Using Retinol? Here’s What Experts Say to Expect and What Abnormal Side Effects to Look Out For

HelloGiggles / Courtney Leiva

Before and after retinoid selfies are our true Achilles heel, as these jaw-dropping photos demonstrate just how powerful this miracle worker is.  However, while retinoids smooth skin and reduce breakouts over time, the early stages of using this active ingredient aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. On the contrary, many retinoid users have dubbed this hectic period as “the retinoid uglies,” or retinol side effects. This awkward and frustrating phase usually involves some unsettling skin changes including purging (aka more breakouts), mild dryness, and flaking. Sigh.

Thankfully, these regular side effects pass after continuous use of any retinoid product. However, there are instances when retinoid reactions may be an indicator of something more serious—something that’s not normal. To help you determine which retinoid uglies are to be expected and which ones aren’t, we tapped four seasoned skincare experts to break down the key differences between the two, and when it’s a good time to see a doctor. 

What are abnormal retinoid side effects?

While irritation, dryness, and purging are to be expected when using retinoids, there are times when retinoid uglies aren’t normal and can be potentially harmful to both your skin and health. Extremely painful severe red patches and peeling, for example, always requires a visit to the dermatologist, says Canes. Similarly, if you break out in hives or experience any other symptoms of allergies, she advises seeking medical attention immediately. Other concern-worthy retinoid side effects include stinging, burning, eczema (retinoid dermatitis), cystic breakouts, chapped lips, and irritation around your eyes, says Florida-based dermatologist Maryann Mikhail, M.D.

If you aren’t careful, some of these side effects can lead to scarring, making it important to stop the use of retinoids and consult with a dermatologist ASAP. “See a dermatologist if you get retinoid dermatitis or cystic breakouts, as these can leave hyperpigmentation and/or scarring,” Dr. Mikhail tells HelloGiggles.

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