Retinol is a powerful skincare ingredient that offers many benefits, from anti-aging effects to unclogging pores. The over-the-counter form of vitamin A is a popular skincare ingredient—but it may not be right for every skin type. .
Rosacea, a chronic skin condition characterized by frequent redness and flushing, can often require special attention—and not all products or ingredients are recommended for people with this condition. Here, Curology’s skincare experts will explain exactly what you need to know about rosacea and retinol.
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative used in skincare products to reduce the signs of aging. It penetrates the dermis, enhances skin cell turnover, protects collagen, and reduces water loss to keep the skin plump.¹
Retinol is a popular anti-aging ingredient in creams, lotions, and serums, and over-the-counter products are widely available. Stronger topical retinoids, like tretinoin, are available by prescription.
The use of retinol for individuals with rosacea can be tricky. While it does offer skin benefits, such as reducing signs of aging and unclogging pores, it may also irritate the skin. This may be particularly problematic for those with rosacea since these individuals already experience skin irritation due to the condition.
If you have rosacea, it's generally better to avoid using retinol or use it in smaller concentrations after performing a patch test. Additionally, it’s recommended to consult with a dermatology provider before using retinol to determine whether it’s appropriate for your specific skin condition and concerns.
Let’s take a closer look at the good and the not-so-good effects of retinol on your skin.
On healthy skin, retinol is very effective in providing anti-aging treatment. One study showed that using 0.3% and 0.5% retinol over time led to gradually brightened the skin and reduced, unevenness of skin tone and wrinkles. This study also showed that adverse reactions were mostly mild or moderate skin irritation, so it seemingly well-tolerated.²
According to another study, retinoids can serve as an alternative treatment for inflammatory rosacea. This study found that only tretinoin 0.025% and adapalene gel were tolerable and effective in treating papulopustular rosacea, but should be used with caution.³
Research shows that though retinol does have benefits, its tendency to cause irritation as a side effect can be more prominent in rosacea patients with gentle skin.⁴
Retinol can be great for your skin when it’s used the right way, but it may not be right for you if you have rosacea. You should always consult a dermatology provider before using a new ingredient to help combat your skin complications.
Aside from avoiding certain foods when you have rosacea, you should also avoid certain skincare ingredients. It’s always a good idea to read the ingredient list of skincare products before purchasing them.
If you have rosacea, it’s best to avoid products containing:⁵
Alcohol: This ingredient is commonly used in skincare products as a solvent or preservative. However, it can dry the skin and lead to irritation, especially for those with already dry or sensitive skin.⁶
Fragrance: Fragrances, whether natural or synthetic, are sometimes added to skincare products to enhance their scent. However, they are a common cause of skin irritation and may trigger allergic reactions.⁷
Sodium lauryl sulfate: This ingredient is commonly found in personal care products, including shampoos and toothpaste. It’s a surfactant that helps to create lather, but it can strip the skin of its natural oils, causing dryness and skin inflammation.⁸
Urea: Urea is a compound used in skincare products to hydrate the skin. However, it can cause a burning or stinging sensation and irritate the skin when used at concentrations of 5% and above.⁹
Instead of using products with these ingredients, look for products with gentle yet effective ingredients that can help treat your rosacea.
While retinol is a popular ingredient for reducing aging signs, it can irritate individuals with rosacea. Fortunately, several rosacea-friendly alternatives can help improve the appearance and health of your skin. All of these ingredients can be prescribed by your Curology dermatology provider if they’re right for you!
Azelaic acid is a natural compound found in whole grains that has anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps to prevent the blocking of pores, making it an effective treatment for acne and rosacea. Studies have shown that a 15% gel form of azelaic acid can significantly reduce the symptoms of rosacea.¹ ⁰
Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug with anti-inflammatory properties and fights certain mites that play a role in rosacea. It has been shown to be effective in relieving the symptoms of rosacea. It’s available in both topical and oral forms, and studies have demonstrated its efficacy in treating papulopustular rosacea.¹¹
Metronidazole is an antibiotic that has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s commonly used in rosacea treatment and has been shown to be successful in reducing erythema, papules, and pustules in patients with moderate to severe rosacea.
At a concentration of 0.75%, metronidazole is well-tolerated and effective in reducing the symptoms of rosacea.¹²
Doxycycline is an oral antibiotic that is commonly used in the treatment of rosacea. It has both anti-inflammatory and antiangiogenic properties, effectively reducing the symptoms of rosacea. It’s often used in treating papulopustular rosacea and has been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation and number of lesions.¹³
To prevent skin irritation and reduce the risk of aggravating rosacea symptoms, remember the following tips when selecting skincare products.
Choosing fragrance-free products for your skin and makeup needs is advisable, as they are less likely to cause irritation. Additionally, it's recommended to test a product first before using it on your face by applying a small amount on a discrete area such as your inner arm. If you experience a reaction, avoid using the product and make a note of the ingredients that caused the reaction.
It's also important to remember that the irritants for rosacea may vary from person to person, so paying attention to your skin's reaction can guide your choices. Lastly, avoid rubbing or scrubbing your face, as this can worsen symptoms and lead to further irritation.¹⁴
Dermatologists recommend retinol to help treat the signs of aging. However, retinol may not be the best ingredient for your skin if you have rosacea. The good news is there are many other ingredients out there that can help calm your rosacea. If you’re looking for personalized skincare products for your specific skin concerns, Curology can help.
We offer proven, effective skincare products designed to target your unique skin concerns. Our innovative formulas combine active ingredients such as prescription-grade tretinoin, azelaic acid, and niacinamide to combat acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
Our skincare products are created for you after a consultation with a licensed dermatology provider who will evaluate your skin concerns, medical history, and lifestyle. This personalized approach allows us to create a unique formula tailored to your needs and skin type.
Retinol provides numerous advantages to the skin and aids in giving you a youthful appearance. Nevertheless, it may cause irritation for some. It’s recommended that you consult your dermatology provider for personalized advice on which skincare components to incorporate or avoid based on your skin type. Typically, individuals with sensitive skin should use a lower strength of retinol.
Retinol may make your redness worse if you have sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin or rosacea, consult a dermatology provider before using retinol or retinoids and explore alternative skincare options that can help improve your skin health and appearance.
To get rid of your rosacea as soon as possible, speak with a dermatology provider and follow their skin advice. They may prescribe creams or antibiotics such as doxycycline to help treat your symptoms.
They may also advise you to avoid products with fragrances and certain harsh ingredients like alcohol to help prevent flare-ups and expedite the healing process.
Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. (August 2019)
Zasada M, et al. A Clinical Anti-Ageing Comparative Study of 0.3 and 0.5% Retinol Serums: A Clinically Controlled Trial. Skin Pharmacol Physiol.(2020)
Engin B, et al. Conventional and Novel Treatment Modalities in Rosacea. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2020)
Engin B, et al. Conventional and Novel Treatment Modalities in Rosacea. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.
American Academy of Dermatology. 6 rosacea skin care tips dermatologists give their patients. (n.d)
American Academy of Dermatology. Dermatologist's top tips for relieving dry skin. (n.d)
van Amerongen CCA, et al. Skin exposure to scented products used in daily life and fragrance contact allergy in the European general population - The EDEN Fragrance Study. Contact Dermatitis. (June 2021)
Bondi CA, et al. Human and Environmental Toxicity of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): Evidence for Safe Use in Household Cleaning Products. Environ Health Insights. (2015, Nov 17)
Final report of the safety assessment of Urea. Int J Toxicol. (2005)
Gollnick H, Layton A. Azelaic acid 15% gel in the treatment of rosacea. Expert Opin Pharmacother. (2008)
Cardwell LA, et al. New developments in the treatment of rosacea - the role of once-daily ivermectin cream. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (March 2016)
Rivero AL, Whitfeld M. An update on the treatment of rosacea. Aust Prescr. (February 2018)
Valentín S, et al. Safety and efficacy of doxycycline in the treatment of rosacea. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (August 2009)
American Academy of Dermatology. 6 rosacea skin care tips dermatologists give their patients. Ibid
Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.
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Donna McIntyre, NP-BC