POSTED: 26 Apr 2024

Here’s What You Need To Know About The EU Retinol Ban

Retinol is a staple in skincare routines around the world. As well as its effects on acne, Retinol is also popular for it’s powerful anti-aging and skin brightening benefits. So its no surprise that the recent regulatory changes from the European Union rocked the beauty world. The EU has put strict limits on Retinol usage in cosmetics which the industry has dubbed a “Retinol ban”. We’ve put together this guide to explain if Retinol is really banned in Europe and how it affects you. We also discuss what a European Retinol ban could mean for UK customers and if Retinol will be banned here too.

What is the EU Retinol Ban & Why is it Happening?

Retinol and it’s derivatives promote skin renewal and collagen production. These actions have a variety of skin benefits. For decades, Retinol has been a great treatment for acne, hyperpigmentation, scars and texture as well as fine lines and wrinkles. It’s widely available without prescription in a wide variety of formulations and price points across the world. Despite its many benefits, Retinol’s potency means it can also cause irritation, redness and sensitivity. Due to it’s increasing popularity, these side effects have invited regulatory scrutiny. This has culminated in the EU’s recent amendment to the Cosmetics Regulation which restricts the use of retinol and its esters in cosmetic products. This is the infamous “European Retinol ban”.

The “EU Retinol ban” represents a significant regulatory change from the European Union. Whilst Retinol isn’t actually banned in Europe, the EU has imposed strict limitations. These are mainly on the concentration of Retinol and its derivatives in cosmetic products. Effective from August 2022, the regulation limited the maximum concentration of Retinol in face and body care products. The maximum Retinol concentration is now 0.3% for face products and 0.05% for body products. It also completely bans use of Retinol in products intended for application on mucous membranes. This was driven by concerns over skin irritation and systemic absorption. These could pose health risks, particularly in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women. The ban reflects a broader precautionary approach by the EU. There is a drive to ensure consumer safety by regulating the use of powerful active ingredients in skincare. Ultimately the aim is to prioritise health over cosmetic benefits.

Are These Strengths Still Effective?

Even at the EU-regulated lower strengths, Retinol can still continue to offer significant cosmetic benefits. These concentrations are effective in promoting skin cell turnover and collagen production. This will help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They can also still work on mild to moderate acne by unclogging pores and minimising breakouts. In general, people tend to tolerate lower concentrations of Retinol better, especially those with sensitive skin. This reduces the likelihood of irritation and redness. As such it will allow users to apply it more often which may be better than using a higher strength infrequently. Improvements in skin texture and appearance are likely to develop more slowly at these concentrations.

How the European Retinol Ban Affects Consumers

The EU restrictions on retinoids are extensive, targeting not only retinol but also Retinal and Retinyl esters. It does not affect prescription retinoids like Adapalene, Tretinoin, Roaccutane and Tazarotene. It also doesn’t cover higher strength Retinols if they are under medical supervision. This means Retinol is not banned in Europe but is subject to strict limitations. For consumers, this translates to continued access to over-the-counter retinol products. However, these are at lower maximum strengths of 0.3% for facial products and 0.05% for body products. Products containing Retinal or Retinyl esters must also adhere to the equivalent of these concentration limits.

The regulatory changes went in to place in August 2022, with a grace period extending to August 2023. This interval allowed manufacturers to reformulate products and retailers to clear existing stock to comply with the new concentration limits. Since August 2023, all products on the market must meet these updated regulations.

These regulations have impacted skincare brands, particularly those whose flagship products featured high concentrations of Retinol, leading to increased costs from product reformulation and potential revenue losses due to the removal of products from the EU market. Consumers now face a narrower selection of over-the-counter Retinol products and may bear the cost of compliance through price increases. However, higher-strength Retinol products remain accessible under doctor supervision, potentially steering consumers towards these stronger alternatives or prescription retinoids. Additionally, skincare brands are exploring other anti-aging ingredients like Bakuchiol and peptides, which can complement or serve as alternatives to lower-strength retinols for anti-aging and skin repair.

Is Retinol Going to be Banned in the UK?

Due to Brexit, the UK has not adopted the EU’s new retinol restrictions, meaning Retinol is not banned and remains available in higher concentrations within the UK. The British cosmetic industry follows its own regulations, which for now do not mirror the stringent measures imposed by the EU on Retinol usage.

The regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU could however lead to significant complications for cosmetic brands operating in both markets. This disparity might indirectly pressure UK brands to align more closely with EU standards, potentially leading to a de facto limitation on higher-strength retinol products in the UK. Here are some potential impacts:

  • Regulatory & Market Divergence: UK companies that are active in both markets may find it economically unfeasible to produce different product lines to satisfy separate regulatory environments. This could increase operational costs and complexities, discouraging the production of higher concentration Retinol products exclusively for the UK market.
  • Consumer Perceptions: The EU’s concerns over the safety of high-concentration Retinol products might influence UK consumer preferences. Awareness of these safety issues could lead UK consumers to favour products that comply with EU regulations, reducing demand for higher-strength Retinol products.
  • Industry Standards: EU regulations often serve as a benchmark for global cosmetic standards. To remain competitive internationally, UK companies might voluntarily adopt these stringent EU standards, prioritising broader market appeal over local market preferences.
  • Import/Export Challenges: For UK brands exporting to the EU, compliance with EU standards is necessary. This requirement might lead to a uniformity in product formulations across markets to simplify production and distribution, aligning UK products more closely with EU regulations on Retinol content.

What Else is the EU Looking to Ban?

The EU’s stance on Retinol might be a precursor to tighter regulations on other powerful skincare ingredients. There’s already been tightening of use around cosmetic ingredients like Kojic acid, Genistein, Daidzein and alpha arbutin. Agencies are reportedly closely monitoring substances like hydroquinone, sunscreen filters, siloxanes and certain exfoliating acids due to safety concerns. As such, the skincare industry may see a trend towards stricter safety protocols and increased emphasis on milder less irritating ingredients in the next few years.

So although Retinol isn’t banned in Europe nor the UK, the EU’s restrictions mark a pivotal change in the cosmetic industry’s approach to ingredient safety and consumer protection. The UK has not yet implemented the EU’s retinol restrictions. However, the global nature of the cosmetics industry and the interconnectivity of markets mean that the EU regulations could still influence UK and global industry practices indirectly. A good example of this is the EU Apple charger law that demanded they use USB-C chargers. Although it only applied to the EU, Apple now makes all its phone with USB-C chargers to streamline production globally. This regulatory shift presents a number of challenges for brands and in the short term will no doubt reduce consumer choice. However, in the long term it is likely to trigger innovation in product development as cosmetic brand seek to overcome limitations.

We are passionate about personalised skincare at City Skin Clinic. Through our virtual skin clinic, our doctors offer safe and effective prescription-strength treatments such as Tretinoin and Hydroquinone. We treat skin conditions like acnehyperpigmentationmelasma and skin ageing. To get start your personalised skincare protocol, book a virtual video consultation or use our online consultation form. The journey towards great skin starts here.

Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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