Can I Use Retinol While Breastfeeding?

Woman breastfeeding


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When it comes to battling pervasive wrinkles, warding off unwanted acne, and maintaining a youthful glow, many rely on a skincare ingredient called retinol. It's a vitamin A-derivative touted by dermatologists for being an effective (or "active" way) to maintain clear, smooth skin.

Because retinol is so potent, it is also a controversial ingredient to use during pregnancy and postpartum. Here, we are going to tackle whether or not it is safe to use when breastfeeding. (Spoiler: the answer is no, you cannot use retinol during pregnancy or when breastfeeding.)

"There are controversial opinions on this topic, as the amount [or retinol] absorbed into the bloodstream may be quite minimal," explains Deanne Mraz-Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Westport, CT. "However, what we do know is that maternal use of synthetic vitamin A (retinoids) during pregnancy and nursing can result in multiple effects on the child."

Therefore, dermatologists generally do not recommend using the active while breastfeeding.

What Is Retinol?

If you've ever walked down the beauty aisle at your local drugstore or browsed a department store skincare counter, chances are you've encountered retinol—whether in its prescription retinoid form or as over-the-counter retinol. Despite its enduring popularity, however, retinol remains an incredibly misunderstood ingredient; and part of that confusion comes from the fact that it's actually part of a larger family of ingredients.

"Retinols and retinoids are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference," says Dr. Mraz-Robinson. "Think of Retinoids as the umbrella category of vitamin A derivatives that convert to retinoic acid to increase skin cell turnover rate."

Retinol converts to retinoic acid within the body by binding to the retinoic acid receptors found in the skin. When these receptors come into contact with retinol and convert it into retinoic acid, they can affect gene expression and produce significant changes in skin's appearance, treating everything from acne to scarring to signs of aging.

"Topical retinoids have a comedolytic effect, meaning that they help to prevent and treat clogged pores, because they increase the turnover of skin cells and reduce the tendency of cells and keratin debris to clump together and clog up pores," notes Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York, NY. "They also decrease the discoloration that can be left after a pimple, and because they increase the turnover of skin cells, this reduces the healing time for acne."

"Within the category [are] retinols, which are available in over-the-counter skincare products, while retinods are a prescription-strength segment of the category, offering a higher concentration of the retinoid acid ingredient," Dr. Mraz-Robinson explains.

Prescription retinoids are available in 0.005% to 1% strengths, and over-the-counter retinols are similarly available in different strengths. In theory, the stronger the strength, the more impressive the results. Higher strengths often warrant harsher side effects, as the ingredient can be incredibly drying. It can cause peeling and raw skin.

For this reason, those with sensitive skin may benefit from using a lower-strength retinoid. Retinol beginners should add it to their routines slowly in order to build tolerance. You may eventually be able to use it daily, but many apply it just a few times a week. It is advised to consult with your healthcare provider or dermatologist before starting a retinol product.

Why You Should Not Use Retinol While Breastfeeding

If you've experienced retinol's transformative results, you may not want to give it up. But as we mentioned above, it is generally considered to be unsafe to use the ingredient while pregnant and breastfeeding. So it's best to relegate it to the back of your shelf until you're done nursing.

"Systemic retinoids, like isotretinoin, can cause birth defects, and therefore we do not recommend using retinoids of any kind during pregnancy or breastfeeding, despite minimal systemic absorption," Dr. King says.

While more research is needed to fully understand the amount of retinol that is actually absorbed into the bloodstream, we know that it can result in very negative effects on the fetus if taken during pregnancy, including miscarriage, and can impact the development of a nursing child.

Dermatologists advise avoiding the ingredient throughout the duration of your pregnancy and breastfeeding, and the American Academy of Dermatology concurs.

Risks of Using Retinol While Breastfeeding

Since retinol is such a powerful (read: harsh) ingredient, using it will always come with certain risks (such as sun sensitivity). Using it while breastfeeding can potentially carry a whole new set of risks—this time for your baby.

When applied topically, it's unknown how much retinol is passed to your child through your milk. Because retinol has been shown to cause birth defects in children when used during pregnancy, it's best to avoid it to prevent any risk of passing it to your baby.

"There isn’t evidence to support this; but since there isn’t evidence to absolutely approve its safety, we advise against it in this patient population," Dr. Mraz-Robinson explains. "The risk/reward ratio just isn’t worth it."

The bottom line: since we do not know for sure that it won't harm your baby, it is not worth the potential risks.

When Can I Resume Using Retinol?

Since any risk of passing retinol to your child through your milk will go away when you stop breastfeeding, you can incorporate retinol back into your regimen (or try it for the first time) as soon as you are done nursing.

"Retinols can be very helpful when pregnancy and nursing has ceased," says Dr. Mraz-Robsinson. "It can help to revive tired, dull complexion and shed hyperpigmentation from hormonally-induced acne." 

However, it's always important to consult with your dermatologist before using the ingredient, breastfeeding or not.

Breastfeeding-Safe Alternatives

Just because you can't use retinol during the entirety of your pregnancy and breastfeeding journey doesn't mean you have to forgo clear, smooth skin. There are a wide variety of breastfeeding-safe alternatives that offer similar benefits to retinol without the potential side effects. Here are some of the ingredients considered safe for use while breastfeeding.

Bakuchiol

Bakuchiol is one of the trendiest ingredients in recent years, but the Babchi plant extract actually has a long history of usage in Ayurvedic medicine.

"Bakuchiol is one of the few retinol alternatives for which studies back up the pseudo-retinol effect of anti-aging and skin brightening," Dr. King says. "A study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that it could reduce signs of sun damage equally as well as retinol, while another paper in International Journal of Cosmetic Science reported improvements in lines and wrinkles, skin elasticity and pigmentation."

By working with the same receptors that retinol uses, bakuchiol helps prevent and treat fine lines and wrinkles and pigmentation, and it can improve skin's elasticity and firmness. Consistent use of the plant extract has been shown to result in smoother, brighter, and more youthful-looking skin.

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid, also used as an alternative to the acne-treatment salicylic acid during pregnancy, is a natural compound that is particularly great for treating acne. One study even found that using azelaic acid over a six-month period was equally as effective at treating and preventing acne as a prescription retinoid was over the same period, and it was far better tolerated.

While it may not boast quite the same anti-aging effects as retinol, it can absolutely help prevent and treat postpartum acne. (Plus, you can always cocktail it with hydrating hyaluronic acid.)

Vitamin C

If you're hoping to address hyperpigmentation and scarring, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better breastfeeding-safe option than Vitamin C. The antioxidant protects cells from signs of aging and damage by fighting off free radicals. It also plays a large role in the skin's collagen production, which is responsible for elasticity and evening skin tone.

A Word From Verywell

Although further research is needed to understand the exact risks and effects of using retinol while breastfeeding, dermatologists typically believe the potential risks simply are not worth the reward. The good news, however, is that you can return to your favorite retinol immediately after you're done nursing and have consulted your doctor. In the meantime, reach for an effective, breastfeeding-safe alternative.

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