Retinol Sun Sensitivity and Photosensitivity

Young girl getting face sunburn from retinol and sun exposure

Is retinol safe in the sun? Does it make me sun sensitive?  What is the truth about retinol and sun exposure? At least once a day in my dermatology clinic, a patient will tell me that they stopped using their retinoid or retinol because they were going to be in the sun.  They were worried about sun exposure after using retinol.

However, retinol and tretinoin do not make you sun sensitive.  This is a myth.  These retinoids are sun sensitive themselves.  That means they break down in the sun.  However, they do not make you photosensitive.

This is a guide to how to use retinol and retinoids even if you have sun exposure.  Retinol is in the retinoid family of  skin care ingredients. 

We can help you find the best retinoid skin care products for your Baumann Skin Type.

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Retinol Sun Sensitivity Myth

There is a retinol myth that is you are using retinol, you cannot go in the sun because you will damage your skin. This is not true. The myth comes from the fact that retinol and tretinoin break down upon sun exposure and lose efficacy. That means they will not work well if used in the am skincare regimen which is why you should always use retinoids at night.

It is beneficial to use most retinoids like retinol even if you get a lot of sun exposure - if you use them properly and you use them at the correct time in your skin care routine. 

We can give you specific advice about what products to use and when once we know your Baumann Skin Type.

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Which Retinoids Are Safe in the Sun?

The retinoids that are NOT safe in the sun are the retinyl esters such as retinyl palmitate and retinyl linoleate.   Although the other retinoids are safe in the sun, most of them lose their efficacy when exposed to sun.  Only tazarotene and adapalene which are prescription retinoids can hold up with light exposure. That means that tazarotene and adapalene are the only retinoids you can use in the day time.

How Long After Using Retinol Can I Go In The Sun?

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As long as you wash the retinoid off before you go in the sun and wear a sunscreen, it is safe to go in the sun.

You do not want to have these types of retinoids on your skin when you go in the sun:

  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinyl linoleate
  • Other retinyl esters that end in -ate

You should never wear retinyl esters such as retinyl palmitate in the sun without sunscreen. 

Sun Exposure After Using Retinol

If you are going into the sun after using retinol, follow these tips:

  • Wash all of the retinol off of your face.
  • Wear SPF. It is always advisable to wear a SPF in the sun whether you are using retinol or not.
  • Consider applying a protective topical antioxidant serum or moisturizer.
  • Take supplements such as polypodium leucotomas and antioxidants will also help protect your skin from the sun.
  • Drink green tea (It is an antioxidant with polyphenols)
  • Avoid sun when possible, sit in the shade or under an umbrella (This is not because of the retinol- it is a good general habit to have.)
  • So always wear SPF and protect your skin as much as possible. With that said, as long as you have washed the retinol off of your skin before going in the sun, you should not have increased sun sensitivity. 

Do Retinoids Cause Sun Sensitivity?

The question “Do retinoids cause sun sensitivity?” depends upon several factors. The first is- are we talking about oral or topical retinoids.

Oral retinoids such as Accutane can cause photosensitivity- but this is not common.1 Sun avoidance and sunscreen should always be used when taking oral retinoids. When teens who play sports are placed on Accutane for acne, they can have an increased risk of sunburn so it is essential that they wear sun-protective clothing and sunscreen.

Topical retinoids such as retinol creams and Retin A are often accused of making you sun sensitive, but this is a retinoid myth based on a misunderstanding of retinoid photobiology. The bottom line is- using retinoids at night and washing them off in the morning will prevent sun sensitivity to retinoids. You need to use all your skin care products in the correct order for the most safety. Keep reading if you want to understand how this misunderstanding and misinformation about retinol and sun sensitivity has occurred.

How is sun sensitivity measured?

minimal erythema dose (MED

Sun sensitivity is measured in a laboratory setting using a standardized measurement called minimal erythema dose (MED). This is the same testing used to give sunscreen an SPF rating. 

How MED testing works is that small squares are drawn on the buttocks because this is usually a non-sun-exposed area. Different doses of UVB light are given to each square area. The squares on the skin are assessed 24 hours later. The lowest dose of UVB that causes an increase in skin redness is the MED. If a drug such as retinol made your skin more sun-sensitive, the MED would be lower. In other words, it would take less UVB light to cause redness if the drug made you light-sensitive. Sunscreens raise the MED- or allow the skin to be exposed to more UVB light before becoming red. If retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene or trifarotene made the skin sun-sensitive, then they would cause the MED to be lower.

Studies On Retinol, Retinoids And Sun Sensitivity

Studies On Retinol, Retinoids And Sun Sensitivity

First, it is important to understand that when a topical retinoid is applied to the skin, some stays on the surface and some is absorbed. Once absorbed, retinol, retinyl esters, retinaldehyde and tretinoin turn into all trans retinoic acid (ATRA) which is the same as tretinoin or Retin A. 

Some of the retinoid on the surface will break down into other chemical compounds when exposed to light. So - we need to know the sun sensitivity of the following:

  • Retinoid on the skin
  • Break down products from the retinoid on the skin
  • Sun sensitivity of ATRA in the skin

Studies Testing Sun Sensitivity of Retinoids

Retinol and tretinoin break down easily when exposed to light. This is why second-generation and third-generation retinoids were developed to be more light stable.

Retinol and tretinoin do not commonly cause photosensitivity, but the chemicals they break down into upon light exposure can cause problems. This is why we recommend using retinoids, especially retinol and tretinoin, only at night. This is also why you should wash them off before going in the sun.

Retinol and Sun Sensitivity

Because retinols are not FDA-approved as drugs, there are not as many studies looking at photosensitivity to retinol. What we know if retinol should not be used in the sun. If it is used at night and washed off in the am, then there is no longer retinol on the skin and any retinol in the skin has been converted to ATRA. Because retinol turns into ATRA (tretinoin) in the skin, we need to look at the tretinoin studies to understand the photosensitizing potential of retinol.

Retinyl Palmitate, Sun Exposure and Sunscreen

Never use retinyl palmitate and other retinyl esters in the daytime. Many products that claim to have retinol, actually have retinyl palmitate.2 This is why CLEAN ingredient standards exclude the presence of retinyl palmitate to help you know what products have retinyl palmitate in them. (You must use retinol products from trustworthy brands who do not sneak retinyl palmitate into their preparations).

retinyl palmitate can increase the risk of skin cancer when worn in the sun

Retinyl palmitate is found in retinol night creams but is also used in many other product types. Some sunscreens have retinyl palmitate which has resulted in much controversy.3 Basically, as I understand the facts- retinyl palmitate can increase the risk of skin cancer when worn in the sun because retinyl palmitate breaks down upon sun exposure into harmful components.4 5 When the skin and the retinyl palmitate are protected by a sunscreen, this risk is minimized. This is why some claim retinyl palmitate in sunscreen is safe. I feel it is safest to avoid retinyl palmitate whenever possible, even in sunscreens, but there are many differing opinions on this.6 7 Either way- why use retinyl palmitate when it does not penetrate well into skin, has minimal antiaging efficacy, and may be toxic when exposed to sun? My advice is to stick with retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene or trifarotene.

Tretinoin and Sun Sensitivity

Although tretinoin is well known to break down upon sun exposure and lose efficacy, it does not seem to make your skin sun sensitivity or cause phototoxicity or photoallergy.8 The FDA requires sun sensitivity studies in phase 1 of FDA approval and several formulations of tretinoin have been FDA approved, so we have a lot of data about sun safety with tretinoin.

One study showed that ATRA (Tretinoin 0.05%) used twice a day for 10 days did not cause a change in minimal erythema dose (MED)9 with UVB exposure.10 Another combined report of 4 studies also showed that tretinoin did not cause phototoxicity or photoallergy when applied for 24 hours and when applied for 3 weeks.11 However, it is still advised to use tretinoin at night and wash your face in the am.

Adapalene and Sun Sensitivity

Adapalene was not shown to induce phototoxicity or photoallergy in the Phase 1 trials that led to FDA approval.12 There are no reports of adapalene photosensitivity in the literature at the time this blog was written.

Tazarotene and Photosensitivity

Tazarotene was shown to be safe with sun exposure in Phase 1 FDA studies.13 It is often used in conjunction with phototherapy for psoriasis. When left on the skin during phototherapy, tazarotene can lower the MED, so tazarotene can make skin more sun sensitive when it is worn in the sun.14 Again- we recommend using tazarotene only at night and to wash the face in the am.

Phototoxicity and Retinoids

Retinoids can cause a phototoxic reaction. This means that in the sun they change into different compounds that can make the skin sun-sensitive.15 Retinyl palmitate is the retinoid that is most known for breaking down into harmful compounds in the sun. 

All retinoids16 can be broken down into different compounds upon sun exposure. These compounds are potentially phototoxic. For this reason, retinoids should only be used at night and should be washed off in the am.

Photoallergy and Retinoids

Photoallergy17 (or photo contact dermatitis) is when sun breaks down components into new compounds that you are allergic to. This happens commonly with sunscreens.18 19 When you mix different products together in your skin care routine and then go into the sun, these compounds can combine in the sun and be altered into allergens. 

Photoallergy and Retinoids

One of the many reasons why you need a dermatologist recommended personalized skin care routine is that we have thought through all the chemistry of each product in the routine and layered them appropriately to minimize the risk of photoallergy. When you use a product- am or pm- is very important to use skin care products in the correct order because of the reactions the products can have in the sun. What you use before and after retinol can affect the risk of allergy and side effects.

In summary- you can safely use retinol and go in the sun- as long as you wash off the retinol or retinoid before sun exposure. To minimize side effects from retinoids, always use them properly. In fact, retinoids protect your skin from sun damage. Learn more about the science of retinoids and how they protect your skin.

Follow our advice on the best retinoids for your Baumann Skin Type.

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References

  1. Ferguson, J., & Johnson, B. E. (1986). Photosensitivity due to retinoids: clinical and laboratory studies. British Journal of Dermatology, 115(3), 275-283.
  2. Temova Rakuša Ž, Škufca P, Kristl A, Roškar R. Quality control of retinoids in commercial cosmetic products. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2021;20(4):1166-1175.
  3. https://www.mdedge.com/dermatology/article/57245/melanoma/retinyl-palmitate
  4. FU, P. P., HOWARD, P. C., CULP, S. J., Xia, Q., WEBB, P. J., BLANKENSHIP, L. R., ... & BUCHER, J. R. (2002). Do topically applied skin creams containing retinyl palmitate affect the photocarcinogenecity of simulated solar light?. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, 10(4).
  5. Boudreau, M. D., Beland, F. A., Felton, R. P., Fu, P. P., Howard, P. C., Mellick, P. W., ... & Olson, G. R. (2017). Photo‐co‐carcinogenesis of Topically Applied Retinyl Palmitate in SKH‐1 Hairless Mice. Photochemistry and photobiology, 93(4), 1096-1114.
  6. Wang, S. Q., Dusza, S. W., & Lim, H. W. (2010). Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: a critical analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 63(5), 903-906.
  7. Yan, J., Xia, Q., Wamer, W. G., Boudreau, M. D., Warbritton, A., Howard, P. C., & Fu, P. P. (2007). Levels of retinyl palmitate and retinol in the skin of SKH-1 mice topically treated with retinyl palmitate and concomitant exposure to simulated solar light for thirteen weeks. Toxicology and industrial health, 23(10), 581-589.
  8. Papa, C. M. (1975). The cutaneous safety of topical tretinoin. Acta dermato-venereologica. Supplementum, 74, 128-132.
  9. Heckman, Carolyn J., Rachel Chandler, Jacqueline D. Kloss, Amy Benson, Deborah Rooney, Teja Munshi, Susan D. Darlow, Clifford Perlis, Sharon L. Manne, and David W. Oslin. "Minimal erythema dose (MED) testing." Journal of visualized experiments: JoVE 75 (2013).
  10. Smit, J. V., de Jong, E. M. G. J., De Jongh, G. J., & van de Kerkhof, P. C. M. (2000). Topical all-trans retinoic acid does not influence minimal erythema doses for UVB light in normal skin.
  11. Slade, H. B., Shroot, B., Feldman, S. R., Cargill, D. I., & Stanfield, J. (2009). Reappraising the phototoxicity of tretinoin: a report of four controlled clinical trials. Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine, 25(3), 146-152.
  12. Verschoore, M. (1995). Adapalene: a retinoid for the topical treatment of acne. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, (5), S29.
  13. Menter, A. (2000). Pharmacokinetics and safety of tazarotene. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 43(2), S31-S35.
  14. Hecker, D., Worsley, J., Yueh, G., Kuroda, K., & Lebwohl, M. (1999). Interactions between tazarotene and ultraviolet light. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 41(6), 927-930.
  15. Ferguson, J., & Johnson, B. E. (1986). Photosensitivity due to retinoids: clinical and laboratory studies. British Journal of Dermatology, 115(3), 275-283.
  16. Kryczyk-Poprawa, A., Zupkó, I., Bérdi, P., Żmudzki, P., Popiół, J., Muszyńska, B., & Opoka, W. (2020). Photostability Testing of a Third-Generation Retinoid—Tazarotene in the Presence of UV Absorbers. Pharmaceutics, 12(9), 899.
  17. Kerr, A., & Ferguson, J. (2010). Photoallergic contact dermatitis. Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine, 26(2), 56-65.
  18. Wong, T., & Orton, D. (2011). Sunscreen allergy and its investigation. Clinics in dermatology, 29(3), 306-310.
  19. Schauder, S., & Ippen, H. (1997). Contact and photocontact sensitivity to sunscreens: Review of a 15‐year experience and of the literature. Contact dermatitis, 37(5), 221-232.

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