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What You Need to Know About Retinol


Most of us have heard of the ingredient retinol, it’s the skincare buzzword of the decade. It’s on every dermatologist’s top shelf and has even made its way into every skincare serum on the shelves due to the fact it’s widely regarded as one of the most effective topical treatments available. And yet, there’s still so much confusion.

First of all, it doesn’t help that when we talk about retinol, we’re actually talking about retinoids. There are a number of different types of retinoids and they are available in different strengths. All of the different types are derived from Vitamin A – the difference between them lies in the concentration. Retinoic acid (also known as Retin-A or Tretinoin) is the strongest, prescription level retinoid that’s often used to treat acne as well as ageing. All other retinoids from strongest to weakest include retinaldehyde, retinol and then retinol esters (such as retinyl palmitate).

Then, there’s the fact that you can’t simply slap a retinoid product onto your skin, you have to build up a tolerance and gradually add it into your skincare regime in order to avoid unwanted side effects like sensitivity and irritation.

But, please, don’t let that put you off. Get it right and experts agree there’s no ingredient like retinol for smoothing skin. It’s one of the only proven ingredients to visibly reduce the appearance of ageing and it’s a skilled multitasker.

Founder of SKNDoctor, Dr. Ewoma is a true retinoids stan. “I’m obsessed with retinoids, because it addresses a whole host of skin concerns. From acne, texture, dullness, minimising the appearance of pores and ageing. It just really does everything.” Among the many benefits of retinol, it can increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen and elastin production. It can increase the appearance of firmness by plumping up fine lines and wrinkles. It can improve uneven skin tone, treat pigmentation and smooth the surface of skin. It can even help with cystic acne and blemishes. So it really is worth getting to grips with.

To help you out, we’ve put together a straightforward guide for how to best use the ingredient. Here’s what you need to know.

What is retinol?

Retinol is the word most commonly attributed to all retinol products, but the correct umbrella term is retinoid. This is the family that all the different types belong to, and all are derived from vitamin A. The difference between them is their concentration. Retinoic acid (also known as Retin-A or Tretinoin) is the strongest, prescription-level retinoid that’s used for acne as well as ageing. We naturally have retinoic acid in our skin and this form is ‘bio-available’ meaning it doesn’t need to be converted to work in our skin cells.

All other retinoids need to be converted by our skin cells once they hit our skin. From strongest to weakest, these are retinaldehyde, retinol and then retinol esters (such as retinyl palmitate). It’s important to know what form of vitamin A you’re using as this will play into percentages and strengths of products (as mentioned below).

What does retinol do and what are the benefits?

The reason it’s so worth finding the right type of retinoid for you and building up that tolerance (which we agree, can be a bit of a headache to begin with) is because it’s regarded as the “gold standard” in skincare by experts. This is thanks to its ability to reduce fine lines, treat acne, reduce pigmentation, clear pores, reveal brighter skin — essentially it can do a lot. Retinoids work by increase cell turnover, which in turn, help the skin renew and help all of the above.

While there is no set time to use retinoids, most dermatologists advise introducing the ingredient into your skincare routine in your mid-twenties, particularly if you suffer from breakouts or pigmentation. It’s best to start with a retinyl palmitate or retinol, and to try it for three months and then have a three month break. This is due to research that suggests cell turnover is no longer increased after three months of usage. If you’re late to the party that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved; you’re never too late to start using retinol and seeing the benefits, either.

The benefits of retinol are wide-ranging GETTY IMAGES

What are the side effects of retinol?

Retinoids don’t work equally well on everyone. If you suffer from rosaceaeczema, or psoriasis, it’s probably best to avoid retinol since it can be too powerful on skin that needs a gentle touch – it can increase inflammation, dryness and sensitivity in already delicate complexions. “It’s very easy to overdose on retinol. When you do that, your skin just looks like sandpaper, and it might start peeling and flaking, or feel irritated and look red. Just because a product says use it every day and every night doesn’t mean that you should. Listen to what your skin can handle,” adds Dr. Ewoma.

Normally, these side effects only lasts for a couple of weeks while the skin adjusts to the ingredient. That said, new technology has helped to overcome some of the issues. Brands like MuradLa Roche PosayElizabeth Arden and No7 have worked to create intelligent delivery systems and buffers, such as encapsulated retinol, that seamlessly introduce the ingredient into skin, without causing irritation.

How to use retinol?

It’s best to introduce a retinoid slowly but surely. Redness, dryness and flaking can be minimised or avoided by gradually building your skin’s tolerance, so limit your initial use to once or twice a week, gradually increasing the frequency as your skin acclimatises. “At night-time only, apply a pea-sized amount of retinol to clean and dry skin, avoiding the eye area,” advises Linda Blahr, Head of National Training at SkinCeuticals. “For optimal results, wait at least 30 minutes before applying other skincare products.”

If you’re using a retinoid, you can skip other exfoliators like AHA’s & BHA’s as you will have already done the work. Doubling up can compromise the skin barrier, because combining acids and retinol can cause irritation. So stick to one or the other. As far as mixing it with other active ingredients Dr. Ewoma says: “From my point of view, you can. However, if you were a newbie to the retinol game, please don’t do a pick and mix on your face by putting a bit of glycolic acid and a bit of vitamin C and a bit of retinol all in one. That’s the quickest way to burn your face. However, if you’re a well-seasoned skin enthusiast, and you feel confident that you have quite resilient skin, you can, in theory, combine.” She then adds, “when combining serums, you need to make sure that they’re complementary and address the same skin concern.”

The retinol golden rule: wear SPF

If you’re using retinoids, it’s imperative that you’re vigilant with your SPF. Retinoids increase cell turnover, so can make skin temporarily thinner and therefore more fragile. “Retinoids are prone to increase photosensitivity within the skin,” says Linda. So, “always use a high, broad spectrum sunscreen the next morning when using this product.” If you’re just starting out with a retinol product, you might want to get going before the height of summer, just so you can get to grips with how your skin reacts as well as get into the routine of applying SPF every morning (if you don’t already).

How to pick a retinol?

When it comes to retinoids, there are three things to bear in mind. The form i.e. retinol vs retinol esters (you’re a pro now that you’ve read the guide above), the concentration, and the delivery method.

The concentration of retinoid will determine how effective your product is. “The general rule of thumb is to start with the lowest percentage, and then work your way up and make sure your skin becomes accustomed to it,” Dr. Ewoma advises. “After a while, (maybe weeks, or months), you’ll get to a point where you can’t really see a difference with your skin, the product will still be working, but now it’s time to move to something stronger to see the increased benefit.”

It can be quite confusing, but you can try and look for brands that clearly state the percentage in their products – The Ordinary and Medik-8 are great for this. In general, if you’re using a retinol, you want to start off at between 0.1 and 0.2% strength and build up to 1% if your skin can tolerate it.

Finally, the delivery method makes a huge difference. Read the packaging and look for encapsulated, drone or time-release technology. These either help to buffer the retinoid in a more gentle formula as it enters skin, or drip-feed the ingredient into skin over time.


From Glamour UK

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