"HELP! Retinol makes my skin flake"

"HELP! Retinol makes my skin flake"

How to determine whether your retinol reaction is normal or a sign to ditch your Vitamin A product.

Vitamin A has been the talk of the town for some time now, and for good reason. Originally used by doctors to treat acne, it didn’t take long for them to discover its incredible anti-ageing benefits. Ever since, it has been hailed as the gold standard of age-management products by skin clinicians and dermatologists alike.
Here at JV, we la-la-love retinol.

Unfortunately, when it comes to at-home care, the use of Vitamin A isn’t so simple..

At the James Vivian clinic, we regularly see clients that have thrown out their retinol products after their skin started experiencing flakiness, redness or sensitivity, and frankly, we have some thoughts about this occurrence…

Frist up, the way Vitamin A works (and why we love it so much) is because it increases cell turnover and triggers the natural collagen response, which both deplete as we age. A more effective cell turnover occurence equates to the lightening of pigmentation, the smoothening of fines lines, the brightening of complexions and the healing of inflammation such as acne. Yep, retinol works hard.

As is the skin, skincare and skincare ingredients, not all types of Vitamin A are the same.

Retinoids is the umbrella term given to all forms of Vitamin A, these include retinol esters, retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. All of these examples demonstrate a different potency level of Vitamin A.

Due to the volatile nature of retinol (when used in inappropriate dosages and strengths) it is SUPER important to begin with a low concentration of the active in a product, as well as a slow and incremental approach.

More about how to successfully introduce Vitamin A into your routine here.

“Vitamin A can be quite a strong and reactive ingredient. It’s important to keep in mind that our skin has a certain tolerance for vitamin A - we only have a certain number of cellular receptors to detect and distribute vitamin A, and these can be overwhelmed with overuse. That’s why we have to ‘build up tolerance’, which is why you often see instructions on your skincare to start with usage on alternating nights and build to nightly use.”

Thanks for confirming this, James.


When it comes to selecting the right retinol for your skin and concerns, there is a lot to consider. If you’re new to the retinol game, how exciting and welcome aboard! Please read our blog post about choosing the right James Vivian Approved Vitamin A product here.

But really, you’re here to learn about why your skin may be flaking due to retinol use..

There is a fine line to be drawn between effective progress with this ingredient and misuse to where it’s sensitising and irritating your skin.

Flakiness is normal for a first-time retinol user, or a client who is on the journey of increasing their dosage.
This is where things become a little cloudy.

The ability to determine whether your flakiness is positive or a sign you need to ditch the retinol for a while is where clients come unstuck, lose hope in retinol all together and chuck it in the bin. It’s heartbreaking!

In an ideal world we would recommend you to consistently check in with us, or your regular clinician, to help determine whether what you’re using or how your skin’s reacting is as it should be.

If you’re trying to figure this out without the help of a professional here are some signs to look out for when your skin ISNT COPING:

  • Sensitive
  • Itchy
  • Hot
  • Stings when you apply products or cleanse.

These are all signs of your skin barrier being impaired and to stop the use of actives for the moment. In the meantime, sub-in nourishing and restorative ingredients instead, some suggestions of reparative prods can be found here.

There you have it, if you can determine that your retinol reaction is in fact due to misuse, we can narrow it down to an issue of:

a) Concentration being too high.
b) Using the product too often.
c) Totally wrong product for you.

So if you’ve tried a Vitamin A, or in particular a retinol product before and experienced flakey skin, don’t be deterred!

It still remains the best possible topical ingredient when it comes to control of oil production, boosting collagen and elastin, stimulating skin cell production, and essentially regulating your skin’s natural functions to be the very best it can be. 

As always, we’re only a phone call, DM, email or cat-call away from helping you with your targeted retinol journey.