Retinol. It’s an absolute game-changer of a beauty ingredient thanks to its proven ability to increase the skin's rate of rejuvenation – fading pigmentation, fine lines, breakouts and enlarged pores in the process.
So far so good, right? While retinol is indeed a catch-all cure for many skin bug-bears, reaping the benefits isn't quite as easy as slapping on the first serum you see and waiting for your glow revival.
It's true – even the best retinol serum can be troublesome, often causing redness and irritation when you first start using it. However, persevere (and employ a really good moisturiser to counteract the dryness), and you'll be well on your way to the best skin of your life.
As you probably know, there are a lot of retinol-based skincare products on the shelves these days: everyone from Elizabeth Arden to The Ordinary has a formula, but of course, not all are created equal.
Confused? We hear you. Let WH guide you through our edit of the best retinol creams – no matter your skin type or budget. But first: an explainer on what exactly retinol is, how to use it and what it's best for.
What is retinol?
'Retinol is a topical derivative of vitamin A,' explains Dr Justine Kluk, consultant dermatologist at 25 Harley Street.
There are many different forms of vitamin A available, which is where a lot of the confusion comes in. Retinoids is the umbrella term used to describe the pure retinoic acid and all of its derivatives, including retinol, retinal and retinyl palmitate.
'Each of these derivatives must first be converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid within the skin in order to be effective,' says Dr Kluk, explaining that each derivative takes a different amount of time to convert. 'As this process requires a series of steps, these retinoid products are considered to be less potent than prescription retinoic acid treatments (such as Accutane), and higher concentrations must be used in order to achieve similar results.'
What is retinol cream and serum used for?
Simply put, 'retinol is used to boost collagen and promote cell renewal,' says Dr Kluk.
'When applied regularly to the skin over a period of months, the best retinol products can improve skin texture and tone, and minimise fine lines leading to smoother, firmer and brighter skin.'
Dr. Gary Goldfaden, founder of Goldfaden MD skincare, agrees that a retinol product – when used correctly – is a great addition to your skincare arsenal for several reasons.
'Retinol is a powerful tool for maintaining healthy skin. It plays a major role in maintaining the youthful appearance of your skin surface by boosting the process of cell regeneration.
'Vitamin A and its retinoid forms stimulate skin cell renewal by increasing the rate of cell division, thereby encouraging new cell growth. This helps keep your skin soft and smooth.'
What percentage retinol is best?
Retinoids come in a range of strengths, from very low at 0.1%, to high, at 2%. When you're first trying it out, it's best to lowball, in case you are sensitive to the active ingredient. Slow and steady is always the best approach, because the lower the percentage, the lower the risk of dryness and peeling.
'For the retinol to actually do something to your skin, you need at least 0.1%,' says Abi Cleeve, founder of skincare brand SkinSense and MD of Ultrasun UK. 'And, in my experience, there is a zone between there and 0.5% where you see effects, but no irritation.
The reason for that is how retinol works. 'Vitamin A is different to most active ingredients – it's more energetic as it effectively pokes the skin into speed-up activity. Rather than depositing ingredients onto the skin, it's getting the skin to do it itself.'
If you climb slowly up to a 0.5% and see zero adverse effects, then consider something containing 1%.
What are the side effects of retinol?
There is one key downside to using this wonder vitamin on your skin. Retinol (yep, even the best retinol) can make your face peel, and this is exactly what puts a lot of people off.
'Retinol and related vitamin A derivatives have traditionally had a bad reputation for causing redness, dryness and flaking,' says Dr Kluk.
'However, this peeling is not a true exfoliation, but rather a sign of irritation brought on by the cell turnover, and one of the primary reasons why people stop using their retinol product.'
It's not all bad news, though. This irritation and peeling can absolutely be avoided: the key is to stay sensible, follow the rules, build up slowly, and don't dive straight in with a max-strength product. In short, if you allow your skin time to acclimatise, it'll be able to work with the product without freaking out.
Can I use a retinol cream or serum in the day?
When it comes to using a retinol serum in the daytime, there’s not actually much point, as retinol is photosensitive and breaks down in the sunlight.
Dr Goldfaden also notes that as retinol stimulates the growth of new skin cells, it's likely to make you more susceptible to sun damage. It’s therefore vital to exercise safe sun exposure and wear a broad-spectrum SPF. If you've set up your home office by a window, the same rules apply. Get that SPF on.
Will retinol thin my skin?
Dr Goldfaden is keen to dispel the myth that retinol will thin your skin.
'Retinol actually thickens your epidermis, which becomes thinner with age, and also improves the elasticity of your skin. Incorporating a topical form of retinol into your routine at a younger age will help to prevent the onset of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as the depletion of collagen,' he explains.
Can I use vitamin C with retinol?
We’re entering serious skincare territory now, but it seems that the one question retinol users really want to know is: can retinol be used with vitamin C?
The confusion comes from the fact that using the two together, especially in high strengths, may cause irritation if you’re new to such highly efficacious ingredients. However, studies have shown retinol and vitamin C do work well together.
'Vitamin C is one of the most important antioxidants to incorporate into a healthy skincare regimen and using retinol in conjunction with it can help improve the effectiveness,' Dr Goldfaden says. Try applying your vitamin C product in the morning, and your best retinol at night for a supercharged skin boost.
At what age should I try retinol?
Really, the answer to this question lies in the skin issues you're hoping to fix. If you're hoping to use retinol to tackle acne scars, smart move. Vitamin A products can be highly effective in fading those post-breakout marks, when used correctly.
If you're simply looking to hold onto your youth, however, shelve the retinol products until your 30's. A good vitamin C serum will keep you glowy through your 20's.
15 best retinol creams and serums
Ready to get stuck in? The Women's Health beauty team have rounded up the very best retinols they've tried, from affordable heroes to luxe innovators. Find your perfect serum or cream below...
1. CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
When our favourite no-frills skincare brand jumps onto the retinol bandwagon, you know it’s going to be good. We’ve worked our way through many a retinol bottle, but if you’re fighting post-acne scars, this is a 10/10 resurfacing formula to help fade them. The multi-purpose serum harnesses encapsulated retinol to reduce the appearance of acne marks, while hydrating ceramides combat dryness that often comes hand-in-hand with retinol.
2. Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol
If you’re a newbie, this gentle formula is a great way to ease yourself in: it combines microencapsulated retinol (which keeps it potent until it reaches your skin), with bakuchiol to encourage cell renewal and a smoother complexion. Plus, it’s packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories which soothe and calm your vital skin barrier – which is especially effective for first-time users (or if your skin is prone to a temper tantrum with new ingredients).
3. StriVectin Super-C Retinol Serum
Hands down, vitamin C and retinol are two very complimentary and potent ingredients; however, they should be used with caution, as together they can cause irritation – and that’s especially true if you have sensitive skin.
That said, StriVectin has managed to bring the two beloved ingredients to work in a formula that's neither irritating nor drying. The potency of retinol helps to reduce pigmentation, while vitamin C helps the skin appear brighter: your skin has no choice but to look its finest yet.
4. Oskia Super R Retinoid Sleep Serum Capsules
You’ll know by now that retinol can be a divisive topic – despite it being a golden ticket to smooth, plump skin. Some are loyal users of the active ingredient, while others have no clue when or how to use it. Cleverly, these capsules cut the confusion: they contain just the right amount of serum so you know exactly how much to use. The retinoid complex is formulated with antioxidants (vitamins C and E) to smooth, brighten and plump your skin over time, and it’s gentle enough so it won’t cause irritation or dryness. Plus, there’s something incredibly satisfying about popping a capsule and massaging the silky serum into your skin.
5. L'Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Pure Retinol Deep Anti-Wrinkle Night Serum
This milky serum combines remarkable efficacy with a pleasingly petite price point. It features 0.2% pure retinol alongside innovative stabilisers to ensure maximum potency, and hyaluronic acid to temper any drying effects. Not just a fine-line eliminator, clinical trials found it was able to reduce deeper-set wrinkles too.
6. Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum
Melded with botanical extracts, this luxe retinol seamlessly combines pampering appeal with serious results. It contains a mid-to-high level of retinol, so call on it once you've graduated from something softer.
7. Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster
Mix this clever booster into your favourite moisturiser once or twice per week, slowly building up to nightly use for intensive skin renewal. With an ultra-light consistency, it’s especially great for those with oily skin that easily feels overloaded.
8. L’Oreal Revitalist Anti-Wrinkle Firming Eye Cream
Some retinol products can be too harsh to use around the delicate eye contour, but not this specially formulated cream. Retinol and elastin work together to gently tackle pigmentation and fine lines, leaving skin feeling firmer.
9. Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Aging Face Serum
Beauty Pie's superstar retinols are alone worth becoming a member for. This gentle yet effective serum contains encapsulated retinol, which releases slowly into the skin, as well as hyaluronic acid and a barrier-repairing ceramide blend. Sign yourself up, and it'll set you back just £16.50.
10. Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
This cult option is vegan-friendly and free from the brand's self-dubbed ‘suspicious six' (essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical screens, fragrance/dyes and SLS). A must for anyone who wants to fuse ethics with efficacy.
11. The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid Serum 2% in Squalane.
Great for newbies, this super-affordable option means you can dip your toe (or preferably, your face) into the world of retinols without breaking the bank. It harnesses 5% granactive retinoid which is proven to reverse signs of ageing (with zero-to-little irritation) – and thanks to added squalane, the high-performing formula keeps your skin hydrated, too.
12. Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Retinol Night Serum 60 Capsules
Why capsules? There's actually a lot of logic behind the packaging of these single-use pods. As retinol is sensitive to light and air, the encapsulation ensures you get maximum potency in every dose. Plus, you'll never use too much or too little. Foolproof.
13. Medik8 Crystal Retinal
Medik8 is an industry leader when it comes to retinol – the brand offers a whole host of effective options. The stand-out Crystal Retinal line, however, manages to balance swift results with minimal irritation, which is no easy feat. The idea is that you begin with Crystal Retinal 1, which contains 0.01% retinaldehyde, then graduate up through the strengths: 3, 6, 10, and now the super-strength 20, which is available only via a clinic.
14. The INKEY List Retinol Serum
The INKEY List knows how to make award-winning formulas at super affordable prices, and this retinol serum is a proof. Uniting 1% stable 'Retistar' retinol (the equivalent of 0.05% retinol) and 0.5% granactive retinoid (slightly stronger than retinol) together with squalane, the slow-release formula minimises irritation while providing effective active results.
15. Paula's Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol and 2% Bakuchiol Treatment
This powerful blend of retinol and bakuchiol tackles fine lines and wrinkles, restores firmness and evens out skin tone. In addition, it contains a powerful mix of peptides to stimulate collagen production.
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