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No, there is no evidence retinol causes depression

A TikTok post suggested over-the-counter retinol can worsen depression. Board-certified dermatologists say there’s no evidence of that.
Credit: puhhha - stock.adobe.com

Many people use anti-aging and cosmetic creams to improve the appearance of their skin. A common over-the-counter option is retinol, a derivative of vitamin A.

As with most products, retinol can have side effects, primarily skin dryness and irritation. But a post suggesting retinol can cause depression led to a widely-shared response video on TikTok, saying that is not the case. 

THE QUESTION

Does retinol cause depression?

THE SOURCES

  • Dr. Carrie Kovarik, professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, there is no evidence retinol causes depression.

WHAT WE FOUND

“There is no evidence that supports that a topical retinol can cause depression whatsoever,” said Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.  

Retinol is just one of many retinoids used to treat skin. Because retinol is typically available over the counter in creams, it is weaker than other retinoids.

“They're over the counter for a reason. That's because they're not as potent, they're not as helpful, they're not going to do as much as something that's prescription,” said Dr. Carrie Kovarik, a professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Despite being less potent, retinol can still be effective in improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, according to Friedman.

So, how does retinol get linked to depression if there’s no evidence of a connection between the two? That’s because of a different, much stronger retinoid called isotretinoin, more commonly known by the brand name Accutane. Because of its strength, isotretinoin is prescribed for people with severe acne.

On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns depression has been reported with isotretinoin use but stops short of saying it causes depression.

Kovarik said there were old anecdotal reports of people getting depressed on the medication but that recent studies suggest there is no evidence isotretinoin causes depression.

“This goes back decades and there have been many studies that have looked into this, some of which thought they saw a relationship, others which said they didn't,” she said. “So, this is a controversial topic. There has been a recent, within the last few years, study where they looked at the pooled evidence put together over 1,400 of these patients and didn't find conclusive evidence that even the pill form caused depression.”

Friedman had a similar analysis.

“There were some older studies trying to connect an oral form called isotretinoin and depression. However, this data is not really great and is inconclusive,” he said. “And in fact, more recent studies show that there is no connection between the oral form and depression.”

Friedman said the studies suggest it’s more likely a person’s condition, rather than isotretinoin, is causing depression.

“The most recent studies more point towards severe acne and association with depression rather than the medications themselves,” he said.

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