TikToker Says Retinol Can Make Your Depression Worse. Is It True?

Stock image of a retinol.

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Key Takeaways

  • A TikTok went viral, claiming that retinoid-based products, like face creams for acne treatment, worsen depression.
  • Retinoids are essential for life, consumed in the diet, but can be harmful in excess or when lacking.
  • The data isn't clear on the link between retinoids and depression, but it is known that people with acne are at a higher risk for depression.

In a recent video, TikToker @jacemyfears shares that their psychiatrist told them that the retinol they've been using to treat their acne since adolescence might be worsening their depression.

The claims have since taken the app by storm. (You can watch starting at the 0:22 mark here. However, the original TikTok has been deleted.) But is it true?

Existing research suggests there may be some connection between acne treatment and depression. In fact, excess vitamin A, which retinol products are derived from, has previously been linked to depression. But the connection may not be as direct and clean cut as the video suggests.

"I think retinoid toxicity (from endogenous sources—mainly the liver) plays a huge role in many diseases, but more research is needed to prove it," Anthony R. Mawson, MA, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at Jackson State University, who studies the biological mechanisms of what could happen when the body has excess retinoids, tells Verywell via email.

What Are Retinoids?

Both retinoid and retinol are derived from vitamin A, which is stored in the liver. Dietary sources such as green and yellow vegetables, egg yolk, and fish-liver oil are loaded with it. In general, vitamin A plays a role in promoting healthy teeth, vision, skeletal and soft tissue, mucus membranes, and skin. It can also be called "retinol," since it produces pigments in the retina of the eye.

Since at least the 1970s, retinoid and retinol derivatives have been used in beauty products and acne treatments, due to their ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles on human skin. In a face cream, for example, they do this by penetrating the skin and boosting the production of proteins elastin and collagen. Since these proteins are in connective tissue, having more of them creates a “plumping” effect that smooths out fine lines, wrinkles, and enlarged pores. 

If both retinoid and retinol have similar effects, what's the difference? The short answer is strength. Retinoid-based products, such as Retin-A (tretinoin), are more potent, prescription-only, and work faster. Retinol, on the other hand, is gentler and takes longer to act.

What This Means For You

Your retinol likely isn't impacting your mental health. But if you're concerned about the way your skin affects your mental health, talk to a healthcare provider.

Retinoid and Mood: What's the Known Link?

So, how can chemicals with anti-aging properties affect mood?

As Mawson says, more research is needed to say anything definitive. However, there are two major facts to keep in mind when understanding the possible link:

  1. Retinoids' ability to alter central nervous system communication is still being studied.
  2. People with acne are at increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders in the first place.

Too little or too much vitamin A can lead to negative side effects. Some have even speculated that a type of retinoic acid used in the acne medication Accutane may bring on depression-related behaviors, due to alterations in neuronal growth and serotonin activity.

However, the link between acne and depression is much more established. Because acne and scarring can cause people, particularly adolescents, to feel upset and embarrassed with their appearance, they are at increased risk for mood and anxiety disorders. One 2013 study, for instance, found that 38.6% of patients with a specific type of acne are affected by depression compared to 2.4% of people who didn't have the condition.

Because acne can negatively impact an individual's mental health, researchers recommend screening patients seeking acne treatment for mental disorder risks. They suggest giving them a simple questionnaire and employing a dermatologist-mental health team to follow up with them using evidence-based methods.

At this point, the data isn't clear on retinol and depression. But what is clear is that conditions for which retinoids and retinol are prescribed put someone at risk for depression. If you're curious about what this link means for you, talk to a dermatologist or mental health provider. Skin you can feel good about and your mental health don't have to be mutually exclusive.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zeng, Y, Li, Y, Xia, H, Wang, S, Zhou, J, & Chen, D. (2017). Retinoids, anxiety and peripartum depressive symptoms among Chinese women: a prospective cohort study. BMC psychiatry17(1), 278. doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1405-0.

  2. Nguyen T, Tsujiguchi H, Kambayashi Y et al. Relationship between Vitamin Intake and Depressive Symptoms in Elderly Japanese Individuals: Differences with Gender and Body Mass Index. Nutrients. 2017;9(12):1319. doi:10.3390/nu9121319

  3. Mawson, A. (2013). Mefloquine use, psychosis, and violence: A retinoid toxicity hypothesis. Medical Science Monitor19, 579–583.

  4. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A.

  5. Kurek, A, Johanne Peters, EM, Sabat, R, Sterry, W, & Schneider-Burrus, S. Depression is a frequent co-morbidity in patients with acne inversaJDDG: Journal Der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft11(8), 743–749. doi:10.1111/ddg.12067. Published April, 2013.

  6. Golchai, J, Khani, SH, Heidarzadeh, A, Eshkevari, SS, Alizade, N, & Eftekhari, H. Comparison of anxiety and depression in patients with acne vulgaris and healthy individuals. Indian journal of dermatology55(4), 352–354. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.74539

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.