Prescription retinoids and skin care products containing retinol may worsen eczema symptoms, such as dryness and itching. To avoid irritation, people with eczema-prone skin need to use retinol products cautiously.

Eczema is a group of inflammatory skin conditions that causes excessive dryness and itching. Retinol is an ingredient manufacturers often add to skin care products. It belongs to a class of medications called retinoids, which derive from vitamin A.

Retinol is a milder type of over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid available in many products. Retinoids tend to be more potent, and doctors prescribe them to treat skin conditions such as acne.

This article discusses whether retinol and other retinoids can irritate eczema-prone skin, why people may want to use them, and alternative products.

Retinol pipettesShare on Pinterest
Natalia Sereda/Getty Images

Topical retinol products can improve the skin’s appearance by stimulating collagen production and increasing skin cell renewal. However, retinol has a drying effect on the skin, which may worsen existing eczema. For this reason, many dermatologists recommend that people with eczema avoid using retinol or use retinol products with caution.

Prolonged use of topical retinoids may cause the following side effects, especially in those with sensitive or eczema-prone skin:

Learn more about retinoids.

Retinol has proven benefits for the skin. According to the National Eczema Association (NEA), the vitamin A in retinoids can increase skin cell turnover, removing dead skin cells, unclogging pores, and making skin appear brighter. It can also reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

The sections below discuss other reasons people with eczema-prone skin may wish to use retinol.

Chronic refractory eczema

Certain oral retinoids can help treat severe refractory eczema in specific bodily areas, such as the hands. A refractory condition is one that is unresponsive to more conventional treatments.

Some retinoids can help treat chronic refractory eczema on the hands, and they include alitretinoin or acitretin as an off-label treatment.

Other skin conditions

People with eczema may also want to use retinoids to help treat other skin conditions they may have. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, some skin conditions that retinoids can treat include mild acne or mild pigmentation irregularities.

The NEA provides the following tips for using retinoids, including OTC retinol products, on eczema-prone skin:

Consult with a dermatologist

A dermatologist can devise a safe and effective skin-care plan to address a person’s skin care needs. They will advise on the best retinoid treatments and dosages to help limit potential side effects.

Choose products with lower concentrations of retinol

OTC retinols have a lower potency than prescription retinoids, meaning the potential side effects are milder. The concentration of retinol in products also differs. Those with eczema can choose retinol products with the lowest concentrations of retinol to avoid irritating the skin.

Choose moisturizing products

People with eczema can choose retinol products containing moisturizers, such as creams and ointments, which are more moisturizing than gels.

Ease into treatment

When starting retinoid treatment, a person can use a small, pea-sized amount of product once or twice weekly. If skin irritation does not occur, they can gradually increase the dosage and frequency of applications.

Monitor potential side effects

Retinol products can cause mild symptoms that may decrease as a person’s skin adapts to the treatment. Examples include:

  • drier skin
  • light peeling
  • increased sensitivity to sunlight

Prescription retinoids may cause the following severe symptoms:

  • intense flaking
  • skin discoloration or redness and burning
  • persistent or worsening irritation

If someone experiences these symptoms, they need to decrease the dosage and application frequency or stop the treatment altogether. A dermatologist may suggest trying an alternative retinoid.

Continue routine eczema therapies

When using retinol products, people can continue their usual eczema therapies, which may include:

People can apply a moisturizer after using products containing retinol and throughout the day to help prevent excessive skin dryness.

Research suggests that the plant chemical “bakuchiol” may have similar benefits to retinol but with fewer side effects.

A 2019 study compared the safety and efficacy of bakuchiol against retinol treatments for facial aging. The study included 44 participants who applied either 0.5% bakuchiol cream twice daily or 0.5% retinol cream once per day for 12 weeks.

High-resolution photographs before and after the study suggested both creams significantly decreased wrinkles and hyperpigmentation roughly equally. However, participants who applied the retinol cream reported more facial scaling and stinging, suggesting that bakuchiol may be a more tolerable alternative.

According to a 2022 systematic review, bakuchiol demonstrates promising pro-aging, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. The authors also refer to studies in which bakuchiol treatments led to significant reductions in the following areas:

  • photodamage, which refers to skin damage from the sun
  • wrinkle scores
  • acne severity
  • hyperpigmentation

Products containing bakuchiol are widely available. A dermatologist can advise about using bakuchiol on eczema-prone skin.

Read about natural remedies for eczema.

Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about retinoids and eczema.

Is tretinoin OK for eczema?

Tretinoin is another type of retinoid. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are reports of tretinoin causing severe irritation following application to eczema-prone skin. As such, the FDA recommends that people with eczema use the utmost caution when applying tretinoin products to their skin.

What is the prescription retinol for eczema?

Typically, doctors do not prescribe retinoids to people with eczema, as this medication can aggravate eczema symptoms. However, certain prescription retinoids, such as alitretinoin and acitretin, may help treat severe eczema that is unresponsive to other treatments.

Retinol is an ingredient in skin care products that belongs to a class of medications called retinoids, which derive from vitamin A.

Retinol can cause side effects similar to those of eczema and may exacerbate eczema symptoms. In general, dermatologists do not recommend using retinoids on eczema-prone skin.

The plant chemical bakuchiol may offer skin benefits equivalent to those of retinol but with fewer side effects. People with eczema can ask a dermatologist how to use bakuchiol as a retinol alternative.