The Dangerous Effects of Retinol

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative and part of the powerful retinoid family proven to effectively improve skin. It not only prevents aging, but can reverse signs of it. Yet not everyone is a fan. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives the ingredient a 9 in its Skindeep Database, meaning they think it presents a high hazard to human health. 

What Is Retinol?

Retinol falls into a category of vitamin A derivatives known as retinoids. Retinol is probably one of the best over-the-counter ingredients to counteract aging skin. If this is true, why is the ingredient so controversial? Other retinoids may show up on ingredient lists as retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate. These have varying levels of potency. You may find retinol in sunscreens, anti-aging creams, and topical acne treatments. Since retinol and other retinoids can potentially heighten sun sensitivity, it is safest to only use them at night and to avoid them in products you would use during the day, like sunscreen. Which makes no sense as to why some companies include them in sunscreen.

How It Works

Retinol and other retinoids come from vitamin A, which is a nutrient that helps drive cell turnover. Studies show that when applied topically, retinoids can increase collagen production and decrease collagen breakdown. By accelerating skin renewal, it can reduce the appearance of wrinkles and age spots and even out skin tone. It can also make your skin resistant to new wrinkles. 

The Potential Health Risks

Carla Burns, a research analyst for EWG, says that in general, EWG recommends avoiding skincare products containing vitamin A, often labeled as retinol or retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinoic acid. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient and found in many foods we eat; however, EWG looks more closely at its use in sunscreens and cosmetics and found it is not necessarily safe for use on skin.

Here are some of the risks EWG is concerned about. 

Skin cancer: Research has linked retinoids to an increased risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. Unfortunately, cosmetic companies have added the ingredient to plenty of products meant for daytime use — including sunscreen. (This literally makes no sense).

A government study from 2012 found that mice who were exposed to creams containing retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid had more tumors and an earlier onset of tumors than mice who were exposed to a cream that did not have these ingredients.

EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens and other daytime cosmetics that contain vitamin A. You can check their Skindeep Database to find out if your products include these. If you’re using a night cream with retinoids you can decrease your risk by wearing sunscreen during the day. And you should always avoid going into sunlight while you have a retinoid on your skin. 

BHT and Paraben Exposure: Conventional retinoids are often stabilized with BHT or parabens, ingredients linked to serious harm like cancer and reproductive issues. These can make it into the final product, but you wouldn’t know it from the ingredient label. 

Problems for Pregnant Women, Children, and Older People: Although there is room for more research, some studies show greater health risks for pregnant women, children, and older women who use retinoids. If you have too much pre-formed vitamin A in your body it can cause health problems, including liver damage, hair loss, and osteoporosis, and hip fractures in older adults. Authoritative health bodies have cautioned women who are pregnant to avoid cosmetic products with vitamin A since excessive vitamin A may cause increased risk of birth defects in a developing fetus. Children can also suffer a variety of harmful effects from too much vitamin A and young children have increased skin sensitivity and are more vulnerable to sun damage.

Dryness and Irritation: The most common side effects of retinol are dryness and irritation. For many people this will diminish over a couple of weeks. Some people need to use a moisturizer along with retinol. The flaky skin phenomenon has a cutesy and cringey nickname: the “retinoid uglies.” In addition to using a moisturizer, you can minimize it by applying retinol to dry skin and only every three nights during the first few weeks. 

The Bottom Line on Retinol

It’s up to each person to decide if the powerful qualities of retinol and other retinoids are worth the risks. If you decide retinol is for you, be sure to consider the safest way to use it. Consumers undergoing skin treatments for medical purposes with any form of vitamin A should consult a dermatologist, apply treatments at night if possible, and always practice strict sun avoidance when using these powerful ingredients on their skin.

With there being so many studies showing how harmful retinol is, although it is effective, I choose to stay away from retinol. There are so many other alternatives to retinol out there that are proven to be just as effective. I typically try to reach for products that rate a 3-4 on the EWG skin deep database and my general rule of thumb is that if products are not safe to use during pregnancy, it’s not safe to use at all. You can find some of the best clean beauty products (retinol free, might I add!) right here.