Can You Use Retinol While Breastfeeding?

Retinol While Breastfeeding

It’s not uncommon for new mothers to wonder how their beauty routines might have to change after having a baby, for example, if they can use retinol while breastfeeding. 

In fact, among the most prevalent concerns are questions about retinol – a potent vitamin A derivative acclaimed for its remarkable anti-aging, acne-combating, and skin-rejuvenating properties. This article will delve into the question: Can you use retinol while breastfeeding? Furthermore, we will evaluate its alternatives such as lactic acid and AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids), comparing their uses and safety profiles for breastfeeding mothers.

Retinol and Breastfeeding: A Complex Relationship

Before addressing whether retinol is safe during breastfeeding, let’s first understand what it is and why it’s so popular in skincare.

Understanding Retinol

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, one of the body’s key nutrients for cellular growth and differentiation. In skincare, retinol is lauded for its ability to speed up cell turnover, smooth out the skin surface, boost collagen production, and decrease the appearance of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation (Bissett, 2005)[^1^]. It’s commonly used in over-the-counter products, while its stronger derivatives (tretinoin, adapalene, etc.) are available through prescriptions.

Despite the numerous benefits, retinol also has its drawbacks. It can cause skin irritation, dryness, and increased sun sensitivity. Additionally, its potential effects on pregnancy and breastfeeding have drawn significant attention.

Retinol: Potential Concerns for Breastfeeding Mothers

Vitamin A is essential for both the mother and the baby. However, like many things, too much can be harmful. Excess vitamin A intake can lead to toxicity, and this risk extends to both the mother and her breastfeeding child.

The concern with using retinol while breastfeeding, specifically, lies in its potent biological activity. Topical retinol is systemically absorbed, albeit in small amounts, and can theoretically be transmitted to the breast milk (Panchaud et al., 2012)[^2^]. Although there is no definitive evidence showing the harmful effects of topical retinol in breastfeeding mothers, some cases of developmental issues in infants associated with systemic (oral) retinoids, like Accutane, have raised caution (Bérard et al., 2007)[^3^].

Given these potential risks, many healthcare professionals advise avoiding topical retinoids, including retinol, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, erring on the side of caution.

Retinol Alternatives for Breastfeeding Mothers

While retinol may be off-limits for breastfeeding mothers, it doesn’t mean they are bereft of skincare options. Several other ingredients and products can offer comparable benefits without the associated risks.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) renowned for its exfoliating and moisturizing properties. It works by loosening the bonds between dead skin cells, promoting quicker cell turnover and revealing fresher, brighter skin underneath.

Retinol Vs. Lactic Acid

While both retinol and lactic acid expedite cell turnover, they differ in their mechanisms and side effects. Retinol, a vitamin A derivative, works at a cellular level to boost collagen production and regulate cell growth, whereas lactic acid acts on the skin’s surface to slough off dead cells.

In terms of side effects, lactic acid is generally milder than retinol, making it an excellent choice for sensitive skin. Its hydrating properties can also counteract the dryness often associated with exfoliating agents. Importantly, lactic acid is considered safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 201

8)1. Unlike retinol, it is not systemically absorbed and thus poses no potential risk to the breastfeeding infant.

AHAs and Their Role

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) are a group of plant and animal-derived acids used in a variety of skincare products. These include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid. AHAs work primarily by exfoliating the skin, promoting collagen production, and improving the appearance of sun-damaged skin (Smith, 1996)2.

AHA Vs. Retinol

Like retinol, AHAs promote skin cell turnover and collagen production. However, AHAs work more on the skin’s surface, unlike retinol that penetrates deeper to exert its effects at a cellular level.

Despite this, AHAs, particularly glycolic acid and lactic acid, have shown impressive results in treating photoaging, hyperpigmentation, and acne, much like retinol. Moreover, AHAs can provide additional benefits such as enhanced hydration and improved skin texture.

When it comes to safety during breastfeeding, most AHAs, including lactic acid and glycolic acid, are considered safe as they are not significantly absorbed into the bloodstream (FDA, 2018)1. However, it’s always wise to patch test any new product and gradually introduce it into your skincare routine to minimize the potential for skin irritation.


In conclusion, while retinol offers several benefits for the skin, using retinol while breastfeeding raises potential concerns due to its systemic absorption and the possibility of vitamin A toxicity. Therefore, it’s often recommended that breastfeeding mothers avoid using retinol.

In place of retinol, ingredients such as lactic acid and other AHAs can be used safely during breastfeeding, offering similar benefits of skin rejuvenation and exfoliation without the associated risks. As always, when introducing any new product into your skincare routine, particularly when breastfeeding, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional to ensure it’s safe for both you and your baby.


1. Bissett, D. L. (2005). Topical niacinamide and barrier enhancement. Cutis, 76(6), 397-402.
2. Panchaud, A., Csajka, C., Merlob, P., Schaefer, C., Berlin, M., De Santis, M., … & Clementi, M. (2012). Pregnancy outcome following exposure to topical retinoids: a multicenter prospective study. Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 52(12), 1844-1851.
3. Bérard, A., Azoulay, L., Koren, G., Blais, L., Perreault, S., & Oraichi, D. (2007). Isotretinoin, pregnancies, abortions and birth defects: a population-based perspective. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 63(2), 196-205.
4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018). Alpha Hydroxy Acids. FDA.
5. Smith, W. P. (1996). Epidermal and dermal effects of topical lactic acid. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 35(3 Pt 1), 388-391.

Hopefully this article was helpful in your skincare journey.  Welcome to Divine Dermatology, PLLC – your beacon for skin care in St. Petersburg, Florida. Under the skilled guidance of Carol Sims-Robertson, MD, our office celebrates all skin types and ages, curating personalized treatments that enhance your natural beauty.

From teens battling acne to adults seeking anti-aging remedies, we offer innovative solutions that cater to every person’s unique needs. At Divine Dermatology, PLLC, we believe in using our expertise so beauty transcends age and skin type. Trust us to transform your skin, elevating your confidence, and revealing the most beautiful you. 

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