Retinol and Tanning: What’s The Deal?

LuxeLuminous is reader supported. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

If you’re like addicted to an all-over youthful glow, then you’re probably using anti-aging retinol products to reduce wrinkles and other fine lines on your gorgeous face. But are you concerned with retinol and sun exposure?

Uncontrolled sun exposure is always concerning. But it’s often worse when retinol-treated skin gets exposed to lots of sunlight or UV light. However, that depends on the formula of retinol you’re using.

In this article, we’ll break down the details of Retinol and Tanning.


Retinol: Youthful Skin for Everyone


Retinol is the name of a type of vitamin A derivative used in over-the-counter anti-aging products. It’s a chemical compound known as a retinoid and is one of the most talked-about skincare treatments on the market.

Other retinoids you may have heard of include retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, and tretinoin (prescription retinoic acid, which is also known as Retin-A). 

Dermatologists love working with retinoids because there’s been so much science to back up their use. Many studies have been done to show that retinoids protect collagen, reduce inflammation in cases of acne, and promote the growth of new blood vessels to create healthier-looking skin.

New Cell Revival

Prescription retinoids work by causing your surface skin cells to turn over more quickly. This means that new cell growth is exposed faster while the deeper layers of skin are thickened.

Although this keeps skin looking smoother, it also means that using retinol and sun exposure doesn’t mix. This is because new cells are simply much more sensitive.

Some retinoids are also much harsher than others and can be up to 100 times more active than over-the-counter retinol. Many users can experience redness and peeling, especially with prescription retinoid use.

If your skin is very sensitive, then using a retinol cream would definitely be the more sensible choice to reduce the chance of irritation. Although you might want to talk to a dermatologist first to find out what would work best for you — everyone’s skin is different.

When retinol is absorbed through the skin after application, it is converted into retinoic acid, the type of vitamin A that stimulates skin repair.

During the absorption process, it activates with different protein skin receptors and stimulates them to divide. This supports the top layer of skin by increasing the supply of new cells and basically pushing any dead skin cells into a self-exfoliation process.

What Should I Expect from Retinol?

Olay Retinol

Over-the-counter skin care treatments containing retinol reduce fine lines and wrinkles. They also even out pigmentation, increase collagen production to keep skin looking firmer. They also fade dark circles, age spots, and blotches that are caused by exposure to the sun.

Retinol has also been proven to soften rough patches because of its exfoliation properties. And its faster removal of superficial dead cells leaves skin feeling smoother with a glowing appearance.

This is part of why it’s a hit with beauty enthusiasts everywhere.

It should be noted that peeling and redness can happen during the first few weeks of use as your skin gets used to the new treatment. It’s commonly called the “retinol uglies“. And that is a big reason why retinol and sun exposure is a hot topic of conversation.

This peeling and redness is normal, though, and doesn’t mean your skin is thinning. In fact, the use of retinol actually thickens skin by preventing the breakdown of collagen.

RoC Retinol

Even though many over-the-counter retinol creams and serums claim that you will see results in four to six weeks, you may find that your product will have to be used daily for up to six months before you see a difference.

Studies show that it takes an average of 12 weeks for noticeable changes to be seen.

This is because everyone’s skin is different. And how the retinol will work on your skin will depend on how much of it is converted into retinoic acid. And that depends on how many retinoid receptors your skin has.

Some dermatologists will recommend that you use cream or serum formats to start. They have lower concentrations of retinol at around 0.025 percent, and most contain moisturizing oils.

These types of products allow the skin to more easily adjust to your new retinol routine. Many also recommend using retinol products at night to avoid any risks of sun exposure.

Retinol and Sun Exposure: Sunny Confusion

The confusion as to whether retinol and sun exposure is dangerous comes from the fact that not all retinoids are the same. That said, any change in environment has the potential to cause dryness when using retinol — especially if you’re using prescription retinoids.

In general, retinol and tanning should not be mixed!

But if you do get sun exposure, here are some good ways to keep your skin healthy.

Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize

To avoid dryness, which can cause irritation and redness, using a heavier moisturizer over your retinol treatment is advised. You would need to do this any time your skin would become dehydrated like when skiing, prolonged sitting in air conditioning, or on a long-haul flight.

Cover Up

Because of the rapid cell renewal caused by retinol use, the new delicate skin shouldn’t be exposed to UV sunlight — especially during the middle of the day. Keep your exposure low when the UV Index is high to avoid any heat sensitivity or blistering.

Also, applying retinol and then going out in the sun actually makes the retinol inactive! That’s because retinoids break down in sunlight. That’s why it’s recommended that they are applied as part of your nighttime skincare regime.

Free Radicals

The real confusion comes from studies that showed an increase in free radical production from retinyl palmitate on the skin of mice when exposed to the sun’s UV radiation.

This is because retinyl palmitate is one of the most common vitamin ingredients found in many over-the-counter sunscreens since it’s more chemically stable than retinol itself, so is easier to manufacture into skincare.

Plus, it’s now been shown that newer retinol formations don’t necessarily cause sunburn, and any redness found after sun exposure is likely due to high temperatures. Clinical studies have proven that retinoids don’t lower the amount of UV light your skin can handle before it burns.

The problem of burning skin is an issue if you’re adapting to a new product containing retinol. Your skin would be more sensitive than normal, as it adapts to the even faster turnover of dead skin cells.

It is the new cells being freshly exposed that have the potential to burn easily, not that the retinol itself increases your risk of sunburn.

Starting a retinol routine during the summer months is advised by dermatologists, regardless of the sun’s UV light. This is because the humidity during warmer weather causes your skin to be naturally more moisturized, so you’re less likely to suffer from dryness and irritation as long as you keep your sun exposure to a minimum.

You could also consider wearing a hat to protect your face just in case avoiding the sun isn’t possible, although retinoids have also been shown to slow down the enzyme that breaks down collagen after UV exposure.

There Are Always Alternatives

You definitely shouldn’t use retinol or any other skincare products that include vitamin A if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to retinoids in the past, or you are pregnant or nursing.

Too much vitamin A has been shown to be potentially harmful to the mother and baby.

If you’re having radiation or chemotherapy treatment, then you should talk to your doctor before considering using retinol. And if you have skin conditions like psoriasis, dermatitis or eczema, then you should also try something different to combat aging skin.

There is a new kid on the block to retinol that could be your answer if you’re allergic, pregnant or nursing, or you’d prefer a vegan option.

Inotka Bakuchiol

Bakuchiol is an antioxidant that is extracted from the seeds of psoralea corylifolia, which grows in India and is fast becoming known as the plant-based version of retinol. It even has anti-inflammatory properties.

A study in the British Journal of Dermatology in February 2019 found that bakuchiol and retinol were equally effective in improving both hyperpigmentation (where darkening of skin occurs because of increased melanin) and wrinkles.

After 12 weeks, the 44 participants all had a 20 percent reduction in wrinkles, with 59 percent of those in the bakuchiol group showing improvement in hyperpigmentation compared to only 44 percent in the retinol group.

The 0.5% retinol cream that was used daily in the study also caused more irritation, skin scaling and stinging in the participants. The 0.5% bakuchiol cream, which the participants used twice a day, was not associated with any impairment or irritabilit. That lead researchers to conclude that it is cleaner.

This is because bakuchiol isn’t derived from vitamin A, so won’t cause irritating skin symptoms like itching and peeling.

Acure Radically Rejuvenating Dual Phase Bakuchiol Serum - Anti-Aging & Soothing Skin Support - All Natural Made with Eggplant, Turmeric & Bakuchiol - Vegan Skin Care, Hydrates & Defends - 0.67 oz
  • NATURE'S POWER BOOST SET - Embrace the...
  • SHIELD AGAINST DIRT- Protection that...
  • RADIANCE HEALTHY GLOW - Transform your...

One retinol alternative you could try is Acure Radically Rejuvenating Dual Phase Bakuchiol Serum . It is not only vegan and cruelty-free, but it’s also paraben, sulfate, mineral oil, petrolatum and formaldehyde free.

As an added bonus, it even contains natural non-nano zinc oxide that will protect your skin from sun exposure.

OLEHENRIKSEN Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum 1 oz/ 30 mL
  • Brightening Formula: Contains retinol to...
  • Natural Ingredients: Formulated with...
  • Glow-Inducing: Helps to illuminate and...
  • For All Skin Types: Suitable for...
  • Lightweight Texture: Absorbs quickly...

Another option is Ole Henriksen’s Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum . However, because it contains AHA, it can cause some paler skins to burn. So when it comes to sun exposure, it acts just like retinol and should be used with caution.

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).