If there's one hero ingredient beauty editors hear about time and time again from dermatologists and facialists, it's retinol. They swear by its ability to lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, reduce the appearance of large pores and refine the skin's texture like nothing else. So for the uninitiated, what exactly is retinol, and how should you be using it?
Retinol is, in the most simplest sense, an antioxidant derivative of vitamin A. The powerful ingredient speeds up cell turnover for existing skin damage, and cleverly interrupts the free-radical damage process – from the environment, and general ageing – to prevent the likes of wrinkles and spots from forming.
Retinol is effective because when absorbed into your skin, it is broken down and converted into retinoic acid – this is genius because retinoic acid is the compound that can actually affect the chemistry of skin cells and their behaviour. Retinol has had a bit of a bad reputation for causing drying and flakiness, and is a no-no for sensitive skin, but it really is a key ingredient in skincare.
The aesthetic skin therapist, Jasmina Vico says, "retinol is a hero in terms of skincare. It increases collagen production in order to prevent wrinkles forming by improving elasticity of the skin. This is exactly what we want. In addition, retinol can also help to manage other skin conditions such as acne and eczema, as well as improving discolorations to the skin. And if you have sun damage, retinol can also help to reverse some of the side effects, too."
Dr Marco Lens, founder of skincare brand Zelens, agrees. "Retinol promotes skin renewal. It increases skin thickness, improves skin texture and tone leading to smoother and firmer skin. It also evens out skin tone and helps with skin discolourations."
Vico recommends to her clients to use retinol post-summer and during the winter months for a period of one month at a time, or apply it as a booster for a special occasion to give your skin an instant glow. This will regenerate your skin without going over-board. She recommends that complete beginners should try SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3, moving up to 0.5 once they’ve finished that.
But here’s the thing with retinol: it’s not that nice to use. Any of the very effective ones are quite chemical-smelling and don't have the best texture. But you really do get over that once you see the difference it can make to your skin. If you don't mind using oils, then there are a few brilliant retinol face oils that keep the skin fairly hydrated. Sunday Riley's Luna Sleeping Night Oil, £85, is an excellent option.
It’s generally agreed by all cosmetic scientists and dermatologists that your skin has two modes: during the day it’s defending itself against aggressors such as pollution and UV rays, and at night it is repairing any damage. “If you’re using retinol, I would strongly recommend applying the product in the evening only,” says Rabbia Aslam, clinical director for HC MedSpa. “Stem cells in the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) reproduce mainly at night and they’re responsible for creating new skin cells, which replace the old ones and reduce the appearance of ageing.” As retinol mimics this natural process, Aslam argues that it’s best to use the ingredient as a night time booster.
Three top tips
Before you buy a product with retinol in, here are three handy tips from the American skin expert, Paula Begoun:
1. Buy retinol products only if they are packaged in opaque containers meant to minimise or block air exposure. This means no jars, because all forms of vitamin A break down and deteriorate when repeatedly exposed to air or light.
2. Look for vitamin A listed as retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, or retinyl aldehyde (also called retinal or retinaldehyde).
3. If you are just starting to use retinol, don’t apply it daily. Rather, apply every other day or mix it with your usual night moisturiser before applying. That lets your skin gradually acclimate to it.
The best products to try
Sleeping Night Oil incorporates next-generation retinoid oil to reduce pore size, improve appearance of damaged skin, and help fight wrinkles. Remember to use your SPF in the morning.
This is an excellent introductory retinol if you haven't tried one before. Start by applying sparingly a couple of times a week, and build up your tolerance.
This is a lovely luxury night cream that delivers real results, fast. It doesn't leave the skin remotely dry or flaky.
Resurface Retinol Reform by Shani Darden, appox. £67
This cult face serum by the celebrity LA facialist Shani Darden (who counts Jessica Alba as one of her clients) is an excellent retinol option. Mix with your usual night cream if you want to gradually build up your skin's tolerance.
This potent treatment minimises the look of wrinkles and crow’s feet while infusing skin with a nutrient-rich Marine Kelp Complex to lift, firm and visibly brighten dark circles.
For retinol to be effective on your skin it has to undergo a few processes. To process retinol, your skin has to convert it from a retinol to a retinal and again to a retinoic acid. This cream is pricey because it only has to convert once on the skin, therefore you will see much quicker results.
Retinol can cause significant irritation, including redness and peeling but many feel that its significant effects counterbalance this. This low potency is a gentle way to introduce one into your skincare regime. Trust us, it's worth it.
Infused with Pro-Retinol A, a powerful anti-wrinkle ingredient known to stimulate skin cell renewal and you can use during the day as it's photostable.
If you've been using retinol for a while and feel your skin is plateauing then this is the product for you. With 1 percent potency this will diminish the most stubborn of wrinkles. Use 1-2 times a week depending on your skin.