Is Retinol Safe? Side Effects, Ingredients & Alternatives

safe retinol

What is retinol?

Retinoids, a blanket term for vitamin A-derived products, have long been considered the gold standard of anti-aging due to a veritable laundry list of benefits. Most-widely known as Retin-A (tretinoin), this topical was initially used to treat acne, but users soon noticed that it had the fortunate side effect of simultaneously smoothing out wrinkles and brightening hyperpigmentation. Soon, a retinoid revolution was underway: Doctors prescribed it, and drugstore shelves were lined with its over-the-counter version, retinol.

How does retinol work?

To put it simply: Retinol instructs your skin cells to act more youthfully. It activates an increased synthesis of collagen and faster turnover of skin cells, which translates to a smoother and more even skin texture, brighter skin, minimized dark spots and hyperpigmentation, and an improvement in lines and wrinkles. And, of course, it can help with breakouts.

What are the side effects or drawbacks to retinol?

Irritation

Unfortunately, retinol is so powerful that it can lead to redness, dryness, flaking, and other signs of irritation on the skin, particularly when you first start using it. For that reason, experts recommend an acclimation period, starting by using it just twice a week and gradually increasing the frequency from there while your skin adjusts. (Even so, it may be just too harsh for certain skin types, particularly those who are sensitive, so you shouldn’t use it if side effects don’t subside even with limited use.)

Pregnancy Risks

Retinoids, particularly those that are taken orally (such as isotretinoin), are off-limits for women who are considering pregnancy, are pregnant, or are nursing, as they can have serious side effects. The risk of harm from topical absorption of retinol is much lower, according to one study, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid using it altogether.

Preservatives

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a lipophilic synthetic antioxidant that works as a preservative in skincare and cosmetics, and as a stabilizer in retinoids. A 2002 study in the International Journal of Toxicology found that doses of 0.5 to 1 gram of BHT given orally to rats, resulted in liver toxicity. However, that same study pointed out that BHT, when used topically and in low concentrations, was “safe as used in cosmetic formulations.” But that’s not exactly a green light for someone prioritizing clean beauty. 

“As a whole, more research is needed on BHT, and any potentially harmful effects when used on the skin,” says Sydney Cook, Director of Science and Research at MADE SAFE®. “Because conclusive information is not available on BHT and a similar chemical, BHA, demonstrates numerous harmful impacts, BHT is not permitted in MADE SAFE®-certified products until more information becomes available,” Cook explains.

Another concern raised by Cook? Parabens. Although this endocrine-disrupting ingredient class has been disappearing from even non-clean product formulations, it’s still present in many retinol serums. 

Equally troubling is the fact that you may not even see BHT or parabens on the ingredient list of your retinol serum. Because the preservatives are used in such small amounts, the raw ingredient suppliers themselves may not even know they’re present. (Thus underscoring the need for third-party safety screening, which organizations like MADE SAFE® provide.) 

Sun Toxicity 

Dermatologists have long advised limiting retinoids to nighttime use because they make skin more sensitive to the sun. What’s more, many over-the-counter retinols like retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid have been flagged as potentially photocarcinogenetic — cancer-causing when exposed to sunlight. Yet they still remain in many daytime products like sunscreens. 

Are there any alternatives to retinol?

Clean retinol does exist — it just isn’t technically retinol. Certain plant extracts work similarly to the vitamin, while you can also find clean synthetics. Here, the best retinol alternatives to consider:

Bakuchiol

Bakuchiol is a naturally-occurring antioxidant found in the leaves and seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia (babchi herb), a plant found in East Asia. Although structurally dissimilar to retinoids, it’s been found to deliver similar collagen synthesizing benefits, minus the irritation.

Rosehip Seed Oil

Rosehip seed oil, found in the Renew Pure Radiance Oil, are rich in vitamin A (from which retinoids are derived) and shown in studies to mimic the benefits of retinol and bakuchiol—firming, smoothing, brightening—without the potential trade-offs.

Peptides

Amino acid-based peptides, which are packed into the Renew Repair Serum, are scientifically proven cell communicators that instruct cells to produce more collagen, increasing skin’s thickness and suppleness.

Vitamin C

The star ingredient in the Vitamin C Booster, vitamin C is a jack of all skin-rejuvenating trades, stimulating collagen and diminishing dark spots to leave skin firmer, plumper, smoother, and more luminous.

Lactic Acid

Don’t forget about AHAs like lactic acid (in the Resurfacing Moisture Mask.) Not only does lactic acid separate connections between dead cells, revealing smooth, radiant skin underneath, but there’s also data showing it can help rev up collagen. Bottom line: You’ve got (safe) options.  

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