#BeautyGlossary: Everything you really need to know about retinol

Roberta Schroeder
·7-min read
Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar

From Harper's BAZAAR

Welcome to Beauty Glossary. In this new regular series, the Bazaar beauty team breaks down the most hyped ingredients in the industry today, exploring exactly how they work on the skin, and the products you’ll find them in.

Of all the skincare treatments available to us today, retinol is perhaps the most transformative – and the most misunderstood.

Once restricted to the four walls of a dermatologist's office, this powerful active ingredient has now found its way into myriad over-the-counter skincare lines, with brands incorporating it into creams, serums, oils and gels. But, with so many nuances in formulation, finding the right one for you isn’t always easy. Here, we break down the basics, and reveal the most innovative, efficacious formulas available 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 anti-ageing skincare.

Working by increasing the rate of cell turnover in the skin, studies have shown it to be responsible for aiding just about any skin concern, from fine lines to pigmentation and even acne.

How does retinol work?

“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, regulate sebum production, and also have pigment stabilising and anti-inflammatory properties,” 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 in terms of feeding our skin topically, through skincare.”

Sparking waves of confusion, retinol 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. Pure retinoids are only available via prescription, but retinols sit on the shelves in many forms.

Retinol needs to be broken down into retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin) before it can regenerate skin cells and stimulate collagen production. The retinol found in most non-prescription products needs to be converted several times before it becomes retinoic acid – although many buzzy new launches are using potent derivatives that require fewer conversions.

What are the retinol side-effects?

According to Sturnham, there are several potential problems with a lot of retinol-based skincare. “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 however becoming less prevalent. 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 do you use retinol?

As with all active skincare, application is key in reaping retinol success. Dr. Sturnham advises applying only at night, after your cleanser and toner 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 applying 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.

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.

To help you reap the rewards of this wonder ingredient without any excessive brow-furrowing, we’ve rounded up the very best option for each skin type to try, from sensitive newcomers to seasoned users.

The best retinol creams, serums and treatments to try now

Best for: beginners

Dr. Sam's eponymous product line makes active skincare easy, accessible, and affordable. Her website offers clear instructions for getting the best out of this hard-working serum, which combines 2% granactive retinoid with a trio of clearing and brightening ingredients.

Best for: retinol regulars

Don’t be put off by the intimidating 6.5% retinol concentration emblazoned across the bottle – Sunday Riley’s latest 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 for two consecutive nights, then take two nights off. Gradually build use up to every other night, and eventually, nightly.

Best for acne and scarring

This non-comedogenic overnight treatment will work wonders on all skin types, but the barrier-boosting peptide complex means it's especially valuable to those looking to reduce breakouts (or attempting to slough away acne scars.) The dense, yellow-tinged cream contains a stable form of retinaldehyde that offers potent resurfacing without irritation.

Best for: fine lines

When it comes to retinol, Medik8 is the industry leader. This high-strength milky 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.

Best for: affordability

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 cost three figures. Costing just £13 to Beauty Pie members, this is a phenomenally good-value product.

Best for: instant results

For those who don't want to wait, these cult at-home chemical peel pads deliver staggering results after just one use. Each pad is steeped in a powerful blend of alpha-hydroxy-acids and retinol, and works to dissolve dead skin cells while boosting regeneration. Work them into your routine by using twice weekly, and only at night.You'll notice brighter, clearer skin straight away, with the benefits intensifying with regular use.

Best for: eyes

Many retinols are too harsh to be used around the delicate eye area, but La Roche-Posay's clever formulation is ideal for smoothing bags and crow's feet. It combines a low-level retinol with caffeine to stimulate blood flow, reducing puffiness while it works.

Best for: all skin types

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 stem cells and alpha arbutin, which works to lighten areas of pigmentation. One push of the pump dispenses the optimum amount of serum, so you’ll never apply too much.

Best for: skincare minimalists

This clever booster serum can be blended into your night-time product of choice to upgrade its rejuvenating powers. It contains 1% retinol (not to be sniffed at), alongside a cocktail of antioxidants to keep free radicals from dulling your complexion. It’s perfect if you’re trying to keep your skin routine streamlined, but supercharged.

Best 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 once per week, building up to more regular use in time.

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