The retinol ‘boom’: the benefits and risks of the “anti-aging” product that is sweeping TikTok | Health & Wellness

Alba Fernández Palacios started taking care of her skin three years ago because she developed acne. In her facial routine, which she has developed following the advice of dermatologists on social media, she includes retinol. “I use it to lighten pimple spots,” says this 30-year-old girl from Madrid. She’s not the only one. While multiple users talk about the magic” of this product on TikTok, the authorities try to guarantee the safety of consumers. The European Commission approved on April 3, 2024 a new regulation that restricts the use of retinol in cosmetic products to a maximum of 0.3%. EL PAÍS has spoken with several dermatologists to understand the reason and scope of this decision.

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. “It is one of the most used active ingredients in cosmetics because it is the ingredient anti-aging par excellence”, explains Rose of the River, dermatologist responsible for the Facial Aesthetics Unit of the Pedro Jaén Group. The product is so popular because “it promotes the renewal of the skin surface, making the skin more uniform, smooth and luminous.” In addition, “it reduces expression lines and wrinkles, lightens blemishes, evens tone and promotes the production of collagen, an element directly linked to the firmness and texture of the skin.”

Fernández has the feeling that retinol softens her face, helps “fill in the mini wrinkles” and believes that it lightens the spots “very little by little.” Despite its benefits, this product should be used with caution. If it is not used in the appropriate concentration or the characteristics of each person are not taken into account, it can irritate the skin, as Del Río highlights. The dermatologists consulted by EL PAÍS recommend starting to use it every other day at night and in low concentrations and increasing both factors as the skin gets used to it. In addition, they insist on the importance of protecting yourself from the sun.

Fernández began applying 0.1% retinol two or three days a week. As he saw that it had no side effects, he decided to use it “every other day and every other day.” And finally, he started using it daily. Although the retinol he uses is of low concentration, for a month he has noticed damage in some areas of his face: “I have peeling and dryness on my chin, part of my nose and cheeks, and when I laugh, I notice a lot of it.” tightness”. It’s not the first time it’s happened. In these cases, stop applying retinol and apply “a very moisturizing cream” at night.

This product has become so popular due to the rise of cosmetic and skin care routines on social networks, according to dermatologists Miguel Sánchez Viera and Sara Gómez Armayones, members of the Spanish Group of Aesthetic and Therapeutic Dermatology of the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (AEDV). Both experts have often observed improper or unnecessary use of retinol, which is not without complications. Among them, they mention the appearance of severe eczema or the worsening of skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis wave rosacea outbreak.

What changes with the new regulation

The new European regulations will restrict retinol to a maximum concentration of 0.3% for facial cosmetic products and 0.05% for body products. As of November 1, 2025, cosmetic products with concentrations higher than those indicated may no longer be placed on the market, and as of May 1, 2027, such products may no longer be marketed.

The European Commission has taken this decision based on the recommendations of the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), published in October 2022: “It can be concluded that there is a potential risk to human health derived from the use of vitamin A in cosmetic products when its concentration exceeds certain levels.”

The dermatologist Alexandre Docampo explains that the SCCS recommends the limitation “not because topical products with retinol at high concentrations are harmful to the skin – which they are not, as long as they are applied gradually – but because there is a percentage of the population with an excess of vitamin A, from food or vitamin supplements.”

The expert explains that, since retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A, “there is a theoretical risk that when applied to the skin they will be absorbed into the systemic circulation, contributing to this excess of vitamin A in some people.” The recommendation to limit the concentration of retinol is a precautionary measure, in his opinion.

5% of the population is exposed to high levels of vitamin A—a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver—according to the SCCS. Excess of this vitamin, also known as hypervitaminosis A, can cause severe headache, blurred vision, nausea, dizziness, muscle pain, and coordination problems. “In severe cases, the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid can increase, causing drowsiness and eventually coma and even death,” indicate the National Institutes of Health of the United States.

The objective of the new regulations, according to Del Río, is that the population’s overall exposure to vitamin A does not exceed safe limits and that there are no skin problems due to cosmetics with too high concentrations. The expert considers that European regulations try to regulate the concentration of retinol in cosmetics to make them safer. “Until now there was no legal limit and this blurs the border between what is a cosmetic and what is a medicine (a product that must be prescribed and supervised by a doctor),” she maintains.

“Enough” for the general population

“Some people have confused this with retinol being bad for the skin, probably because when you start using it, the expected effects of peeling and redness occur, which are more noticeable in unaccustomed skin that begins to use high concentrations,” says Docampo. In any case, the expert assures that a concentration of 0.3% is “more than enough” in the general population to prevent skin aging as much as possible.

In some cases, a higher concentration may be necessary: ​​”When we have to treat pathologies such as melasma or acne, we sometimes require higher concentrations, since their ability to accelerate epidermal turnover and transform the skin is much greater.” Higher concentrations may also be necessary, according to Del Río, to make peelings chemicals in consultation—for example, to treat acne marks and scars or give the skin a more uniform texture—or in patients with skin pathologies such as acne, psoriasis or photoaging.

It is not yet clear whether dermatologists or medical clinics will be able to prescribe retinol at a higher concentration, according to Armayones: “We don’t know because the European Commission has not commented on the matter.” Even so, the expert considers it likely that, for medical indications, specialists can prescribe or even formulate retinol at concentrations higher than 0.3%.

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