What is retinol?
“Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and is most commonly used as an anti-ageing ingredient,” explains consultant dermatologist Emma Wedgeworth. “It has been shown to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and imperfections such as pigmentation and acne.”
Most dermatologists seem to be in agreement that retinoids (the family name for vitamin A-based molecules, which includes retinol) are the most effective anti-agers in skincare. American dermatologist, Dr Leslie Baumann has said, “this is the best anti-ageing product out there”, while fellow derm Dr Susan Weinkle agrees that “a sunscreen and retinoid are the most important anti-agers to use”. Dr Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, a New York City-based dermatologist, goes so far as to say that “there is not a single class of ingredient that can rival the track record that retinoids have for proven scientific results”. Convinced?
How does it work?
Retinol needs to be broken down into retinoic acid before it can regenerate skin cells and stimulate collagen production. The retinol found in most skincare products needs to be converted several times before it changes into retinoic acid – but some, traditionally only available via prescription, need fewer conversions and are therefore more potent. “Retinols and retinoids increase cell turnover and stimulate the production of collagen to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, ” confirms the dermatologist Carlos A Charles. “Keep in mind that all of these benefits will only occur after prolonged regular use, which can be challenging, especially in the first few weeks.” Although how challenging it is depends on both the formulation you use and your skin type.
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Can you avoid the negative side effects of retinol?
Historically, most skin types suffer with irritation, including redness and dryness, in the first few weeks of use, while your skin gets used to the ingredient – therefore if you have sensitive skin it is always worth consulting a dermatologist before using a traditional retinol. There can be long-term issues if the ingredient isn’t used properly, as Dr Marko Lens explains: “Retinols should activate the repair mechanism, however some high-strength topical ones can thin the skin by over-exfoliating.” Those with oily skin might be tempted to use a retinol daily, but it is an ingredient that needs to be built up gradually.
However, a new breed of retinoid products formulated with time-release encapsulated delivery systems, mean far less irritation and you can skip the phase-in process.
These new generation retinols can mean minimal sensitivity and next-to-no skin flaking (or ‘dusting’ as it’s nicknamed), all while delivering the same anti-ageing benefits of traditional versions.
How often should you use retinol?
“Start by using retinol just once a week and then very gradually build it up, listening to your skin,” advises Wedgeworth. Use a retinol-focused product at night (generally after liquid serums, and before moisturiser/oil) and keep the rest of your skincare simple to prevent overloading the skin with active ingredients. “Retinol can initially lead to increased skin sensitivity, which can be made worse with multiple ingredients,” adds Charles. Or look for encapsulated retinoid formulations designed specifically for daily use, recommended for night (and sometimes day), with a low risk of irritation. Either way, always wear sunscreen as the last step in your daytime skincare routine.
Related article: Is Double Cleansing Really Worth The Effort?
For those venturing into retinoids, these are our go-to brands…
Medik8: The independent British brand prides itself on being expert in vitamin A, and have plenty of efficacious options. The most affordable are their standard retinol serums which start at 0.3% and go up to 1%, meaning you can progress through the strengths rather than simply jumping to the strongest, giving your skin time to adjust. But there are also the brand’s more advanced formulas, meaning you don’t have to climb the ladder, so to speak. The Crystal Retinal products are formulated with 0.01%, 0.03%, 0.06% and 0.1% stabilised retinal, a type of retinoid that can deliver results 11 times faster than retinol, with less irritation. In addition there’s the brand’s ultra-luxury r-Retinoate, which contains patented molecule retinyl retinoate, a hybrid of traditional retinol and clinical strength retinoic acid making it eight times more powerful than retinol. The newest version is the r-Retinoate Intense, a souped-up version making it Medik8’s best ever anti-ageing product. A Bazaar favourite.
La Roche Posay: La Roche Posay is known as the ‘dermatologist’s brand’ as so many experts recommend it. The retinol night cream is the perfect starting point for those with sensitive skin. We also recommend the brand’s Redermic [R] Eyes, a retinol eye cream for sensitive skin.
SkinCeuticals: This cosmeceutical label is another one that comes highly recommended by the professionals. With a range of corrective retinol creams, it’s worth investigating.
Elizabeth Arden: Elizabeth Arden’s new-generation retinol capsules are said to be 76% more potent than their unencapsulated retinol counterparts. That’s because the capsule keeps the super-ingredient at optimum freshness and potency, so you can expect your skin’s texture and tone to improve with regular use. Formulated with moisture-boosting ceramides, they’re considered non-irritating by most.
The Ordinary: This is without a doubt the most affordable retinol starting point. Begin with the 0.2% and work your way up (as explained above), if your skin can tolerate it well. The squalane will certainly help.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR UK.