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The Lowdown on Retinoid Reactions

Dr. Pen Australia woman looking in mirror and applying a retinol anti-ageing serum

Have you ever used a skin care product containing Vitamin A and had a bit of a reaction? No cause for alarm! 

Find out why this happens and how you can reduce your skin’s adverse reactions to retinoids or, better yet – avoid a reaction altogether so you can keep benefiting from retinol’s anti-ageing properties.

Vitamin A and your skin

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that supports your eye and skin health. There are two types of Vitamin A, carotenoids (which mainly benefit eye health) and retinoids (which benefit skin health)

Falling under the broader category of retinoids, retinol is a potent antioxidant that packs a serious punch when it comes to anti-ageing. If you’re a skincare junkie, you’ll likely have eyed off a retinol product at some stage. 

Retinoids work by increasing the rate of cell turnover in the skin and helps with almost every skin concern, but most notably, fine lines and wrinkles. 

Vitamin A/retinoids can:

  • Treat acne
  • Decrease hyperpigmentation
  • Clear pores
  • Speed up cellular turnover
  • Diminish and prevent fine lines and wrinkles
  • Refine skin tone and texture
  • Brighten skin
  • Increase collagen production and elasticity

As you can see, the application of retinoids in skincare is huge and they can benefit almost everyone - however, introducing Vitamin A products to a skincare routine can sometimes cause some mild but uncomfortable side effects, if the products are introduced too quickly or in too high of a concentration. 

These ‘retinoid reactions’ are very common and fortunately, very easy to overcome and work through, so that you can reap the benefits of retinol for years to come without worrying about any uncomfortable side effects!

Potential reactions to Vitamin A

Most people won’t have any issues with Vitamin A, however some may be hypersensitive to it. You can might be sensitive to Vitamin A if:

  • Your skin has been depleted of proper levels of vitamin A for a long time and your metabolic processes have “wound down”. This is the most common reason for a reaction.

  • You have poor retinoid receptors which means that only a little Vitamin A on the skin will seem to be an excess. Retinoid receptors are developed by exposure to Vitamin A. Until the metabolic processes have been turned on, the skin will be fooled into “believing” that it’s being overdosed with Vitamin A.

  • You have a deficiency of the enzymes used in the metabolism of Vitamin A, which could be hereditary. Generally, this seems to happen in people with very pale skin, red hair and light blue or green eyes.

  • You develop a more efficient metabolism in which case you can slowly increase the strength of Vitamin A. Others can’t adapt to higher levels and they should be maintained on low-dose Vitamin A moisturisers.


Remember that antioxidants have a protective nature and this will preserve Vitamin A found in the skin which then ensures it’s put to better use.

Retinoid reactions: What’s normal?

Some skin types take time to adapt to the introduction of Vitamin A. The reaction you might have is called a retinoid reaction (you might have also seen it referred to as “the retinol uglies”, as introducing a too-strong retinol too quickly can cause dramatic flaking of the facial skin that makes people feel quite self-conscious), and may appear as:

  • Temporary flaking of the skin due to rapid shedding of dead cells from the surface of the skin.

  • Pink skin and slight flaking.

  • Mild breakouts.

  • Small reddish pimples that are usually itchy (worst case scenario). This is because the shedded cells mix with sebum and can cause follicular obstruction, which leads to a problematic type skin eruptions. This reaction disappears once the skin gets used to the Vitamin A and usually only lasts 2 to 6 weeks.

Vitamin A moisturisers may sometimes have a temporary drying effect as the skin adapts to the application of Vitamin A. This reaction should disappear about 2-3 weeks after the skin has adjusted. 

The reason for the dryness is that in some people the enzyme systems in the sebaceous glands are more sensitive to Vitamin A and so secretions are reduced. This happens before the waterproofing properties of the skin have been improved, and before the natural moisturising factors are at normal levels.

Eventually, as the metabolic processes begin increasing the production of natural moisturising factors and building up the waterproofing barrier, the dry skin disappears and totally normal skin moisturisation will be achieved. For some this may take up to a few months.

Dr. Pen Australia woman washing face in basin as part of skincare routine

What to do if you have a retinoid reaction

A retinoid reaction often means that you are using too much Vitamin A too soon. One option is to reduce the amount and/or frequency of the Vitamin A product, so that the skin can adjust at a slower pace. However, if you continue, the reaction will eventually clear. So at the end of the day it’s a personal choice. Not everybody will experience problems; but it’s best to be aware of them and know what to do if you come across these symptoms.

To reduce the severity of a retinoid reaction:

If you’ve enthusiastically started with your Vitamin A products and have had an unexpected reaction, then fear not! These suggestions will help you reduce the symptoms and get your skin acclimatised without an issue:

  • Slow down the usage of Vitamin A. Do so either by using the product less often (i.e. twice a week instead of every day and then gradually increasing usage), or drop to a lower Vitamin A concentration.

  • It’s best to start everyone on the lowest dose Vitamin A moisturisers, or seek Vitamin A products that have been paired with complementary ingredients that soothe the skin, allowing you to benefit from Vitamin A’s anti-ageing properties whilst not compromising the integrity of the skin barrier.

  • Remember the rule: start low, go slow!

  • Any reaction will clear as soon as you stop using the product. The skin will never be permanently damaged - so if the reaction is causing you distress, you can always stop.

If you’re able to have the patience to start introducing Vitamin A/retinol to your routine slowly, allowing your skin the chance to adjust to Vitamin A is one of the best gifts you can ever give your skin!

It's anti-ageing benefits are potent, so if you can, be patient and stick with it. We guarantee you’ll be obsessed with the results! 

For a great retinol starting point, try our 30ml Retinol Serum, which comes in our Anti-Ageing Powerhouse Serum Pack of Three alongside Vitamin C for brightening, and Hyaluronic Acid for supreme hydration and comfort.

Our Retinol serum is 2.5% concentration - this is a relatively high retinoid concentration, which gives you maximum anti-ageing benefit. To counteract any side effects and keep your skin comfortable, also included in the formulation is Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin E.

Hyaluronic Acid will draw water molecules to the skin and help the skin latch onto them, keeping the skin hydrated and plump - this counteracts the potentially drying side effects of the retinol.

Vitamin E is a great barrier repairer and keeps the skin barrier in good condition, making it a perfect addition to our retinol formulation to preserve the integrity of the skin cells whilst the Vitamin A works its restorative, regenerating magic!

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