How to Treat a Retinol Burn – Tips for Treating Retinol Side Effects

By Tara | Updated: 15/04/2024

If you have found you have overdone it on the retinol or your skin couldn’t tolerate a particular formulation, rest assured there are some simple things you can do to treat a retinol burn.

I like to think I have pretty tolerant skin. Having used high-strength retinol for a while now, it has easily become one of my favourite anti-aging skincare products.

However, after using too much of a dermatologist prescribed high-strength formulation, my skin endured a particularly bad retinoid irritation.

It is important to note that there is a difference between retinol and retinoids. In my case, I was prescribed a retinoid which resulted in the burn. Those who use non-prescribed retinol can also experience a burn or irritation depending on your skin type or application frequency.

Since, I have effectively sent my skin to rehab, slowly working back strong ingredients into my skincare routine.

I this post, I am going to cover how you can treat a retinol burn, how to prevent retinol burn and the different strengths of retinol to consider for your skin type.

Why does retinol burn my skin?

You may encounter a retinol burn if:

What are the side effects of a retinol burn?

It can vary depending on the severity of the burn, however, common side effects include redness, irritation, flaking, peeling.

I experienced all of those side effects from my retinoid burn. It was extremely painful and irritating. In fact, although it happened weeks ago, my skin is still sensitive and flaking. Luckily, I have been on vacation which has given my skin time to heal without wearing makeup or having to expose my skin to the elements.

How long does retinol burn last?

You may experience the side effects last about a month or so depending on the severity.

How do I treat a retinol burn?

Once you notice a reaction to the retinol, immediately stop the use of the product and let your skin heal. In my case, it took one or two days to notice there was something wrong. It wasn’t an immediate stinging or obvious reaction.

Avoid any aggravating products like acids and exfoliators. While I love my acid exfoliators like Alpha H Liquid Gold, you will only continue to aggravate the skin by applying this – plus, it really stings! Further, avoid products that contain fragrance.

I swapped out aggravating products for nourishing, hydrating and calming products. Face Hero from Zoe Foster-Blake’s Go-To Skincare range was my skin saviour. I applied this nearly every night to help restore the skin. You can read my full review of Face Hero here.

While healing from a retinol burn, ensure you are wearing SPF and try to keep out of the sun where possible. Consider applying calming products that contain Aloe Vera – like you would a sunburn.

Depending on the severity of the burn it can be treated by a dermatologist and you should speak to a professional if you are in pain or you think you have really damaged your skin. They may recommend an over the counter hydrocortisone cream to alleviate the redness.

How do I prevent a retinol burn?

Thankfully there a few steps you can take to ensure you avoid a retinol burn:

  1. Do a spot test before trying a new product.
  2. Make sure your skin is hydrated – moisturised skin has a better barrier function.
  3. Gradually incorporate retinol into your skincare routine – work your way up to regular use.
  4. If you are new to retinol or getting back into it, start with a low percentage. I would recommend the products from The Ordinary. They stock products with variations in retinol strength and because they are so affordable, if your skin does not react well, there isn’t as much heartache compared to throwing away a $100+ product.
  5. Try buffering retinol – Buffering is where you apply moisturiser either before or after applying retinol. It works as a protective “buffer” to minimise the strength and effectiveness of retinol.
  6. Look for formulations that include other soothing or hydrating ingredients like antioxidants and hyaluronic acid.

Use a Retinol That is Right for Your Skin Type.

Different Strengths of Retinol

Before you purchase any product, do some research to understand which retinol will be right for you. As a starting point, you can see below how different strength products are suited to different skin types.

0.01% – 0.03% – Eyes, Fair, Thin, Senstitive Skin Types

0.04% – 0.25%   Normal & Combination Skin

0.5% – 1.00% – Dark, Thick and Tough Skin Types

2.00% – Highest Concentration Without a Prescription

The Wrap Up

Retinol will remain as one of my favourite skincare products for good reason. When used in the right way, it can have transformational results for your skin and is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients out there.

That said, if like me you do end up experiencing or want to avoid a retinol burn, there are some easy steps you can take to avoid it and treat it.

There are three things I want you to take away:

  1. Do your research to find the strength that is right for you
  2. Always do a spot test when trying a new product
  3. Consult a dermatologist if you are concerned about the severity of the burn

You can read my reviews of the best-selling and top-rated retinol’s in Australia here.

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Tara Lusk is the founder and creator of Beauty Space
Tara Lusk is a Sydney-based beauty enthusiast and the founder of Beauty Space. She launched the blog in 2018 to showcase the best beauty and skincare brands emerging from Australia, while also providing insider tips and tricks for hair and skincare. With a focus on tried-and-true products, Tara puts the latest cult products to the test to separate hype from substance.

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