Why Retinol, the anti-ageing wonder ingredient, has just got even better

Retinol is more high-tech than ever, these are the brands making the ingredient work even harder
Retinol is more high-tech than ever, these are the brands making the ingredient work even harder Credit: E+/PeopleImages

Retinol may seem like part of the old guard of skincare. It’s been around for years, after all. But dusty and redundant, it is not. In fact, new innovations have supercharged the skincare hero and pushed it up a league.

Far from leaving an already diligent ingredient on the shelf, brands have been looking at how to make the gold standard of smart ageing work even harder. Take the packaging for example. “Retinol can be a challenging ingredient to formulate with because it is highly sensitive to light and air,” says Dr Nadine Pernodet, Estee Lauder’s Vice President of Skin Biology and Bioactive Research & Development. The solution? Brands have made it their mission to come up with smarter ways to store it.

What's new about retinol now 

There's a smart new way to encapsulate retinol to ensure its purity and potency

Elizabeth Arden and Darphin, for instance, have both recently released new retinols encased in airtight capsules. “The capsule format prevents exposure to light and air,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Dendy Engleman, which means the potency of the product is utterly preserved. And, Estee Lauder, created its new Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment under strict airless conditions to ensure the integrity of the product inside is kept in tact.

What's more, the packaging features a black inner wall to protect the formula from light. “You will notice over time, the tube becomes flat as the product is squeezed out -  this helps prevent air from entering the packaging,” explains Dr Pernodet. Likewise, Origins’ new Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer is housed in a multi-layered tube to ensure UV light doesn’t penetrate and oxygen won’t get in.

The formulas are more potent yet less irritating 

The formulas are becoming slicker, too. It makes sense that the higher the percentage of retinol we use, the better the benefits will be for our skin. The problem is, the more potent the percentage, the more likely it is to cause sensitivity. Brands have worked out that by pairing retinol with nourishing ingredients, like oils, they can buffer its sensitising effect, feeding higher concentrations than ever before into our skin in a way that still feels comfortable. In other words, less of the blotchy, dry patches that can arise as our becomes accustomed to retionol's skin resurfacing powers. 

The addition of these extra nourishing ingredients preemptively address the dryness and irritation that has been a stumbling block to using a retinol in the past. Philosophy’s newest launch, for instance combines pure retinol with nourishing superfood oils like pomegranate, olive and argan, which are rich in fatty acids to keep skin feeling soft and plump. Plus, this year, Sunday Riley brought out it’s highest concentration of retinol yet - a whopping 6.5% of stabilised retinoid and retinoid-like botanical extracts, balanced by Hawaiian white honey and prickly pear cactus to reduce redness and flakiness. Riley suggests applying a facial oil to skin first to further reduce sensitivity. 

The right dose of retinol is now being optimised with clever new technology

The way that retinol is being dispensed onto our skin has been revisited. “Applying more retinol won’t make it more efficacious, just more irritating,” explains Dr Engelman. That’s why encapsulated retinols are ideal. The capsules by Elizabeth Arden and Darphin, for example are pre-dosed with exactly the right amount your skin needs, preventing you from applying too much. Similarly, products like Allies Of Skin’s 1A Overnight Mask and Estee Lauder’s new treatment are calling on time-release technology to deliver a higher amount of the product to skin, but over a slow, controlled period of time.  All of which ensure our skin is getting the very best advances in skincare in a way that optimises the results.

Here’s our smart sheet for everything you need to know about retinol

What exactly does retinol do?

One of the main reasons why retinol is so popular, is because it provides a multitude of skin solutions. “It improves skin elasticity, fine lines and wrinkles and encourages collagen production and cell renewal,” explains specialist dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams. “It also helps to reduce irregular pigmentation and refine the skin texture, leaving the skin smoother and with a more radiant complexion,” she adds. What’s more “it’s often called a cell-to-cell communicating ingredient, meaning it instructs your skin cells to buck up and behave better and in a more youthful manner,” explains Ayodele.

Why should we use it?

“The skin loses about 1% of collagen (a protein which gives skin its structural support) each year from your mid-twenties,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. Therefore topical products like retinol can help to build reserves back up. And, “not only do retinoids reduce signs of ageing and sun damage, but they are also really effective for those who suffer from breakouts as they act as an exfoliant. Retinoid creams and gels can be helpful in reducing blackheads, however, they should be used for eight to twelve weeks so you can really reap the benefits." she adds. What’s more they can minimise the appearance of pores, balance sebum production and, since retinol is an antioxidant, they’ll protect skin against ageing free radicals.

What is the difference between retinol, retinyl esters and retinoic acid?

You may have noticed retinol comes in many different forms, from retinoic acid to retinyl palmitate. All are a type of retinoid (a derivative of Vitamin A) but in slightly different concentrations. “Retinoic acid [also known as as Retin-A or Tretinoin] is already bio available in the skin and it is effective in the skin cells without the need for conversion. Others, such as retinol, retinaldehyde, retinate, retinyl esters [such as retinyl palmitate], need to be converted by skin enzymes to retinoic acid before they can be useful to your skin cells,” says aesthetician and Black Skin Directory founder, Dija Ayodele. The conversion processes vary. “In order of strength, retinoic acid is most powerful, followed by retinaldehyde, then retinol which works in a similar way, but more slowly and then the esters (pro-retinols), these are much slower and weaker in action,” explains skin expert, Dr Michael Prager. “In the EU retinoic acid is not allowed in cosmetics and can only be obtained on prescription,” he adds.

What is the best formula for me?

“Retinol is best reserved for leave-on formulas, as rinse-off formulas will see most of the active ingredient wash down the drain,” says Nicholas Travis, founder of skincare brand Allies of Skin. “I personally prefer a retinol in serums, overnight masks, moisturisers and facial oils. The key is to find the right formulation for you, as diligence is they key with this ingredient. It can take weeks or months to show results,” he adds.

When - and how - should I use a retinol product?

The general consensus is that it is beneficial to use a retinol product from our mid to late twenties onwards, when collagen production starts to slow down. “Always introduce retinol to your skin slowly,” says Dr Williams, “start with once or twice per week, then increase to every other day, then another couple of weeks later, try it daily (if tolerated). Be aware that any irritation you might incur is likely to have a delayed reaction, so don’t increase it too quickly.” As for which time of day is best, always apply a retinol product at night. “Exposure to sunlight can make retinol unstable, so I generally advise you apply retinol products in the evening,” says Dr Prager. As retinol has a resurfacing effect on skin, which can compromise your skin's protective barrier, it is advised that you wear a good quality sun screen during the day to avoid long-term sun damage. 

Who shouldn't use retinol?

As a precaution, it’s advised that you avoid retinol when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Likewise, “it shouldn’t be used by those with very thin and sensitive skin, as well as those with rosacea,” says aesthetic physician Dr Barbara Kubicka. “The reason being that it can irritate and exacerbate redness and sensitivity, or further thin the skin.” If you’re unsure, speak to a dermatologist first.

What percentages should I be using?

“Choose an over the counter product that contains at least 0.1% retinol as a starting point. This is more likely to be more effective than weaker derivatives such as retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate. Read the ingredients list or ask at the counter what exactly the product contains” advises Dr Mahto. “As you begin to tolerate retinol 0.1%, the strength can be increased, e.g. to 0.3%, 0.5% and 1%”.

What should/shouldn’t retinol be paired with?

Always use a retinol alongside a broad spectrum SPF. “Retinol is a photosensitive ingredient that degrades in the sun,” explains Ayodele. “Therefore, if you forgo SPF, it will increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. Also, due to the increased exfoliation it gives, you’ll want to protect the new cells that are coming to the surface of the epidermis. Likewise, UV rays degrade young collagen and elastin in the skin, increasing lines and wrinkles, which completely counteracts the reason for using vitamin A,” she adds. Furthermore, due to the increased exfoliation it is wise to skip other products with Alpha Hydroxy Acids on the nights that you use retinol. “This can be too much exfoliation in the beginning” notes Travis.

How long should I use a retinol product for?

“It very much depends on the strength,” says Dr Prager “but, if the retinol levels and delivery system are gentle enough [when your skin is no longer irritated and feels comfortable with it], continuous use is not a problem”.

8 best retinol products to try

Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinol Serum, £70

Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinol Serum, £70

This ultra-high concentration of retinol is buffered with nourishing ingredients to keep it feeling comfortable.

Estee Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Treatment, £63

Estee Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Treatment, £63

The clever packaging keeps the tube air tight and light resistant. The time-release technology ensures skin is slowly fed a controlled amount throughout the night, and skin hydrators and algae extract help to soothe and moisturise.

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, £72 

Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Night Serum, £72 

The capsules encases the product to keep it as potent as possible, plus the single-dose pods  distribute exactly the right amount, while nourishing ceramides soften skin.

Origins Plantscription Retinol Night Moisturizer with Alpine Flower, £49

Origins Plantscription Retinol Moisturiser £49

This combines three "age erasers" - retinol, alpine power (which helps boost skin's natural collagen) and anogeissus, (which supports skin's natural tissue). Plus, the multi-layer tube prevents UV light and oxygen from penetrating. 

Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask, £87

More potent than retinol, this uses retinaldehyde (which is one conversion rather than two from the retinoic acid that our skin can actually use). "Research shows retinaldehyde works over 10X faster than retinol so if you want fast changes that’s the one to choose. Likewise if you have an oilier skin type retinaldehyde also has antibacterial properties,” says Ayodele.

Darphin Ideal Resource Youth Retinol Oil Concentrate, £75 

Darphin Ideal Resource Youth Retinol Oil Concentrate, £75 

The airtight capsules keep the formula safe while the combination of retinol with jojoba oil smoothes and plumps skin.

Philosophy Ultimate Miracle Worker Retinol Pads, £62

Philosophy Ultimate Miracle Worker Retinol Pads, £62

Dispensed in a nourishing oil formula, applied on soft pads, the soothing ingredients counter the irritating effects of retinol. What's more, to keep the retinol fresh until it's needed, the solution is kept separate from the pads. When you want to use it, simply pour it on.

Dr. Michael Prager Urban Protect Night Oil £195

Dr. Michael Prager Urban Protect Night Oil 

 This luxury oil with retinol will give skin a fresh new lease of life. Warm around three drops in your palms and massage into face and neck every night. Start with every other night to begin with.