If retinol was a pop singer I would totally be its groupie. I am obsessed with the ingredient and have extolled its virtues in many a feature before. The thing is, in real life if retinol was a person it wouldn’t be a pop singer, it’s too much of an intellect for that. It’s the goody two shoes of the skincare world because it can do pretty much everything. When I’ve had people ask me before which skincare ingredient they should use—if they are early thirties and beyond—I don’t hesitate in recommending retinol. In fact, while some would like to debate the point, if you’re in your early twenties and you’re noticing some unwanted signs of ageing adding a mild retinol into your routine wouldn’t be a bad idea.
What is Retinol and How Does it Work?
Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative. As we age skin cell turnover slows leading to dull-looking skin. Collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid (HA) production diminishes causing fine lines to appear and skin to lose its plumpness. Apply retinol and it will rev up the skin cell turnover and prevent the breakdown of collagen, elastin and HA. Over time, retinol thickens the skin, so it’s stronger and firmer. In short, retinol makes skin act young again. It’s not just a temporary “plumping”, retinol has long-lasting positive effects on the skin. With skin cell turnover working optimally, pigmentation is less noticeable and skin is smoother. It even prevents blemishes, blackheads and acne.
The Many Names for Retinol
A lot of people are confused about retinol and one of the reasons is that there are a lot of different names for it.
Retinol is the over-the-counter (OTC) Vitamin A derivate that is the most well known. In the skin it is converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid.
Retinoic Acid is also known as retin-A or tretinoin and is only available on prescription because it is very potent. Retinoic acid doesn’t have to go through conversion in the skin so you see results faster.
Retinaldehyde is the next step up from OTC retinol because it only has to switch to retinoid acid in the skin, so you get quicker results. It’s also known as retinal for short and is also available OTC. It’s less stable than retinol, but product formulators are finding ways to funnel this into products so expect to see it popping up on ingredient lists more and more.
Retinyl Retinoate takes longer to convert to retinoic acid in the skin so it’s a good choice for anyone with sensitive skin.
Retinyl Palmitate is also weaker than retinol and another good choice for sensitive skin types. It is a combination the ester of retinol with a fatty acid called palmitic acid to buffer the retinol from the skin. Being one of the less efficacious Vitamin A-derivatives it is often combined with other active ingredients.
Retinol: The Side Effects
Another reason for the confusion surrounding retinol is because it can cause skin to go dry, flaky and sensitive. Yes, retinol has a dark side. To achieve all those skin benefits there are some side effects. You see, with skin cell turnover accelerated skin can become flaky and sensitive, but once the dead cells have lifted away and your complexion has acclimatised to the retinol, the side effects subside. The downsides are in fact a good sign, proof that the retinol is working.
“If retinol was a pop singer I would totally be its groupie.”
How to Use Retinol
Most OTC retinol will state a percentage on the packaging. Usually from 0.3% up to 1%. With retinol it is best to start with a low percentage and slowly incorporate it into your routine. Start with 0.3% three times a week and then increase the % and number of nights you apply it gradually as your skin acclimatises. You can also cycle your retinol usage, so apply it at night for 3 months and then have a break, rather than using it all the time. So when your complexion needs a boost, do a course of retinol.
Always apply retinol at night as the sun can deactivate it. You can apply a retinol product alone after cleansing or, if your skin is particularly sensitive, you can mix it with a plain moisturiser to buffer it. And always apply SPF in the mornings, we all should be wearing a high factor daily but especially if skin is sensitised.
With retinol you don’t need to spend a fortune. When you get Retinoic Acid on prescription it’s a very bog standard drugstore-type cream. Below are my 11 favourite retinol products right now, including some oil-free options and drugstore buys.