Of all the skincare ingredients available to us today, retinol is perhaps the most transformative – and yet the most misunderstood.
Its availability once restricted to the white walls of a dermatologist's office, this powerful active ingredient has now found its way into endless over-the-counter skincare products, with brands incorporating it into creams, serums, oils and gels. But, with so many nuances in formulation, finding the right retinol for you isn’t always easy. Here, the experts break down the basic retinol rules – from how it works to the best ways to use it – and reveal the most innovative, efficacious retinol products on the shelves now.
What is retinol?
A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is widely considered by most experts and dermatologists to be the final word in effective, 'active' skincare. Studies have proven its ability to work across a wide spectrum of skin concerns, from fine lines to pigmentation and even acne.
How does retinol work?
Simply put, retinol – a type of retinoid – works by accelerating the rate of cell turnover in the skin, meaning new, fresh skin cells make their way to your skin surface faster than they would naturally. This action has a host of aesthetic benefits.
“From a skin perspective, retinoids work at a deep cellular level, where they help to boost collagen and elastin production, reduce cellular ageing and pore congestion, and regulate sebum production,” explains GP and skin health specialist Dr. Anita Sturnham. “Vitamin A cannot be made by the body and therefore needs to be supplied through our diet and by feeding our skin topically, through skincare.”
What does retinol do?
The cellular regeneration that retinol sparks can result in wide-reaching benefits for many skin types and concerns.
There are plenty of studies that delve into retinol’s role in reducing the common signs of accelerated ageing. Many have found it able to reduce the roughness, hyperpigmentation and wrinkling associated with photoageing (or sun damage).
Retinol also shows promise in treating acne skin types, with research finding the retinoid family to be able to reduce active breakouts and also inhibit the formation of new ones. Skin texture, including scarring and pigmentation may be significantly reduced too.
The retinoid family, explained
Sparking waves of confusion, 'retinol' is often used in place of 'retinoid' and has become somewhat of an umbrella term in recent years, used to refer to a whole host of vitamin A forms, so it’s not always clear exactly what’s in your serum. “The retinoid family comprises retinol and its natural derivatives, such as retinaldehyde and retinyl esters, as well as a large number of synthetic derivatives,” says Dr. Sturnham.
Any retinoid must be converted within the skin into retinoic acid before it can regenerate skin cells and stimulate collagen production. Pure retinoic acid can only be found ready and waiting in prescription products such as the oral drug Accutane and topical Treclin cream. The retinoids found in non-prescription products must be converted several times before becoming retinoic acid, hence the importance of patience and consistency of use. It's possible to achieve similar results with a non-prescription retinoid, but the time it takes to happen will be considerably longer.
What are the retinol side-effects?
According to Dr. Sturnham, there are several potential problems with a lot of retinol skincare products. “Some brands use basically inert quantities that have no skin benefits, whereas others have such punchy retinoid-based formulations that the risks of side-effects outweigh the benefits,” she says.
These side effects (namely dry, flaking skin and moderate irritation) are becoming less prevalent as innovation progresses. The best retinol products on the shelves today use advanced formulations and slow-release encapsulation delivery systems to side-step the irritation caused by an increase in cell turnover.
How to use retinol
As with all active skincare, application is key in reaping retinol success. Dr. Sturnham advises using yours only at night, after your cleanser and before your (gentle) night cream. “With a good quality serum, absorption will be rapid and there is no need to delay application of your moisturiser,” she says.
When introducing your skin to retinol, it's vital not to try too much too soon. Beginners should start by using theirs once a week, slowly building up to every other night. Diving in at the deep end will likely lead straight to irritation and flaking. Patience is required when it comes to results too: expect to start noticing skin improvements in around three to six months, depending on the product you're using.
Furthermore, it’s essential to wear a good, broad-spectrum SPF (30 or above) every day when using any retinol, as it may make your skin more photosensitive. This rule applies in the winter as well as in the summer.
When to increase the strength of your retinol
It can be hard to know when to increase the strength of your retinoid, but climbing the so-coined 'retinol ladder' is important if you want to see continued benefits. To determine if you're ready for more potency, Dr. Bunting tells us that in her clinic she questions whether patients have reached their goals.
"Given that retinoids can be used to tackle everything from acne, hyperpigmentation and the signs of premature ageing, it’s really helpful to define and track this from the outset (with selfies, ideally). If you’ve been on your chosen starter retinoid for three months and aren’t quite there, then the next thing to consider is whether you’ve achieved skin tolerance. That means a happy skin barrier that permits daily use of your retinoid without irritation or dryness. So if you haven’t yet reached your goals and your skin is tolerant, it’s time to step up the strength." Many brands offer products in incremental strengths – including Medik8, The Ordinary, Paula's Choice, Skin Rocks and Dr. Bunting's own range Dr. Sam's. Her new Flawless Nightly Pro 5% Retinoid Serum is more than double the potency of her original Nightly Serum (the first rung in a retinoid ladder, suitable for all), making it ideal for those wanting to up the ante.
When transitioning to a higher strength formula, it’s not uncommon for skin to go through a transition period as you acclimatise. Dr. Bunting's advise? "Prepare for this by applying it every other day initially and try buffering with a layer of moisturiser applied first so that you ease into your more potent product."
This cycle can then repeat until you solve your issue or you reach your skin’s threshold for retinoids. "This can change with the seasons, so remember that what was tough to tolerate in winter might be much easier in spring," Dr. Bunting adds.
Retinol and sensitive skin
Many people with sensitive skin believe they simply can’t use a retinol – but Dr. Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist for La Roche-Posay, disagrees. One clever hack for anyone struggling with irritation is to create a “retinol sandwich”.
“After cleansing, the idea is to apply a moisturiser to sensitive areas of the face, such as around the eyes, smile lines, chin and neck, then follow with your retinol product. Leave it on for 15 minutes before applying a layer of moisturiser as the top layer of your skincare sandwich. As skin adjusts to the retinol over time, you can skip the initial layer,” she explains.
Ready to start a retinol relationship? To help you reap the rewards of this wonder ingredient without any excessive brow-furrowing, we’ve rounded up the very best retinol for each skin type to try, from sensitive newcomers to seasoned users.
The best retinol creams, serums and treatments to try now
Best retinol for beginners
When it comes to retinol, Medik8 is the industry insider's choice. This high-strength creamy serum contains the brand’s trademarked Crystal Retinal, which only requires one transformation within the skin to become retinoic acid, thus working up to eleven times quicker than other products.
Don't assume this means increased irritation though – packed with hyaluronic acid and calming vitamin E, it's also one of the most gentle formulas around. There's a reason it's almost continually sold out.
If you're new to retinol, begin with the Crystal Retinal 1, gradually working your way up the line: 3, 6, 10, and now the in-clinic only 20.
Best retinol for regulars
Don’t be put off by the intimidating 6.5% retinol concentration stamped across this bottle – Sunday Riley’s serum is pleasingly kind on skin.
It actually contains a combination of 5% gentle retinol esters with 1% retinol proper and 0.5% natural, retinol-mimicking blue algae, offering just the right balance of potency and protection. Reach for this one if you’ve graduated from the brand’s equally brilliant, yet significantly milder, Luna retinol oil.
Introduce it into your routine by applying it one evening before taking two nights off. Gradually build use up to every other night, and eventually, nightly.
Best retinol for sensitive skin
Another exemplary product from La Roche-Posay, this lightweight serum balances a low dose of retinol with vitamin B3, which soothes and strengthens the skin barrier, negating any potential irritation. Sensitive types should work it into their routine two nights per week, building up to more regular use in time.
Best retinol for all skin types and ages
Whether you’re a twenty-something hoping to tackle a bout of breakouts or looking for something to hold off creeping lines, Caroline Hirons has thought of you. The long-trusted skincare authority has launched her own brand, Skin Rocks, with a duo of retinoid serums in increment strengths. Naturally, they tick all the skin-nerd boxes: they’re fragrance and essential-oil free, absorb swiftly, and come boosted with calming and hydrating support acts – think squalane and vitamin E.
Best value retinol
This milky serum contains 3% retinol in an encapsulated form, which equates to 0.09% of retinol proper, and is gradually released into the skin over the night. This gentle yet constant delivery means you're less likely to experience the redness or flaking associated with other formulas – a thoughtful method of formulation that can often push a price tag into triple figures. Costing just £13 to Beauty Pie members, this is a phenomenally good-value product.
Best retinol for eyes
Many retinols are too harsh to be used around the delicate eye area, but Dr. Bunting excels at creating active products that work without upsetting sensitive skin. This retinol eye cream from her range Dr. Sam's is boosted with niacinamide and vitamin C to brighten pigmentation and keep the crucial skin barrier strong.
Best retinol for fine lines
According to Dr. Sturnham, a serum is the best way to deliver retinol into the skin, as it’ll reach deeper dermal layers than a cream or oil. Her own formula, Treat Tincture, combines a granactive retinoid with regenerating stem cells and surface-plumping hyaluronic acid. One push of the pump dispenses the optimum amount of serum, so you’ll never apply too much. Consider it a one-and-done treatment for the multiple signs of ageing.
Best retinol for dry skin
Fans of Drunk Elephant's moisture-locking Virgin Marula Facial Oil will love this amped-up new twist. With an unusually short ingredients list, it simply contains the brand's signature omega-rich marula extract alongside a dose of retinol and barrier-strengthening ceramides.
Best retinol for pigmentation
A true feat of formulation, Verso has collaborated with an independent molecular scientist to create a whole new retinol molecule – the star ingredient in its new Super Elixir oil. The new NEAR-1 complex sees vitamin A fused with niacinamide at molecular level for the first time. The result? Better stability and swifter results, with none of the flaking or irritation. This one works brilliantly on rough texture, enlarged pores and fine lines, but faded pigmentation is the stand-out benefit.
Best retinol for mature skin
Eve Lom's advanced new retinol serum is formulated with more mature skin in mind – and indeed, it's garnering rave reviews for the way it fades feathery lines into the background. The lightweight oil sinks rapidly into dry skin, and is boosted with oat extract and hard-working humectants to ensure skin feels soft and looks glowy while the retinol is getting to work.
Best retinol for acne
This clever booster serum can be blended into any night cream to amp up its skin-clarifying benefits. Here, 1% retinol is combined with liquorice extract, which is great for brightening acne scarring, and oat to soothe inflammation. It’s ideal if you’re trying to keep your skin routine streamlined, but supercharged.
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