Understanding the confusing facts and
learning the truth about retinol
I find every time I open a magazine or “accidentally” click that link in a website (“doctors can’t believe.. blah blah try to ban this secret anti-ageing trick…”) we are flooded with products claiming to turn back the tide.
The truth is, while many products can certainly improve the appearance and condition of our skin, there is no magic product that will make you look 10 years younger. Many products claim to be anti-aging but what they are really doing is hydrating the skin, removing dead skin cells, reducing pigmentation and a whole host of other wonderful skin perks that can help make the skin look younger but actually reversing the clock? Hmm…
However, there is ONE holy grail product ingredient that has been scientifically proven again and again to make skin cells act younger than they are. It stimulates collagen production (What keeps your skin plump and losing it is what makes us look older), increases cell turnover (which slows down as we age), evens skin tone and even helps with acne! What is this miracle product I hear you cry?? It’s Retin A, or retinol, or retinoid, or wait isn’t that Vitamin A?? Whats Retinoic acid? Or maybe you haven’t even heard of it?
I hear ya! It’s confusing and then there is the problem of how do you use it? Many who have tried retinol or retinoids have suffered from nasty side effects and given up on using it. Read on for the truth about retinol!
Ok first off what do the words Retinol, Retinoid and Retin A actually mean?
Retinoids are a class of synthetic and naturally occurring Vitamin A compounds and derivatives that include retinol and retinoic acid. While retinoid is an umbrella term, its also used to refer to specific skincare ingredient. As a skincare ingredient Retinoids need fewer conversions than retinol to retinoic acid making it the strongest derivative of Vitamin A.
Retinol is a skincare ingredient. It is a derivative of Vitamin A which is needed for skin renewal and most importantly collagen production. For your skin to process Vitamin A it needs to be converted into retinoic acid, which tells almost any skin cell to behave like younger skin cell eg getting it to make more collagen. When retinol is topically applied to the skin, enzymes work to convert it into retinoic acid, this process can take a while depending on the strength of the retinol.
Other versions of Retinol include retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate and you might even be using products that have these in them already. Boots famous serum “Protect and Perfect” contains Retinyl palmitate. This is retinol in its safest form, as it has the best tolerance and fewest side effects. Pure Retinol is stronger so is more likely to cause reactions and is not suited to all skin types but it has a more powerful anti-aging effect.
Retin A is the brand name of Tretinoin, which is a prescriptive strength retinoid. Retin-A is referenced as being 100 times stronger than retinol. It also has a more immediate effect because it is formulated as retinoic acid and unlike retinol, no conversion by the body is required.
Does this make sense? Basically, retinol is a form of vitamin A but the skin has to convert it to retinoic acid for it to work and retinoids are another form of vitamin A, that needs fewer conversions to retinoic acid. Meaning they are stronger and work quicker.
So why use a retinoid or retinol?
- We now know retinoids create retinoic acid when applied to the skin. Retinoic acid has the ability to almost connect to any cell and tells it to behave like a younger, healthy skin cell ie stimulating important collagen production and also helps to thicken deeper layers of the skin.
- They get the skin to rapidly turn over cells, boosting new skin cell growth.
- It also functions like an antioxidant that can interrupt the free-radical damage process that causes wrinkles and other signs of ageing.
- Correct pigmentation-related issues by sloughing off brown spots and curbing further melanin development.
- Retinoids are commonly prescribed to treat acne. Retin A was originally developed 40 years ago as a treatment for acne.
You can see why it’s called the holy grail of anti-ageing skin products!
Retinols vs Retinoids, Which is better?
There is no correct answer as everyone’s skin and their skin requirements are unique and what works for one person mightn’t work for another. Retinoids (as the ingredient not the umbrella term) are the strongest derivative of vitamin A as they need fewer conversions to retinoic acid. Due to their strength, they needed to be prescribed and could not be bought in over the counter products. However new technology and formulations have meant that low concentrations are now available in products like Pestle and Mortar Superstar Night Oil and The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane.
You may be thinking why bother with retinol and just go straight on to a high strength retinoid? Well if you did you would end up with raw peeling skin, similar to a bad sunburn. Vitamin A is an incredibly irritating ingredient and your skin needs to build up its tolerance to it. You do this by starting on lower concentrations.
How to introduce retinol or a retinoid into your skincare routine.
To keep the side effects mild and manageable, It’s best to begin using it twice a week, then three times a week, then every second day and when you feel your skin is reacting well to it, every day. You should follow this routine every time you start a stronger concentration. While newer formulas and technology are making retinol and retinoids less irritating for the skin be warned, you can still have some redness.
If you find your skin being extra sensitive reduce the frequency of use but keep with it, maybe you need to go back to using it every second day or a few times a week. Your skin cells will adapt and begin to tolerate the retinoic acid so it’s worth the effort!
Depending on your skin it could take up to 3 to 6 months of use before you see a noticeable difference. Remember it is working on the deeper layers of the skin and it can take 12 weeks for your skin to complete a full cycle and start producing new collagen. You can move on to the next higher concentration after 6 months to a year but you can continue using the same concentration for as long as you want as it will continue working.
Retinol concentrations start from 0.1% and go up to 1%. Be wary of any products that claim to have over 1% as anything over this and the retinol becomes unstable.
When to use Retinol?
Because retinol increases the turnover skin cells, the cells at the surface are younger and more vulnerable to sun damage so you need to use a high SPF each day (but you already do that right??). There would be no point getting the anti-ageing benefits of retinol, only to have them undone by sun damage. Due to this sensitivity, you should use retinol in your PM routine but if you are using a very low concentration it can be used in the AM as well, eg No.7’s Protect and Perfect Serum.
Retinol and retinoids can be used on all areas of the face, especially on areas where wrinkles first develop around the eyes, forehead and around the lips. I recommend using a retinol serum after cleansing in your PM routine. We need it to penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin to stimulate that ever needed collagen. But if you are suffering from irritation you can apply a simple moisturiser first, then apply the retinol over it. This will help reduce sensitivity.
Retinol and retinoids can be used with most other products. Exfoliating acids like Glycolic Acid can be used in but I would recommend only using once your skin has gotten used to the retinol or on alternate days so you don’t get extra irritation. A hydrating hyaluronic acid based product is a perfect partner to use with retinol and I would keep Vitamin C for use in the AM as you don’t want to overload your skin with acids.
Who should use it?
Retinol and retinoids are best for 30+ skin with fine lines and wrinkles but you can start using it at a younger age if you want to. Younger skin types may not see the effects as much as older skin types however prevention is better than cure. Retinol enhances collagen production which will help prevent the formation of future lines and wrinkles.
All skin types can benefit from using retinol and retinoids. The only people who shouldn’t use them are those who are pregnant or breastfeeding or those on medication which may clash with the vitamin A.
There are many excellent retinol products available but it can be a bit of a minefield trying to find them. It’s best to know what concentration of retinol or retinoid is in the product but you’ll find a lot of products out there just list retinol as an ingredient but don’t actually say how much is in it. Here are some recommend products that I have used and approve of myself. I have been using retinol products for a few years now and this what I have found works.
This was the first retinol product I used and I very quickly saw an improvement in my skin. I followed the recommended routine of using it twice a week and slowly increasing use to every night. I didn’t have any bad reactions to it but it did make my skin more sensitive to the sun, I forgot to put on my SPF one day (so bold) and my poor forehead went bright red!
Medik8 is a professional skincare brand used and recommended by dermatologists and skincare specialists. They do a range of retinol products ranging from 0.1% t0 1 %. They have also recently launched a more advanced retinoid, r-Retinoate which they claim is 8x more powerful than retinol (it’s also a lot more expensive at £135 )
One of my favourite brands “The Ordinary” offers a range of retinoid and retinol products at very reasonable prices from €6/£4 – €15/£12. Just to make things confusing The Ordinary’s Retinoid 2% in Squalane is the same strength of The Ordinary’s Retinol 0.2% in Squalane and the retinoid 5% is the same strength as the retinol 0.5%. The retinoid claims to be less irritating to the skin and having used both retinoid and retinol, I have found the retinol does cause some irritation. The original retinoids and retinols were in an emulsion solution and they have now been changed to a squalene solution, which is much more oilier consistency and should be applied after light water-based serums. Squalane is an exceptional hydrator and can prevent ongoing loss of hydration helping to prevent dryness that can be a side effect of using retinol.
Containing a new generation of retinoid “Hydropinacolone Retinoate” and retinyl palmitate it provides all the benefits of other retinol but without the side effects. It’s blended it with cold pressed oils, including grapeseed, rose hip and jojoba so it’s incredibly hydrating and feels so luxurious when you apply. I haven’t been using it for very long, but already I’m really happy with the results.
Due to the grapeseed oil base, I wouldn’t recommend it if you suffer from acne.
This is my latest retinol product. Originally I thought I would be using it only once or twice a week as at 1% its very strong but my skin has taken to it really well and I’ve been using it about 4/5 times a week with no reaction so I’m delighted! It’s a light serum which soaks into the skin really quickly. And at that price its a steal
Note: All forms of retinol start to deteriorate when exposed to air and light so make sure you only buy retinol products packaged in airtight, opaque containers and make the product is closed properly after use!
Have you tried using retinol or retinoid products? What do you think? What products do you like?
Please note this post may contain affiliate links that mean if you make a purchase through a link on this site I may make a very small commission from the purchase at no cost to you. This helps with the costs to maintain this website.