Beauty Glossary: Everything you really need to know about retinol

·8-min read
Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: 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 ingredients available to us today, retinol is perhaps the most transformative – and yet the most misunderstood.

Once restricted to the four walls of a dermatologist's office, this powerful active ingredient has now found its way into endless 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 basic retinol rules, and reveal the most innovative, efficacious formulas 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 aid myriad skin concerns, from fine lines to pigmentation and even acne.

How does retinol work?

Simply put, retinol 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 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 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 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 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. 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.

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

Best retinol for all skin types

Dr. Marko Lens has formulated his signature retinol serum with a combined strength of 1%, made up from time-release retinol and two different esters. The result is a silky oil-serum that absorbs quickly and doesn't result in irritation. It works brilliantly across pigmentation, rough texture, enlarged pores and fine lines.

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 La Roche-Posay excells at creating products that work without upsetting sensitive skin. This retinol eye cream is boosted with caffeine to help shift fluid and humectants to lock in moisture.

Best retinol for uneven skin texture

With the likes of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Emily Ratajkowski on her books, facialist Shani Darden is clearly one to trust. This retinol serum from her eponymous skincare line is light and milky, and formulated with 2.2% encapsulated retinol that slowly releases into the skin. Lactic acid (a gentler alternative to resurfacing glycolic) amps up the resurfacing benefits, meaning this one works especially well on rough-textured skin, post-breakout scars and pigmentation.

Best retinol for mature skin

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. Consider it a one-and-done treatment for the multiple signs of ageing.

Best retinol for fine lines

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 retinol for acne

This clever booster serum can be blended into any night cream, meaning you don't have to ditch one you already love. 1% retinol is blended with liquorice extract, which is great for brightening acne scarring, and oat to soothe inflammation.

It’s perfect if you’re trying to keep your skin routine streamlined, but supercharged.

Best retinol for rapid 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.

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