness, dryness, itchiness, flaking, and peeling. "Retinol should only cause irritation for the first few weeks as your skin adjusts, which isn't enough time for skin thinning to develop. If you are getting continual irritation from your retinol, you most likely need to switch to a lower strength and decrease the frequency of use," says Dr. Icecreamwala. This is true regardless of your skin tone.

Even if you have darker — and therefore naturally thicker — skin, you should still proceed with caution. "If the retinol you're using is too strong for your skin causing inflammation, darker skin tones may have a higher risk of discoloration, or hyperpigmentation, from the use of it," she adds.

To avoid any adverse side effects of retinol, there are a few things to keep in mind. "Be careful not to use too many products at once [in combination with retinol]," advises Dr. Colbert. "These include glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and abrasive agents. In these cases, it may cause irritation."

Dr. Chimento advises steering clear of combining retinol with benzoyl peroxide ("they do opposite things and would make the retinol less effective") and vitamin C. But you can use them in tandem if you apply vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night.

"It's important to remember [retinol] can be drying for those with sensitive skin," comments Dr. Icecreamwalla. She recommends using a facial oil alongside retinol. Dr. Colbert's pick? His eponymous Ilumino Face Oil.

What Are Some Retinol Alternatives?

If you've tried retinol in lower doses and your skin truly can't tolerate it, you have other anti-aging options to choose from. Two ingredients to try: bakuchiol, a natural alternative to retinol, and PHAs, gentle-yet-effective acids that are growing in popularity.

How Should You Apply Retinol?

When applying retinol, Dr. Chimento recommends spreading a thin layer over your face, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and following it up with a moisturizing lotion or cream, like this Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Moisturizer. If you're new to using retinol, it can take your skin a minute to get used to it; meaning, too much at first can cause irritation. Dr. Chimento suggests only using retinol one to two days a week to start out and get your skin acquainted.

You'll also want to be cognizant of how strong your retinol is. Dr. Icecreamwala recommends beginning with a retinol product that is 0.3 or 0.5%. "Using a higher level of retinol right off the bat can cause skin irritation for sure, especially if you have thinner (and therefore more sensitive) skin," she says. As your skin gets used to the lesser strength retinol, you can slowly increase the percentage to possibly 1.0%, or transition to a prescription Retin-A, she suggests.

Is It OK to Use Retinol Long Term?

"If appropriately used, retinol is safe to use long-term as a method to fight skin aging," says Dr. Chimento. "Retinol helps maintain skin elasticity." In fact, you'll need to use retinol continuously if you want to keep benefiting from the effects, adds Dr. Colbert.

Final Takeaway

Keep in mind that your skin's needs can change over time, or even over the course of the year. "Over time, our skin doesn't hold on to as much moisture. If you're noticing that your skin has become more dry as you age, or during the winter season, decrease the frequency and strength of your retinol," Dr. Icecreamwala suggests.

The bottom line? If used correctly and safely, retinol doesn't need to have a dark side.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is daily retinol too much?

    As long as you're not just starting out, you can work your way up to using retinol every day safely. However, it's important to use the correct strength of retinol. Too strong a retinol can lead to skin irritation, as well as other adverse effects.

  • Should I stop using retinol in the summer?

    No, you can still use retinol in the summer. Just be aware that sun exposure will reduce the effects of retinol. So you should aways wear sunblock when using retinol during the day or even better, use it solely in your nighttime skincare regimen.

  • How do I treat retinol burn?

    First, stop using retinol immediately, as well as any harsh exfoliants. Depending on the severity, you may also want to consult a dermatologist who will best be able to recommend a treatment. Continue to cleanse and hydrate the skin using only gentle formulas. You may even want to consider applying a hydrocortisone cream to reduce any swelling, itching, and/or redness that may have occurred.

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