This Too Shall Pass

What Are The Retinol Uglies? Here’s Your Full Rundown

Dermatologist Dr. Michele Green has your back (or rather, face) with actionable advice.

Written by Emily Weaver
Originally Published: 
Conceptual shot of Acne and Problem Skin on female face.
Boy_Anupong/Moment/Getty Images

Adult acne is no joke. Whether it's maskne, hormonal acne (thank you, Aunt Flo!), stress-related acne, or just your typical breakout, acne is a royal pain in the ass. Not to mention a dent in the bank — trying out new treatment solutions doesn't come cheap! However, if there was ever a skincare product to splurge your money on, it's retinol. Available as both a cream and serum, retinol is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid packed with vitamin A. In addition to treating acne and acne scarring, retinol can reduce the appearance of sun damage, brown spots, and fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol can also leave your skin feeling softer and smoother. To sum it up in one word: magic. Unfortunately, there is a downside to using retinol. It's called retinol uglies, and yes, it's as bothersome as it sounds.

Retinol uglies can leave your face dry, flaky, itchy, and beet red — as if you just got slapped across the face by a harsh gust of freezing wind. It's annoying and can be a zing to self-confidence, but know you're not alone. Retinol uglies are super common (almost expected) in retinol first-timers.

To break down everything, from retinol's benefits to this particularly bothersome side effect, Scary Mommy asked Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr. Michele Green for her expert insight. Keep reading to find out what she says about how and why retinol uglies occur and what you can do to ease the discomfort.

What are retinol uglies?

To better understand retinol's side effects, it helps to have a basic familiarity with retinol itself. "Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is topically applied to the skin and addresses a range of skin concerns, from fine lines and wrinkles to acne breakouts to hyperpigmentation and more," Dr. Green explains. "Retinol offers a host of skin benefits, including increasing the rate of skin cell turnover and exfoliating away dead skin cells to reveal healthy, new skin cells."

Sounds great, right? You're probably wondering where the "uglies" fit into this picture. There's always a chance you may experience mild side effects when incorporating a new product into your daily skincare regime. According to Green, it's quite common for individuals to experience "uglies" when they first start using retinol. "These refer to the peeling, redness, and irritation symptoms that occur soon afterward as a result of your skin adapting to the new active ingredient. Your skin is essentially purging the dead skin cells and bacteria from underneath the skin, which may temporarily trigger blackheads and acne breakouts," she says.

Also known as retinol irritation or retinization, retinol uglies are completely natural... albeit probably not your favorite look.

How long do retinol uglies last?

Unfortunately, retinol uglies don't come with a precise expiration date. Because everyone's skin chemistry is different and people use different combinations of skincare and retinol products, the span can vary from several days to a few weeks. However, Green notes that the side effect should clear up within two weeks, saying, "These symptoms typically last five to ten days, depending on your skin type and the concentration of the retinol. Once your skin is done purging, your skin should be smoother, clearer, and brighter than it previously was."

As is true when adapting to any new routine, patience is key. "Retinol offers many skin benefits but takes time to yield results, especially if you are starting at a lower concentration. Do not rush the process and start slow. Long-term, consistent use of retinol is the only way to bring about the desired cosmetic results," says Green.

Also important? Understanding that random flare-ups may happen down the road. Skin sensitivity (or irritation) is not easy to predict, but it is easy to trigger. Of course, if side effects quickly worsen or you're concerned about an allergic reaction or infection, contact a dermatologist immediately.

Who is most likely to be afflicted?

If you have sensitive or dry skin, you're more likely to experience the worst of this retinol side effect. "Sensitive skin types and those who have skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea may experience excessive skin irritation such as redness, dryness, swelling, itching, or a burning sensation," says Green.

How do you prevent retinol uglies?

Like when a popped pimple forms a scab, you pretty much have to let this skincare state heal on its own. That said, retinol uglies are somewhat treatable and perhaps even preventable. According to Green, the following steps can make the condition more tolerable and manageable:

  • Buffering: The most crucial step is to stay hydrated with a moisturizer, which is known as buffering. "The moisturizer will minimize any redness, discomfort, and dryness that frequently accompanies your skin as it adapts to retinol. Moisturizers like Aveeno and Ceravae can ease any peeling and tightness and are non-comedogenic. You can even mix retinol with a moisturizer to minimize discomfort," advises Green. "Hydrating cleansers with ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid serums can also help with the purging."
  • Drinking water: Yep, here's one more reason to keep your Hydro Flask handy. "Staying hydrated is another way to help with the retinol 'uglies' to prevent tightness and peeling of your skin,” says Green.
  • Applying retinol at night: To minimize skin irritation from the sun during the day, Green recommends using retinol during the nighttime.
  • Wearing sunscreen: If you've heard it once, you've heard it 100 times — sun protection is essential! "Retinol can make your skin more sensitive to UV radiation. As a result, it is vital to stay out of the sunlight or to apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and above if you are going to go out in the sun. Sunscreen will need to be reapplied every two hours and even more frequently if you exercise or go swimming."
  • Starting with a low retinol percentage: Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to retinol. Says Green, "It would also be best to start with a lower concentration of retinol and reduce usage if you are experiencing severe irritation." Retinol products with a .03 concentration or lower are a good starting baseline for beginners. But if you have highly sensitive skin, you may want to start even lower. "A low-strength retinol product such as 0.01% can help with signs of aging, reduce large pores, and improve the overall appearance of your skin. Try to use it once or twice a week to see how your skin tolerates it before using it more frequently."
  • Gentle exfoliation: This can help eliminate some of your dry and dead skin that’s irritating your face. Instead of adding more chemicals to the mix, it's best to try natural exfoliants like coffee, sugar, or oatmeal scrubs. Just remember not to scrub too hard because your skin is in a very sensitive state.
  • Use a facial steamer before washing your face: This will open your pores and help get rid of bacteria.
  • Avoiding certain products: Lastly, Green recommends steering clear of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids while using retinol.

Expert Source:

Dr. Michele Green, Cosmetic Dermatologist

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