And how it became the stuff of skincare legends
Retinol has long been worshipped by beauty editors, dermatologists and skincare fanatics alike as the hero ingredient in the battle against fine lines and wrinkles. Some even say that nothing fights the signs of ageing better.
If you’ve never used it before and want to know the best way to use and apply retinol, its dos and don’ts, or you simply want to brush up on your skincare knowledge, keep scrolling to find out everything you need to know about the beauty industry’s favourite ingredient.
And when you’re done swotting up well as our pick of the best retinol creams and serums out there…
What is retinol and how does it work?
‘Retinol is pure Vitamin A and it is used to treat specific skin concerns such as skin prone to large pores (acne prone skin) and mature skin,’ explains Linda Blahr, National Head of Training and Science at SkinCeuticals.
‘Retinol reactivates the skin renewal process and can be a great priming treatment to prepare skin for chemical peels and other medical procedures.’
Does retinol work?
In short – yes. Retinol is one of the most revered ingredients in the beauty industry and has been proven to be effective at tackling early signs of ageing such as pigmentation including sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles.
As well as having ‘an exfoliating effect that smoothes skin texture and gives a natural glow, it also has antioxidant properties and reduces the appearance of brown spots,’ says Dr Bernard Hayot.
Dr Hayot explains that retinol ‘stimulates flexibility and elasticity of the skin, collagen and also helps to create a bright complexion as well as regenerating melanin to tackle pigmentation.’
Make sure you’re using a product that contains the right form of retinol, though. Check the ingredients list first to make sure it contains ‘retinol or retinaldeyhe, rather than one of the less effective derivatives such as retintyplalmitate,’ recommends Dr Stefanie Williams. Read more about how retinol works on our Fabled store.
Is retinol the same as vitamin A?
Retinol is a form of retinoid, which is a derivative of vitamin A. Dr Hayot adds: ‘retinol is a vitamin A acid, which is the natural precursor to retinoic acid. Then body transforms retinol into retonic acid.’
It’s in this form, as retonic acid, that the benefits of retinol are truly felt on the skin.
How to use retinol?
‘Start, at the latest, when you see the first signs of reduced skin elasticity, fine lines and also irregular pigmentation,’ advises Dr Stefanie Williams, dermatologist and Director of the Eudelo clinic.
When first using retinol you can experience some irritation such as dryness, redness and even flaky skin. So if it’s your first time using it, ease yourself in by applying a low percentage and only use twice per week at intervals, gradually increasing to daily use if your skin can tolerate it well.
As your skin adapts and, if you don’t suffer from too much sensitivity, you can increase the percentage too. ‘Even if you can’t build up to anymore than two days per week it’s still effective and worth doing so don’t be put off,’ says Dr Stefanie.
When you first apply only use a pea-sized amount. Trust us, a little goes a long way.
What are the percentages of retinol?
‘The higher the concentration, the stronger the skin will respond with visible shedding and redness,’ explains Blahr. ‘But, it is just as important to note that this is exactly the reaction that we want for optimal results – it’s no irritation at all.
‘However, a skin with no retinol experience should always start low (with 0.3%) and increase the level (to 0.5% and then 1%) with each bottle. If the skin is quite sensitive just stay with 0.3%. The 1% is optimal for visible signs of ageing or photodamage (hyperpigmentation) and acne scars, however you’ll only get this with a prescription.’
When to use retinol in your regime?
Retinol can cause skin sensitivity an, after use, it’s important to be particularly careful in the sun and apply a high factor SPF 30 or 50, even if it looks cloudy or grey outside. It’s safe to apply it day and night, as long as you apply SPF afterwards.
That said, most people prefer to use it at night, like Sunday Riley’s ever-popular Luna Sleeping Night Oil, as the chances of any sun damage or skin sensitivity are lower.
Where is it safe to apply?
It’s effective on all parts of the body. It is even included in some hand creams, though it is most commonly found in facial skincare products. A good routine is to start with something like La Roche-Posay Retinol 0.3% + Vitamin B3 and apply to the forehead, then the nose, cheeks and chin. Be careful to avoid the eye area and around the nostrils as this area is prone to suffering from dryness.
‘Avoid using retinol around the eyes because the skin is thinner, more delicate and sensitive in that area,’ advises Dr Bernard Hayot.
At what age should you start using retinol?
It’s important to remember that everyone’s skin is different, but Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe of the SKNDOCTOR clinic tells us that as a general rule, the age of 25 is a good time to start using retinol as it’s when our skin’s collagen levels start to deplete.
Is retinol good for acne?
‘Vitamin A acid or retinoic acid was first used to treat acne on young adults before it’s skincare benefits were fully realised,’ says Dr Bernard Hayot. Isotretinion, more commonly referred to as the brand name Roaccutane, is a form of vitamin A.
Be careful if you’re on any prescribed acne medication though. Certain ingredients commonly found in acne medication such as salicylic or glycolic acid can cause irritation and redness if combined with retinol, so be sure to check with your doctor before using.
How long does retinol take to work?
As with all skincare products, you should be patient with the results. ‘Skin is renewed after 28 days on average, which means the new cells migrate to the surface of the skin after which time you should start seeing results,’ says Dr Hayot.
Next up, getting your hands on the best retinol products on the market. Take a look at our edit of the best below.
If you've been too scared to try this anti-ageing hero ingredient, especially if you have sensitive skin, this is a great place to start. La Roche-Posay has formulated a gradual release retinol combined with soothing vitamin B3 to help keep your skin smooth and hydrated. 88% of people said their skin felt firmer after using – so what are you waiting for? Give it a whirl.
The perfect product to use if you’re a retinol virgin, this low dosage 0.3% serum smooths on without leaving a tacky finish.
Vitamin C and powerful peptides combine in this velvety cream to compliment 0.5% retinol in brightening skin and tackling discolouration. Our favourite thing about this overnight treatment? It can effectively be diluted by mixing with the Dermalogica buffer cream, so you can gradually build up the dose as your skin adapts.
A favourite of skincare blogger and facialist Caroline Hirons, these multi-tasking vitamin A drops contain time released, 0.3% encapsulated retinol as well as antioxidant geranium oil that helps to balance sebum so is ideal if you have a tendency to oilness. Omega 3 and 5 also help to balance moisture levels in the skin and restore barrier function for a three pronged attack on ageing.
If you're a seasoned user and are looking to up the stakes, this higher 0.6% version offers a powerful hit of retinol that sinks in quickly thanks to the lightweight oil formula and handy pipette applicator.
Good skin doesn’t have to break the bank, as this handy little tube from Indeed Labs proves, coming in at under £20. One of the easiest creams to apply, only a fine layer is needed to effectively target sun-spots, pigmentation and fine lines and it absorbs in a flash. It doesn't have a traditional retinol percentage, but contains 1% next generation retinoid fluid, 1% short & long-term time release retinol complex and 3% retinol-like peptide, helping to provide the same benefits as traditional retinol. All of that sounds pretty complex, but just know that this is probably the best entry-level retinol products.
This cream helps control the gradual release of 0.5% encapsulated retinol throughout the course of the night and is also paired with NeoGlucomsamine. The dual benefits of which are that it helps provide a good foundation for hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate the skin and it helps inhibit melanin production for a smooth and even complexion.
At just under £10 and with a 1% stable retinol inside, this Inkey List serum might just be the best bargain. With The Ordinary on a hiatus, The Inkey List, is your alternative to hardworking, low-priced skincare.
Elizabeth Arden decided that to ensure that the retinol is at it's most potent, it would physically encapsulate it in bio-degradable capsules. They say that in each one, the formula is 76% more potent than if it was just in fluid form in a bottle. Despite it's potency, it's super gentle and those with sensitive skin (who normally would steer clean or retinol) are able to use to it because it's combined with skin repairing ceramides.