Online Dermatologist > Retinol Serum: Is It Safe for Kids and Teens?

Retinol Serum: Is It Safe for Kids and Teens?

by | Feb 21, 2024 | Blog, skincare

Young girl's hands holding a skincare serum bottle, symbolizing careful skincare choices for kids and teens against a natural backdrop

Key Takeaways

  1. Retinol use in children and teens poses safety concerns due to their skin being more sensitive and susceptible to irritation and sun damage.
  2. Dermatologists recommend gentle, age-appropriate skincare alternatives like mild cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen instead of retinol for young skin.
  3. Social media significantly influences the popularity of retinol among young people, leading to increased experimentation without considering safety.
  4. There’s a crucial difference between cosmetic retinol use and medical treatment with retinoids; the latter is for specific skin conditions under professional supervision.
  5. Parents and older teens should prioritize gentle skincare and sun protection, and consult dermatologists before incorporating retinol into skincare routines.

The use of retinol serum among kids and teens is on the rise, influenced by social media and beauty trends. However, there are concerns about the safety of using retinol on younger skin due to the physiological differences between children’s and adults’ skin.

Dermatologists have expressed concerns about the potential side effects of retinol, such as sun sensitivity, peeling, and dryness, which may pose greater risks for younger skin.


Understanding Retinol

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is commonly used in skincare products for its various benefits. It plays a crucial role in promoting skin renewal and enhancing collagen production, which can help improve the overall texture and appearance of the skin.

Additionally, retinol is known for its ability to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, making it a popular choice in anti-aging skincare routines.

In terms of how it works, retinol functions by accelerating the skin’s natural exfoliation process, which helps to unclog pores and prevent the formation of acne.[1]

Furthermore, it stimulates the production of new skin cells, resulting in a smoother and more radiant complexion.

These properties make retinol a sought-after ingredient for addressing various skin concerns and maintaining healthy skin. When considering the use of retinol among kids and teens, it is essential to understand its potential impact on younger, developing skin. While retinol offers several benefits for adult skin, the physiological differences in children’s and teens’ skin raise concerns about its safety and suitability for this demographic.

Therefore, it is important to explore alternative skincare options that are better suited for the unique needs of younger individuals, taking into account their skin’s sensitivity and ongoing development.

Physiological Differences in Skin: Children vs. Adults

The physiological differences in the skin of children and adults are significant and can impact how the skin reacts to skincare products. According to the National Institutes of Health, a key difference is the relative thinness of a child’s skin compared to an adult’s, which makes it more susceptible to irritation and chemical burns from potent active ingredients like those found in retinol serum.

These physiological differences play a pivotal role in how the skin reacts to skincare products. The epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, is thinner in children, making it more permeable. This increased permeability heightens the risk of adverse reactions to potent substances found in adult skincare formulations. Additionally, children lack the fully developed barrier function that comes with age, meaning their skin may struggle to tolerate certain active ingredients.

The barrier function of the skin, responsible for protecting against external irritants and maintaining hydration, develops gradually over time. In children, this barrier is not as robust as in adults, leaving their skin more defenseless. Consequently, skincare products formulated for adults, especially those containing powerful active ingredients like retinol, may compromise the delicate balance of a child’s skin.[2]

Dermatologists have recommended alternatives to retinol for younger users, such as gentle cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen, and have emphasized the importance of guidance for parents in helping their children make safe skincare choices. They have also provided guidelines for older teenagers considering retinol, including the importance of sunscreen and gentle skincare when using retinol.


The Rise of Retinol Popularity

Viral Trend Influence:

In recent times, the popularity of retinol serum has skyrocketed among young individuals, largely driven by social media platforms like TikTok. The viral trend has led to an increased curiosity and experimentation with skincare products, even among those below the typical age range for such formulations.


Social Media Impact:

The influence of social media on skincare trends cannot be overstated. The captivating allure of retinol, often showcased as a miracle worker for adult skin concerns, has become a sensation on platforms like TikTok. However, it is imperative to address the potential consequences of this trend, particularly when it comes to the age-appropriateness of using retinol among teenagers and children.


Safety Concerns for Young Skin

Dermatologists have expressed concerns about the safety of retinol use in children and teens due to potential side effects such as sun sensitivity, peeling, and dryness, which may pose greater risks for younger skin. The development of the skin’s moisture barrier in youth also makes it more susceptible to irritation and chemical burns from potent active ingredients like those found in retinol serum. Children and teenagers generally spend more time outdoors, and their skin is still developing, making it more prone to irritation.

Prolonged sun exposure without adequate protection can lead to increased vulnerability to harmful UV rays, potentially causing long-term damage. Additionally, the peeling and dryness associated with retinol use may disrupt the delicate balance of moisture in developing skin, potentially leading to further issues.[3]


Expert Opinions

Many experts advise against the routine use of retinol in this age group, highlighting the potential risks and advocating for milder, age-appropriate skincare alternatives. They emphasize the importance of sunscreen and gentle skincare when using retinol.[4]

It is important for parents to be aware of the potential risks associated with retinol use in children and teens and to consult a dermatologist for skincare concerns in kids and teens. In certain scenarios, retinoids might be prescribed for young people with certain skin conditions, under medical supervision, but it is important to distinguish between cosmetic retinol use and medical treatment with retinoids.

Alternatives to Retinol for Younger Users

When it comes to skincare for children and teens, it’s important to focus on gentle and nourishing products that support their developing skin. Here are some recommendations for safer skincare routines:

  • Gentle Cleansers: Opt for mild, fragrance-free cleansers that effectively remove dirt and oil without stripping the skin. Look for ingredients like glycerin and ceramides, which help maintain the skin’s natural moisture barrier.
  • Moisturizers: Choose non-comedogenic moisturizers that provide hydration without clogging pores. Look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, which helps retain moisture in the skin without feeling heavy or greasy.
  • Sunscreen: Sun protection is crucial for young skin. Encourage the use of broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30. Look for formulas specifically designed for the face to avoid potential irritation.

Instead of retinol, parents can consider introducing their children to skincare products and ingredients that are suitable for younger skin. For instance, hyaluronic acid is a hydrating powerhouse that can benefit young skin. It helps to maintain the skin’s moisture balance, keeping it plump and supple without causing irritation.[5]


Guidance for Parents

As a parent, it’s essential to guide your children in making safe skincare choices. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Education: Teach your children about the importance of gentle skincare and sun protection. Encourage them to understand their skin type and choose products accordingly.
  • Patch Testing: Advise your children to patch test new products to ensure they don’t cause any adverse reactions.
  • Supervision: Monitor your children’s skincare routines to ensure they are using products appropriately and in the right quantities.


Consulting a Dermatologist

It’s advisable to consult a dermatologist if your child experiences persistent skin concerns, such as severe acne, eczema, or unusual rashes. A dermatologist can provide personalized recommendations and treatment plans tailored to your child’s specific needs.


Retinol for Specific Skin Conditions


Scenarios for Prescribing Retinoids to Young People

Retinoids, including retinol, are active molecules that can be prescribed for young people under medical supervision to treat specific skin conditions. They are associated with the treatment of diseases such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and photoaging.

In medical practice, retinoids are used to address more severe dermatological concerns, and their prescription and usage are closely monitored by healthcare professionals.


Distinction Between Cosmetic Retinol Use and Medical Treatment with Retinoids

It’s important to differentiate between the cosmetic use of retinol and the medical treatment with retinoids. Retinol, available over the counter, is a milder form of retinoid that can help even out skin texture, treat mild acne, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

On the other hand, medical treatment with retinoids, such as tretinoin, adapalene, and isotretinoin, is prescribed for more serious skin conditions, including severe acne, psoriasis, and photoaging.

These medical-grade retinoids are often available only by prescription and are used under the close supervision of a healthcare provider. So, it’s important to know while retinol is commonly used in cosmetic products for its skin-improving properties, medical treatment with retinoids is reserved for specific skin conditions and is administered under the guidance of a healthcare professional.[6]

Guidelines for Older Teens Considering Retinol

When it comes to incorporating retinol into the skincare routine of older teens, it’s essential to provide clear guidelines on how to start and what formulations to choose. Additionally, emphasizing the importance of sunscreen and gentle skincare is crucial.

  1. Always start slowly: It can take time for your skin to get used to a retinoid. Start by applying it once or twice a week. As your skin adjusts, you can work your way up to using it nightly. If your skin gets red, dry, or flaky, you may be moving too fast. Try using it less often until these side effects resolve, and then increase slowly. Once you’re comfortable with nightly use, you can consider increasing the strength.
  2. Use only a pea-sized amount: When it comes to retinoids, a little bit goes a long way. In general, a pea-sized amount is enough for your whole face. Dab it on your forehead, nose, cheeks, and then your chin. Gently rub it in to distribute the product evenly.
  3. If you’re prone to acne, beware of ‘purging’: Around 20% of people who use retinoids get a flare during the first few weeks after starting it. It takes up to 12 weeks to see full results.
  4. Stick to mild, gentle skin-care products: Retinoids can be irritating, especially at first. It’s best to avoid using them with other sources of irritation, like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, scrubs, and exfoliators.
  5. Moisturize your skin: Retinoids can cause dryness and irritation (retinoid dermatitis). Using a moisturizer can help. If your skin is dry or sensitive, you can apply your retinoid on top of a moisturizer.
  6. Protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays: Retinoids make your skin more sensitive to burning, even if you only apply it at night. Avoid tanning beds. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. It should be SPF 30 or higher and cover UVA and UVB rays. Reapply frequently when outside.
  7. Stop your retinoid before any facial procedure: Retinoids increase your skin’s sensitivity. It’s best to stop using them for 5 to 7 days before waxes, peels, lasers, and other facial procedures.[7]


Older teens considering the use of retinol should do so under the guidance of a dermatologist. Starting with a low concentration and gradually increasing, along with prioritizing sunscreen and gentle skincare, can help minimize potential irritation and maximize the benefits of retinol.


  1. Mukherjee S, Date A, Vandana Patravale, Hans Christian Korting, Roeder A, Günther Weindl. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2006;1(4):327-348. doi:
  2. Annisa Rahma, Lane ME. Skin Barrier Function in Infants: Update and Outlook. Pharmaceutics. 2022;14(2):433-433. doi:
  3. Retinol: Safety Considerations for its Use in Cosmetic Products. Journal of Toxicology: Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology. Published 2024. Accessed February 7, 2024.
  4. Ferguson J, Johnson BE. Retinoid associated phototoxicity and photosensitivity. Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 1989;40(1):123-135. doi:
  5. Yeh L, Lauren Meshkov Bonati, Silverberg NB. Topical retinoids for acne. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. 2016;35(2):50-56. doi:
  6. Zasada M, Elżbieta Zofia Budzisz. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatologii I Alergologii. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:
  7. Buchanan PJ, Gilman RH. Retinoids: literature review and suggested algorithm for use prior to facial resurfacing procedures. Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery. 2016;9(3):139-139. doi:

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