Although applying retinol around your eyes might help with dark circles and bags, it could also contribute to dry eye disease.
Retinol is an active ingredient in a number of over-the-counter (OTC) face creams and moisturizers. It’s typically used to treat wrinkles, acne, and large pores.
Some retinol products are designed for use around the eyes.
This article explores the link between retinol and meibomian gland dysfunction, a common cause of dry eye.
The meibomian glands are located beneath the eyelids. When healthy, they keep the eyes wet by secreting an oil called meibum. Meibum coats the surface of the eye, locking in moisture and protecting against foreign objects.
Retinol is part of a group of vitamin-A-derived chemical compounds called retinoids. Retinoids boost the production of collagen, a protein that can improve the look of wrinkles. They also help with acne by suppressing the oil-producing glands under the skin.
However, there’s an important distinction to be made between oral and topical retinoids.
Oral vs. topical retinoids
Most current research focuses on dry eye as a side effect of oral retinoids, particularly isotretinoin (Accutane). For example, the authors of a 2021 study found that 88 people who used oral isotretinoin for between 4 and 8 months were at an increased risk of meibomian gland dysfunction.
Topical retinoids are less likely to cause meibomian gland dysfunction. But it depends on where they are applied. A 2022 review states that using topical retinoids around the eyes could damage meibomian gland structure and lead to dry eye syndrome.
It’s not clear whether using topical retinoids on other areas of the face can impact the meibomian glands over time. In addition, few studies focus specifically on OTC retinol products.
Topical retinols are mostly considered safe for use around the eyes. To avoid dry eye, you should avoid applying retinol-based creams to your eyelids or too close to your eyes.
In addition, keep in mind that the skin surrounding the eyes tends to be more sensitive than other areas of the face and retinol could cause irritation. If you notice red, dry, or peeling skin, you should discontinue use.
You’ll also want to apply retinol products at night and wear sunscreen during the day since retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Finally, if you’re concerned about retinol side effects, it might be worth chatting with a healthcare professional, such as a pharmacist or dermatologist, before use.
Topical retinol products are not considered safe for people who are pregnant.
People who already have dry eye disease should avoid using retinol around the eyes, as it could worsen symptoms.
In addition, if you notice dry eye developing, you should stop using retinol around your eyes and wait to see if your symptoms improve.
Retinol in the eye is not a medical emergency, although it can cause irritation. To get it out, flush your eye thoroughly with warm water.
Monitor your eye over the next few days for signs of chemical conjunctivitis. You should contact a doctor if you develop pain, redness, watering, or burning in the affected eye.
Retinol is a type of retinoid. Retinoids have been linked to meibomian gland dysfunction, a common cause of dry eye.
However, most research focuses on prescription-strength retinoids for severe acne. These products are taken by mouth, so they are more likely to affect the meibomian glands than topical retinoids.
OTC facial creams that contain retinol are probably safe to use under the eyes, provided you proceed with caution. To find out more, speak with a healthcare professional.