Retinol - when and how should you use it?

Jade Moscrop

Retinol: Why is everyone’s talking about it, and do really you need it? Beauty writer Jade Moscrop explains.

Each year brings with it a whole host of skincare buzzwords for beauty lovers to get their heads around, and one that’s been everywhere recently is ‘retinol’. Dubbed a ‘miracle’ product for fighting the signs of aging, retinol comes in so many forms and strengths, it can be difficult to know where to start and how to avoid going in too hard and doing some serious damage. Don’t fret! We’re here to give you the lowdown so you decide if it should be the next addition to your beauty routine.

First off, what is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A (or part of the retinoid family) and is added into products to boost the amount of fibrin and collagen your body makes, which aids in reducing fine lines and wrinkles, improving overall skin texture. In addition to its smoothing effects it can also help with sun damaged skin, giving it a more even skin tone and reducing that crepe-like thinned skin.

Dermatologists often prescribe the strongest forms of retinol such as tretinoin to help clear acne as it can help regulate sebum or oil production, reduce the risk of scarring and even help improve the appearance of scars.

But it doesn’t have to be prescription strength to make a difference. Plenty of scientific studies have proven that when used correctly and at the right concentration, retinol in over-the-counter products can make a considerable difference to your skin. However, if you go full on bull-in-a-china-shop and start slathering any old stuff on to your skin, you might end up in a worse place than when you started – temporarily at least.

So, how much do you need?

Given the number of products out there, it’s incredibly important to make sure you know the strength of the solution you’re using, as well as finding out what’s right for your skin. If you’re not used to retinol products you may find that they cause your skin to become red, dry and flakey.

To avoid this Bianca Estelle, Medical Aesthetician, Skin Specialist and Founder of bea Skin Care in Marylebone, says, “I’d always advise speaking to a professional skin specialist before you start using active ingredients as they will be able to advise what will and won’t be suitable for your skin. Some people have extremely sensitive skin, and in these circumstances, expert guidance is even more important so as not to irritate the skin or cause further damage.”

Retinol has been shown to be effective when applied to the skin in quite low levels, so you may not need to race out and by the strongest on the market.


Retinoic Acid

Now for the ‘sciencey’ bit…

If you’re ready to become a retinol-convert, Bianca says starting low and slow, and she recommends reading the ingredients list thoroughly.

“Firstly, start with a conservative strength such as 0.25%  if you have sensitive skin or have never used retinol before. [Also], the PH balance needs to be correct and you should also look at the other ingredients within the product. Perfumes tend to break down active ingredients so if a product is heavily perfumed, it’s likely this will reduce the efficacy of its actives.”

Another thing to look out for is the type of retinoid that’s being used, because they aren’t all born equal. Retinol esters, she says are “quite different”. They are derivatives or Vitamin A and have their pro’s and cons.

All forms or vitamin A have to be broken down into their useable form in the body – retinoic acid. If it’s an ester, it’s not going to be as strong once it’s broken down. But, dermatology nurse and medical director of Glasgow’s Clinica Medica, Shirley Nicol, says this is a great option for people who have sensitive or dry skin. You’ll still get results but without the redness and flaking – it may just take a little longer.

“Retinol esters deliver Vitamin A to the skin, slowly allowing the skin to prepare for the Vitamin A without causing irritation redness or discomfort”, Shirley says.

There are five main types used in the treatment of wrinkles and/or acne:

  • Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and hydroxypinacolone retinoate. These are retinol esters.
  • Retinaldehyde. This is slightly stronger than esters like retinyl palmitate and the other esters.
  • Retinol. This is the strongest ingredient found in OTC retinoid products.
  • Tretinoin. A potent form only available on prescription
  • Tazarotene. Another potent form that are on available on prescription.

And that’s not all – things like the packaging can also affect a product.

Bianca explains, “As well as the percentage of retinol in a product, you also need to consider stability. Certain active ingredients will only be stable if packaged correctly”.

The gold standard is an airtight, light proof pump action container.

Bianca recommends her Skin Care 2% Retinol Serum with Vitamin E

Shirley Nicol recommends Beaute Pacifique Creme Metamorphique

Is there a specific age to start using retinol?

If you’re only just jumping on the retinol bandwagon, don’t fear, there’s no industry-agreed ‘right time’ to introduce it into your life – it depends on the state of your skin.

Bianca Estelle says “There isn’t a set age to start using retinol as it’s highly dependent on skin concern and personal circumstances. For example. If someone has been suffering from acne since their late teens, skin-renewing ingredients like retinol will help them a lot and as such, they might need to incorporate this from around the age of 25, whereas others can start later.”

It totally depends on your skin; retinol isn’t a one-size-fits-all product. If you skin is sun damaged or showing the signs of aging early, then that might be the right time to start. But it’ve never too late. The effects of retinol can be seen even in those in their 80s, as one study found, so there will always be time for you to explore the option of adding it at a later date.



When should you apply retinol?

If you’ve been looking into retinol, any amount of Googling will have thrown up terms like ‘SPF’ and ‘sunlight’, but how much truth is there in the information?

Well, quite a bit. It all depends on the strength of the retinol product, but generally, it’s accepted that retinol should be applied at night time.

Bianca confirms, “Providing you are using a quality product, you should apply anything over 1% retinol at night time. Retinol is very effective for skin renewal so fresh skin may be more sensitive to the sun, which is why it’s safer to use before bed, where you won’t expose your skin to the elements. If your product is less than 1%, you may use it during the daytime but be sure to apply appropriate sun protection afterward.”

Rule number one for retinol – always use sun protection

We recommend:

Evy technology UV Face Mousee SPF30


Is retinol a year-round product?

If you’re the type of person who adds a serum into your routine during winter or swears by a mattifying product in summer, you’ll be well aware of the benefits of tweaking your skincare regime. Retinol, however, “is fine to use year-round, as long as you take care”, Bianca says.

As mentioned before, just make sure you wear sun protection and preferably apply it in the evening.


Which products go well with retinol?

Most beauty gurus will tell you that solutions can be complimented or hindered by other products, but Bianca suggests always following retinol with moisturiser. She explains, “Follow an application of retinol with a quality moisturiser and of course, if you’re using it during the day, sun protection with an SPF of at least 30, ideally 50.”

The other thing you can add to ensure you’re ticking all the boxes is AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids). Bianca says, “Retinol is best teamed with AHAs because it works at a cellular level, whereas AHAs work at the very top of the skin so by doing this, you are covering all bases.”

That is, the AHAs clear the debris from  the surface of the skin so the retinol can penetrate better to get to the layers below where it goes to work.

But, sometimes if the retinoids are irritating the skin Dr Unnati Desai, a GP and aesthetics practitioner in Mayfair, suggests diluting them – that is, mixing them in with your moisturiser.

She also says lay off the AHA/BHA acids like glycolic or salicylic acids if your skin is irritated. This is especially important if you’re using a prescription strength retinoid.

Her other tip is to use them every second or third day until you build up a tolerance.


And the most important thing? Don’t go it alone.

Booking an appointment with a skin specialist will leave you armed with knowledge specific to your skin, which will significantly lower the risk of any issues. After all, they’re the pros for a reason.


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