If you’re thinking about introducing retinol to your skincare routine to manage acne, ageing skin or to freshen up your complexion, here's everything you need to know.
For those of us that keep up-to-date with the beauty industry’s many promises to keep our faces soft, young and problem-free, it can seem like there is a new wonder ingredient every week. While there is no true miracle product, it is rare that an ingredient enjoys such a positive consensus as retinol.
Dermatologists recommend it, beauty editors and makeup artists swear by it, and those in the know keep at least one retinol cream or serum in their beauty arsenal at all times. The multi-talented ingredient is used in a variety of applications including anti-ageing, acne treatment, acne scar and sun damage treatment, and simply to keep skin looking fresh and glowing. It’s good for every skin type and claims made about its efficacy are backed by decades of peer-reviewed scientific research.
All in all, a high-quality retinoid that is formulated for your skin type will probably take its rightful place as your Holy Grail product for life. But with so many seemingly different products on the market, understanding the ingredient itself and which product will be right for you can be confusing.
We’re here to help and answer every question you’ve ever had about this fantastic skincare ingredient.
What is retinol?
Let’s get some definitions out of the way. Retinol is derived from vitamin A. It belongs to a wider family of vitamin A derivatives called retinoids that includes retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate.
Retinyl palmitate is a milder compound that is used as an antioxidant. Better over-the-counter retinol creams and retinol serums will combine both pure retinol and retinyl palmitate for better results.
Retinoic acid is also known as tretinoin. It is a stronger compound most commonly used nowadays in formulations available by prescription only. Because it is stronger, tretinoin can cause side effects. It got a bit of a bad rep during the 90s for causing red, dry and flaky skin. Not ideal. Never fear though – while tretinoin is typically still stronger than over-the-counter formulations, the beauty industry has come a long way since the 90s, and even prescription-strength retinoic acid creams are much kinder to the skin than they once were.
The high-grade cosmetic retinol that is used today is kind of like the elegant successor to the early 90s retinoic acid. It is still really powerful but has a much lower risk of side effects and because of that, is much easier to introduce into your routine. It is typically available in different strengths and in different formulations, from water-light serums for oily skin to more emollient formulations for dry skin. The maximum percentage of retinol in over-the-counter formulations in Australia is 1%. That is quite a lot, so unless you have a more serious, specific dermatologic issue, an over-the-counter product will probably be enough to treat and manage most common skin complaints.
What does retinol do?
Beauty folklore holds that the superpower potential of retinol was first realised by dermatologists who noticed over time that their patients who had been prescribed retinoids to manage acne as teens started to age well. Really well.
Retinol is used for a plethora of skin concerns, but how does it work and what does it actually do?
The most simple answer is that retinol tells cells to behave better over time.
As we age, our skin cells begin to behave more erratically and slowly lose the ability to reproduce. Retinol helps normalise skin cell behaviour by regulating and quickening the rate that skin cells turn over. It also improves cell turnover within the pores, creating an exfoliation-like effect that makes pores less likely to clog, which is why it’s so effective for acne sufferers. It also improves the skin's natural retention of collagen, which is what gives skin its firmness and elasticity. Natural collagen production also decreases over time, and retinol is one of the only ingredients proven scientifically to positively affect this process.
Dermatologists agree that retinol is unique as one of the only cosmetic ingredients proven to positively affect skin processes on a molecular level over time.
It can reduce the effects of acne, reduce the visibility of brown spots, acne scars, sun damage and wrinkles, and plump up the skin, making it smooth, even and blemish free.
How to apply retinol and introduce it into your skincare routine
Whether you’re using an over-the-counter retinol product or a stronger prescription cream, some skin irritation is to be expected when you first introduce this ingredient, especially if you have sensitive skin. Most side effects are very mild but can include increased dryness and flaking. Users of prescription retinoids and those who use retinol to manage acne may experience an early “purge” as the quickened rate of cell turnover causes skin to bring deep impurities to the surface. If you experience side effects, don’t freak out. Reduce your usage until your skin becomes accustomed to it.
There are some tried and tested ways to minimise adverse side effects so you just get the good results from day one.
- Start slow. Depending on your skin type (sensitive and dry skin tends to be more reactive) and the strength of your retinol product, the best advice to avoid irritation is to use your new product once every three days, at night time. If you don't experience any dryness or tightness, or once those effects have disappeared, you can increase your usage to every second day, and finally to every day. Be patient. Most side effects disappear completely after eight weeks and the best results will only really be noticeable after 12 weeks.
- Look at the other ingredients. Retinol can increase skin sensitivity, so avoiding well-known skin irritants, such as fragrance and alcohol in high concentration, in your retinol product or other products in your routine will help minimise the reaction.
- Use sunscreen. Retinoids do increase your sensitivity to UV light so a well-formulated broad spectrum sunscreen every day is a must. But we know you are already using SPF every day, right?
- Use moisturiser. Especially if you have naturally dry or reactive skin. An emollient, gentle moisturiser will negate a lot of the redness during the early days.
- Don’t throw away your other products. Diligent use of a retinol product can actually increase the efficacy of your other creams and serums. In any case, the most effective skincare routine will include a range of different ingredients.
A word about packaging
Retinol is a notoriously unstable ingredient, which means it breaks down and loses its effectiveness easily if exposed to oxygen and light. The best retinol creams and serums will come in opaque, airtight packaging that distributes the product via a press pump, which doesn’t let in air.
Retinol serum, retinol cream or a retinol booster – which is best for me?
The answer to this question has to do with skin type. While it’s a bit bewildering if you’re just getting started, one of the benefits of the dizzying range of choice when it comes to retinol products is the range of texture options we have. That means everyone can shop for their skin type.
- Oily and acne-prone skin should use gel or liquid products that forgo any extra oils. Oil-free serums can also be appropriate.
- Combination skin is best served by an in-between texture. Look for serums, gels or light creams, and make up the extra moisture on your dry spots with an additional product. You also might want to consider adding a booster to your regular product that works with your skin.
- Dry skin should be nourished with emollient creams that include non-irritating oils, glycerin or hyaluronic acid. You may need to use more than usual when you first introduce retinol.
- Sensitive skin can be both oily and dry, but should definitely avoid fragrance, fragrant oils, alcohol or any other ingredient that you know irritates your skin.
If you’re thinking of introducing retinol into your skincare routine the best advice, as always, is to go with what works for you. Lots of brands offer testers and travel bottles nowadays which can be a great way to try out a product before you make an investment. As one of the best available topical ingredients for skin concerns and anti-ageing available by prescription and over the counter, retinol is really a must-have if you’re serious about your long-term skin health.
Where can I buy it?
Figuring out where to buy skincare can sometimes be harder than finding a product that works for you! Luckily we gathered the top 14 places to buy your skincare. Just top it all off we also listed our top 6 favourite Retinol products below.
Top 6 Retinol Products:
- Beauty product of the week: Jane Iredale Just Kissed Lip & Cheek Stain
- The first reveal of Kylie Jenner’s Stormi Collection for Kylie Cosmetics
- Your first look at the first ever long-wear liquid liner from Kat Von D
- Where to get your hands on the NARS x Erdem collection
- Money Hack: Ditch your lash extensions for a lift instead