'As a beauty editor, here's why I'm happy about the EU's new law on retinol'

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The laws around retinol in skincare are changingPeopleImages - Getty Images

If you're someone who's interested in skincare, you're probably well versed in retinol. Often dubbed the 'gold standard' of over-the-counter skincare, retinol products (which contain a derivative of vitamin A) are heralded for their ability to rapidly speed up cell turnover, resulting in a brighter, smoother complexion.

But you may have recently read that the law and regulations around retinol products being sold over-the-counter are changing in the EU – and this new legislation could affect your current skincare favourites.

While I'm certainly not here to cause mass panic, (there's nothing wrong with your much beloved 1% retinol serum), I do believe that this change in legislation is – on the whole – a good thing. Here's why…

What are the new European laws around retinol?

“New EU legislation has restricted over-the-counter retinol doses to 0.3% for the face and 0.05% for the body,” explains Dr. Nowell Solish, a dermatologist for Indeed Labs. The restrictions stem from concerns about people's overall exposure to vitamin A, and the potential skin irritations and harm this exposure could lead to at higher concentrations.

High doses of vitamin A can lead to birth defects during pregnancy (which is why pregnant women are not prescribed isotretinoin or recommended to use retinol).

However, it's worth noting that most of our exposure to vitamin A is through food and supplements. The EU's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety said: “Compared to food, the contribution of vitamin A from cosmetics is lower. However, it will add to the overall consumer exposure, and this may be of concern for consumers with the highest exposure (5% of the total population) to vitamin A from food and food supplements.”

This new legislation is not to say that the current legal percentages in retinol are in any way harmful – but instead to minimise people's overall exposure and decrease any sensitivity risks that come with using a higher strength than your skin can tolerate.

Will the new retinol law affect my current retinol products?

If you're currently a user of retinol – this new law might affect your favourite products, but it won't happen overnight. The restrictions will be rolled out over 36 months, starting at the end of 2024 – meaning brands have three years to reformulate their products.

“The changes in legislation will probably affect people's current skincare products because a lot of people have been building up the strength of retinol that they use from the point of five to 1%,” explains Dr Ahmed El Muntasar, GP and aesthetics doctor. “But this is probably a good thing because young people and teens are using it when they don’t need to be.”

Here's why I believe that the ban on retinol is a good thing…

Now, if you're a beloved retinol user, don't come at me. But I do think that this change in legislation is – on the whole – a good thing. There's no doubt in my mind that retinol is a brilliant ingredient for some skin types. Many of my friends and colleagues use retinol regularly and it's made a significant difference to their skin… but it's not for everyone.

I believe that many of our skincare routines are way too complicated. While education around the usage of retinol is obviously key, there's no denying that the current strengths of retinol on the market are strong – and despite being a 30-something who works in the skincare industry, I have often used a retinol-based product that's significantly too strong for my skin, and spent three weeks trying to soothe an irritated and sensitised skin barrier.

Factor in then the significant increase of children and teenagers using complex skincare routines and I can only imagine how many of these higher percentage retinol-products are finding their way into the skincare routines of those who really don't need them.

I'm not saying that there isn't a place for retinol in the skincare routines of those who see benefits – of which a lower dose percentage will still likely do the job. And for those struggling with acne, prescription-strength vitamin A products will still be available – through a dermatologist or doctor. Although I'm aware that opens up a whole other can of worms around the affordability and availability to access professional skincare advice and treatments – I do believe that our skin is best left in the hands of a professional.

As much as I'm a skincare enthusiast and love to try out new products and ingredients in my routine, I don't believe that we should be left to play doctor with our skin. Higher percentage active ingredients – and the mixing of these skincare products – can result in irritation, sensitivity and damaged skin that's entirely avoidable.

Are current retinol products unsafe?

If you currently use a retinol-based product that has a percentage over 0.3%, there's no need to panic. “For years we have been using higher concentrations. If used properly, these are safe,” says Dr Solish. If your skin becomes irritated or sensitised – it's likely that the retinol strength you're using is too strong and you might therefore want to drop down to a lower strength. Similarly, if you become pregnant, it's advised to stop using retinol throughout the duration of your pregnancy.

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