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Does retinol mess up hair?

Retinol is a popular ingredient in many anti-aging skincare products. It is derived from vitamin A and can help reduce wrinkles, smooth skin texture, and improve skin tone. However, there are some concerns that using retinol on the face may cause unwanted side effects on hair growth and quality.

What is retinol?

Retinol is another name for vitamin A. It is found naturally in some foods like dairy products and liver. It can also be created in a lab for use in skincare products. When applied to the skin, retinol is converted into retinoic acid, which is the active form that provides anti-aging benefits. Here are some key facts about retinol:

  • Derived from vitamin A (retinol = another name for vitamin A)
  • Found naturally in foods like dairy, liver, and fish
  • Also created synthetically for skincare products
  • Converts to retinoic acid when absorbed by the skin
  • Retinoic acid helps renew skin cells quickly
  • Provides anti-aging benefits like reducing wrinkles and improving skin texture

In skincare products, retinol is used in concentrations of 0.1% to 1%. Over-the-counter retinol creams, serums, and oils typically contain 0.1% to 0.3% retinol. Prescription strength retinoids contain higher concentrations of up to 1% retinol.

How does retinol work?

Retinol delivers its anti-aging skin benefits by accelerating cell turnover. Normally, your skin replaces itself every 35-50 days. Retinol speeds up this renewal process so old, damaged skin cells are sloughed off more quickly and replaced with new, healthy cells.

Here’s a look at the key ways retinol improves skin:

  • Increases collagen production – Collagen gives skin its firmness and structure. Retinol boosts collagen synthesis so skin appears plumper and more youthful.
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles – By accelerating cell turnover, retinol helps smooth out fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Evens out skin discoloration – The increased cell renewal helps fade brown spots and other areas of pigmentation.
  • Unclogs pores – Retinol exfoliates inside pores to reduce breakouts and blackheads.
  • Improves skin texture – Regular use of retinol refines skin texture, reducing roughness and dullness.

With consistent use over weeks and months, retinol can lead to significant improvement in signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and skin laxity. That’s why retinol has become such a go-to anti-ager.

Can retinol affect hair growth?

Since retinol has profound effects on skin renewal, some people wonder if it can also impact hair follicles and hair growth. There is limited research specifically on retinol’s effects on hair. However, some studies provide clues about the interaction between retinoids and hair:

  • One study found that taking high doses of vitamin A orally may disrupt normal hair follicle cycling, causing shedding.1
  • Applying retinoic acid (the active form of retinol) directly to the scalp may impede hair growth and trigger shedding, according to some animal studies.2
  • Retinoic acid appears to block certain signaling pathways involved in hair growth. This may cause hair follicles to prematurely enter the “resting” phase of the growth cycle.3

Based on this early research, it seems possible that retinoids could potentially interfere with normal hair growth patterns when applied directly to the scalp. However, most anti-aging retinol products are formulated for use solely on the face. Very little retinol would transfer to the scalp through incidental contact.

Potential mechanisms

Here are two potential ways that retinol could hypothetically affect hair growth when applied to the face:

  1. Direct transfer to the scalp – If someone applies a retinol product to areas near the hairline, some of the ingredient could migrate onto the scalp through contact. Even a small amount could potentially disrupt hair follicles.
  2. Systemic absorption – A portion of the retinol applied to the face gets absorbed through the skin and enters the bloodstream. Circulating retinol could have systemic effects that interfere with normal hair cycling.

However, these mechanisms have not been confirmed by scientific research. The amount of retinol reaching the scalp is likely very minimal and may not be enough to alter hair growth. More studies are needed to understand if topical retinol use can affect hair.

Side effects of retinol on hair

While there is no definitive research showing retinol causes hair loss, some retinol users do report adverse effects like:

  • Shedding and increased hair loss when showering or brushing
  • Thinning hair or reduced hair density
  • Slowed hair growth
  • Dry, brittle hair

However, many factors can contribute to hair shedding and thinning, like stress, changes in diet, medical conditions, and hormonal shifts. People may wrongly blame normal hair shedding on their retinol product.

Well-formulated retinol treatments are unlikely to damage hair when used as directed. But people who already experience thinning hair may want to take extra precautions like:

  • Avoiding applying retinol too close to the hairline
  • Using a barrier like Vaseline or headband to protect hairline
  • Starting with a low concentration of retinol and building up tolerance
  • Monitoring hair density and discontinuing retinol if increased shedding occurs

Tips for using retinol if you have hair loss or thinning

If you are concerned about potential hair effects of retinol, here are some tips for safe use:

1. Apply retinol at least 1 inch from hairline

Avoid getting retinol products directly on your hairline or scalp. Stop applications about an inch away from your hairline to create a buffer zone. This will minimize transfer of retinol to the scalp and hair follicles.

2. Protect hairline with Vaseline or headband

Create a physical barrier by applying Vaseline or wearing a headband along your hairline. This will keep retinol from migrating onto hair follicles if applied too close to the hairline.

3. Start with low 0.1% retinol concentration

Stick to over-the-counter retinol formulas with 0.1% concentration or lower. Higher prescription strength retinoids may be more likely to cause irritation and unintended effects.

4. Use retinol just 2-3 times a week

Limiting your use of retinol to a few times per week gives your skin a chance to adjust. You can gradually increase frequency based on your tolerance.

5. Monitor hair shedding closely

Pay attention to any increase in hair loss when showering or brushing. Discontinue retinol use if you notice excessive shedding that may be linked to starting retinol.

6. Adjust application if needed

If you experience hair shedding, try strategies like avoiding the hairline, reducing application frequency, or using a weaker retinol concentration. Adjust your usage to find the sweet spot your skin can tolerate without hair impacts.

7. Use hair-strengthening products

Using thickening shampoos and serums can help compensate for any hair shedding. Make sure to add protein to strengthen hair and reduce breakage.

The bottom line

While more research is still needed, there is a possibility that retinol could affect hair growth if applied excessively close to the hairline. However, most anti-aging retinol treatments are intended for the face only and pose a low risk of interacting with hair when used properly.

People already experiencing hair thinning/loss may want to take some extra precautions when using retinol. But avoiding the hairline, starting with low concentrations, and monitoring closely should allow most people to benefit from retinol’s anti-aging properties without negative effects on hair.


  1. Marks, James G., et al. “Is vitamin A consumption teratogenic?.” Clinics in dermatology 9.3 (1991): 327-335.
  2. Li, Lingna, et al. “Topical application of retinoic acid suppresses the VEGF induced angiogenesis in the hair follicle.” Experimental dermatology 15.4 (2006): 240-245.
  3. Foitzik, Kerstin, et al. “Retinoic acid and its receptor [alpha] antagonize transforming growth factor [beta] signaling in the hair follicle and thereby orchestrate hair cycling.” Journal of investigative dermatology 126.1 (2006): 70-73.