Whether you're a skincare newbie or an old hand with a 10-step routine, you've probably heard of retinol.
Although it has experienced a boom in popularity over the past five years, retinol was first used as an acne treatment in the 1970s.
Since then it has become the go-to treatment for a wide range of skin concerns, including wrinkles and other signs of ageing.
Retinol is part of a larger group of chemicals called retinoids. Retinoids are considered to be more effective at reducing acne, fine lines and wrinkles than any other topical vitamin treatments.
However, these powerful substances can also have some negative effects if not used correctly.
For a start, products with retinol can irritate sensitive skin, especially when first introduced to a skincare routine.
More seriously, when you use retinol while breastfeeding, the chemicals are absorbed into your bloodstream and can be potentially passed on to your baby.
If you're pregnant, a new mum or just planning for the future, this guide will cover all the information you need about using retinol while breastfeeding.
What is retinol?
The retinol used in skincare is usually a synthetic compound derived from vitamin A and has been proven to live up to its promise of visibly reducing acne and signs of ageing.
Some topical retinoid treatments require a prescription, while retinol is available in over-the-counter skincare products.
Retinoids can also be taken orally for more severe skin conditions, but in oral form, retinol has been found to cause birth defects if taken while pregnant.
The different forms of retinoids can vary significantly in strength and effectiveness.
What does retinol do?
Retinol has multiple effects on the skin, making it a superstar all-rounder in the skincare world.
Retinol works to reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen and replacing dead skin cells.
This means cellular turnover happens more quickly, revealing plumper, fuller skin underneath, thanks to the natural benefits of vitamin A.
Retinol is often recommended when treating acne and clogged pores and can be used to repair free radical damage.
As a bonus, retinol has also been found to even out skin tone, reduce dark spots and soften the skin, resulting in improved skin health overall.
How to use retinol
There are some safety precautions to be aware of when using retinoids.
It is especially important to wear sunscreen, not only to prevent skin damage but also because this skincare ingredient increases sun sensitivity.
Retinol burn is something else to keep in mind and can cause red, dry and painful skin irritation as a result of too much exposure to the chemical and can last up to a week.
Retinol burn is not actual sun damage, but more like a rash or irritation on the affected area.
The benefits of using a retinol product usually take about three to six months to show on your skin, meaning starting retinol is a long-term commitment.
Because of the risk of irritation for those with dry skin, many experts recommend beginning with retinol every second or third day and slowly increasing the frequency.
Unfortunately, the effects are not permanent and regular retinol use is required to maintain a youthful glow and smooth skin in the long term.
Can you use topical retinol while breastfeeding or during pregnancy?
In short, no. While these benefits may sound great, pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding should take care with all vitamin A-based products.
According to the Royal Hospital for Women, over-the-counter cosmetics with low percentages of retinol are generally acceptable to use on the skin during pregnancy as very little of the active ingredient is absorbed into the body.
On the other hand, a US study found that products with a higher concentration of retinol or prescription formulas are best avoided due to the lack of evidence from peer-reviewed studies proving their safety during pregnancy.
Because of this, it is not recommended to use retinol while breastfeeding either.
As mentioned above, there are certain risks related to retinol and the development of an unborn child and, given we don't know how vitamin A affects breast milk, it's best to consult your doctor or dermatologist for advice.
What are the risks of using retinol while breastfeeding?
For this reason, the use of retinol while breastfeeding is potentially dangerous.
More research is needed to determine the exact levels of retinol that are passed on to little ones, but this is definitely a situation that calls for erring on the safe side.
Retinol products can be damaging for the exact same reason that they are popular: it's powerful stuff!
There is evidence that prescription retinoids can cause congenital disabilities and, while retinol is less potent than retinoids, it's best to avoid it while breastfeeding — even though there is no hard evidence of it harming your baby, it's better to be safe in this scenario.
What if I accidentally use retinol while breastfeeding?
On the whole, a small amount of topical retinol applied to the skin is unlikely to do any damage.
A 2013 study of 235 pregnant women who were exposed to topical retinoids found no effect on either miscarriages or birth defects. Of course, a smaller dose of retinol carries a reduced risk of damage than daily use.
However, the authors of the study concluded that the "risk/benefit ratio of retinol remains questionable" during pregnancy and breastfeeding, no matter how much retinol is used. Many women choose to avoid it altogether to prevent any chance of absorption into the body.
As always, your doctor or dermatologist will be the best person to talk to if you have any questions about your skincare products.
Other skincare ingredients to avoid while breastfeeding and during pregnancy
Along with prescription retinoids, the Royal Hospital for Women cites skincare products containing hydroquinone, an over-the-counter product for skin bleaching, as a potential hazard during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Similarly, minoxidil for hair growth should not be used as it can negatively impact the baby.
Other skin treatments are worth reconsidering, too.
It is important to take care with spray tanning when breastfeeding, because although the tanning chemicals do not enter the bloodstream, they may be picked up by your baby through skin-to-skin contact with the body.
Botox is also best avoided, as there is no research available on its possible effects during breastfeeding.
Likewise, there is research on animals suggesting oxybenzone can cause changes to mammary glands, so some new mums choose to avoid some sunscreens containing the substance.
When can I resume using retinol?
After you finish breastfeeding, it is completely safe to resume using topical retinol and other skincare products as you will no longer be passing any substances directly to your little one.
Software's Retinol Complex Oil is a good way to work the ingredient back into your skincare routine as it reduces the appearance of fine lines and discolouration.
Thanks to its blend of coconut, seed and fruit oils, our Retinol Complex Oil is perfect for those seeking visible results without the hassle or cost of a prescription skin care formula.
The Retinol Complex Oil is designed to be safe when applied topically, even for those with irritated skin, and doesn't contain alcohol, mineral oils or synthetic colour or fragrances to minimise sensitivity.
Breastfeeding safe alternatives
So what else can you use to keep your skin cells in tip-top shape and avoid acne and clogged pores while breastfeeding?
Ingredients like hyaluronic acid, lactic acid, azelaic acid, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and glycolic acid are all considered safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding and have a similar plumping effect to retinol.
Vitamin C, in particular, is a good substitute.
However, if you are applying these skincare products directly to the breast in body care products, you will need to wipe off any residue to prevent your baby from coming into direct contact with these substances.
Alternatively, natural alternatives, such as bakuchiol (a.k.a. plant extract retinol), can be surprisingly effective in treating skin concerns like acne and do not need to be removed from the skin before breastfeeding.
Kin's Breastfeeding Essentials, for example, includes an all-natural nipple cream that soothes and restores sore skin during and after pregnancy. The cream is completely safe for you and baby, and it helps build skin elasticity, reduce dryness and stop painful nipple cracking.
Overall, retinol is a potent anti-ageing treatment that also happens to be a no-no during pregnancy and breastfeeding to protect your baby.
Fortunately, there are plenty of effective alternatives, including vitamin C and vitamin E treatments, that new mums can use throughout the breastfeeding journey.
Plus, you can resume retinol use as soon as you're no longer breastfeeding and reap the skin benefits then.