It is so named for its pink waters, caused by Dunaliella salina algae in the water that produce a red pigment that uses sunlight to create more energy, turning the waters pink. The color is particularly visible during the dry season. The lake is also known for its high salt content, which, like that of the Dead Sea, allows people to float easily. The lake also has a small salt collecting industry and was often the finishing point of the Dakar Rally, before it moved to South America in 2009.
Many salt collectors work 6–7 hours a day in the lake, which has a salt content of up to 40% in some areas. In order to protect their skin, they rub their skin with "Beurre de Karité" (shea butter, produced from shea nuts obtained from the Shea nut tree), which is an emollient used to avoid tissue damage.
Lake Retba is under consideration by the World Heritage Committee for inclusion as a World Heritage Site.