Can Retinol Make Dark Spots Worse? Can Retinol Cause Hyperpigmentation?

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Retinol is the purest form of vitamin A. It fights acne, minimizes wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation, and pumps up collagen. Retinol has been hailed as the Kryptonite for aging! But we’ve all too often heard the expression: “If it’s too good to be true…”

So it leads to the question: can retinol cause hyperpigmentation? Can retinol make dark spots worse?

Yes, retinol can make dark spots worse. If your retinol is too powerful for your skin, dark spots may become more visible. But this usually only happens if you’re using the retinol incorrectly.

In this article, we are going to take a look at retinol, how it works, and if you should worry that retinol use can make dark spots worse.


How Retinol Works

New Age Retinol

There is good reason for the hype around products containing retinol, like this New Age Retinol Cream . Considered the gold standard by dermatologists for antiaging and minimizing age and sun spots, as well as acne treatment, retinol has been proven to offer significant results.

Other types of anti-aging products work primarily by removing dead skin cells.

Retinol, however, is different.

Retinol molecules penetrate below the outer layer of your skin (epidermis) to the middle layer (dermis).

Skin Diagram
Skin Diagram. Source: Wikipedia

Retinol creates a “plumping” effect that reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and enlarged pores by neutralizing free radicals to boost the production of elastin and collagen.

It also has an exfoliating effect on the skin’s surface that can further improve the tone and texture.

When it comes to dark spots, also known as hyperpigmentation, Retinol causes the skin cells to turn over more quickly than their natural cycle.

That begins the process of removing the pigmented cells that are there. As the dark spots peel off, your skin replaces them with normally pigmented cells.

There is a reason many of the Best Chemical Peels For Hyperpigmentation include retinol in the ingredient list!

Retinol also inhibits the activity of the enzyme tyrosinase, which stimulates melanin production in the skin.

This reduces the appearance of sun-induced dark spots while thickening and lightening the skin.

Does Retinol Make Your Skin Worse Before It Gets Better?

After first starting a retinol regime, your skin will go through an adjustment period. This occurs as the retinol accelerates your cell turnover, and the natural sloughing away of the dead top layer, also referred to as a skin purge.

The skin purge can cause peeling, skin sensitivity, and breakouts. Many mistake this for an allergic reaction, but this is actually a sign of repair within the skin.

This adjustment period, or skin purge, has also been coined “the retinol uglies” – charming. Fortunately, the retinol uglies” don’t last very long.

Not everyone experiences this and different people will have different reactions. It will not only depend on your personal skin chemistry but also the concentration of retinol in the product.

Can Retinol Make Dark Spots Worse? Can Retinol Cause Hyperpigmentation?

If the retinol you’re using is too strong for your skin causing inflammation, skin (especially darker skin tones) may have a higher risk of discoloration, or hyperpigmentation.

So yes, it is possible that retinol makes your dark spots worse and can lead to hyperpigmentation. But that is only if you are not using it correctly, and at the correct strength.

Can Retinol Make Hyperpigmentation Worse?

If you’re already dealing with hyperpigmentation and want to introduce retinol into your regime, it’s possible that the retinol will aggravate your hyperpigmentation and make it worse.

As we mentioned above, there is often a purge process that can make hyperpigmentation worse for a time, but a retinol that is too powerful for your skin can also make hyperpigmentation worse.

How Can I Make Sure Retinol Doesn’t Cause Hyperpigmentation?

The two most important things, if you are buying an OTC retinol product, is to:

1. Start with a product at the correct strength for your skin type.

2. Go slow and steady when you introduce retinol into your skincare regime.

This way, you will be less likely to suffer from the ‘retinol uglies’. Even if you do get them, you will minimize the side effects from that initial adjustment period.

And rather than making your dark spots worse, it should help to lighten them, as it’s developed to do.

Choosing the Right Retinol Strength For Your Skin

For dry, sensitive skin, it’s advised to start off with a concentration of 0.3%. This can be gradually increased in increments, every three months, until you meet your optimum dose, which should be about 1%.

For normal skin, you can start at 0.5% and work your way up to 1.5%.

For a more oily complexion and robust skin type, you can start with a 1% concentration and work your way up to 1.5 % – 2%.

Each retinol-containing product will highlight the concentration of retinol. See below:

How to Introduce Retinol Into Your Skin Regime

Ensure you apply the product to clean, dry skin. Wait a few minutes after you’ve cleansed and washed your face.

Start off by applying twice a week for two weeks. Increase to three times a week for another two weeks.

By week 5 you can apply every night.

Ensure that you are keeping your skin hydrated, so moisturizing is essential. Using retinol makes you more photosensitive, so it’s very important to use a moisturizer with a high SPF  as part of your daily routine.

Apply the moisturizer before you apply retinol.

You can also mix the two together.

Recommended Retinol Products For Dark Spots and Hyperpigmentation.

1. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Face Serum Oil 

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair 0.3% Concentrated Retinol Face Oil, Daily Anti-Aging Face Serum to Fight Fine Lines, Deep Wrinkles, & Dark Spots, 1.0 fl. oz
  • 1.0-fluid ounces of Neutrogena Visible...
  • The beginner strength retinol face oil...
  • This facial serum is formulated with...
  • Retinol facial oil instantly nourishes...
  • The perfect addition to a daily beauty &...

This lightweight 0.3% retinol facial oil formula deeply penetrates and helps replenish dry skin, for radiant, younger-looking skin. It assists in treating dark spots, and it hydrates and smooths the skin. Perfect for beginners, if you’ve never used a retinol product before and ideal for sensitive skin.

2. evenatom 0.5% Retinol Face Moisturizer Night Cream 

Retinol Cream for Face - 0.5% Retinol Face Moisturizer - Anti Aging Wrinkle Cream for Face with Retinol, Collagen Peptides & Botanical Extract - Face Moisturizer for Women & Men by Even Atom,1 fl. oz
  • POWERFUL NIGHT CREAM - Formulated with...
  • 0.5% PURE RETINOL - our Retinol Night...
  • CLEAN & NON-TOXIC - all ingredients are...

Evenatom Retinol Night Cream combats multiple signs of aging, reduces the appearance of dark spot, blemishes and evens skin tone.

3. SkinMedica Retinol 1.0 Complex 

SkinMedica Retinol 0.5 Complex, 1 Fl Oz
  • Get an enhanced skin tone, texture, and...
  • Delays signs of ageing by keeping the...
  • Helps in reducing acne breakouts and...
  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Diminishes the appearance of fine lines...

While you may gravitate toward choosing a retinol product with Vitamin C which is also known to help with hyperpigmentation, Retinol and Vitamin C can actually make each other inactive.

It’s best to use a Vitamin C serum  in the morning and a retinol product in the evening, like SkinMedica Retinol 1.0 Complex.

Take Away

Can Retinol make dark spots worse? It can. But retinol should not cause your dark spots to get worse unless you are using it incorrectly.

It is the same case with eye creams containing retinol and wrinkles.

As long as you ease your way into your retinol regime, and you use a retinol product at the correct strength for your skin type, you too can reap the benefits that retinol has to offer.

See also: light therapy for hyperpigmentation

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).