A Bluffer’s Guide to Using Retinol

There doesn’t seem to be a month goes by without the beauty industry releasing yet another wonder ingredient. Acai berry, hyaluronic acid, gold, vitamin E – you name it, there’s a grand claim.

Retinol (or vitamin A) on the other hand has held the top spot for quite some time now, championed by bloggers, dermatologists and beauty editors alike. But what exactly is retinol and does it really deserve the hype?

First of all retinol isn’t something to just dive straight in and slap on your face. The results can be fantastic, but it also creates heightened sensitivity to UV as well as varying levels of redness and irritation (depending on your skin type and the concentration used). But, knowing a little bit about the pros and cons will help you decide which type of retinol product will suit you, and whether you need it all. Disclaimer: Not everyone does.

Retinol was originally used as an effective acne treatment, but in recent years, dermatologists and skincare brands have discovered that its complexion-smoothing skills don’t just end there. From hyperpigmentation (flat, darkened areas of the skin created by an overproduction of melanin), to facial redness and rosacea, to clogged pores and even deep lines and wrinkles, there doesn’t seem to be much that retinol can’t tackle.

While it may sound scary and something from an A-level science lesson, retinol is actually naturally produced by the body. A derivative of vitamin A, it repairs deep DNA damage by increasing skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen. The strength of over-the-counter retinol isn’t as quick or effective as prescription retinoids, but is better suited to sensitive skin types as it’s likely to cause less irritation.

This form of retinol is used in a range of serums, moisturisers, and eye creams, as well as pure retinol treatments that start at a concentration of around 0.3%. Bear in mind though, if it’s mixed in as part of a moisturiser or serum, you may have to check the ingredients label. Not every brand sings and dances about retinol being included, but it’s this that often gets the results claimed.

Retinoids, on the other hand, are quicker and more effective at treating severe photo damage and deep wrinkles. Described by my facialist as ‘the big guns,’ they’re best reserved for when you really have something to correct – rather than used as a preventative. Retinoids are growing in popularity as they’re a lot less invasive than say Botox or lasers, but still have to be prescribed by a dermatologist who will usually administer it in step-up form. This allows the skin to gain tolerance over time.

Don’t forget that retinol products make the skin extremely sensitive to UVA light, so should be used with broad-spectrum sun protection such as Ladival’s SPF 50+. The term ‘broad spectrum’ basically means that a cream protects against both UVA (the rays responsible for premature ageing) and UVB (the rays that cause the skin to burn).

And I’m not just talking about applying sunscreen when you’re on holiday or we have three days of a heatwave – UVA can reach the deep layers of the skin even on cloudy, grey days. If you have trouble remembering to apply it, pin a photo of Donatella Versace to your fridge as a friendly reminder of what sun damage actually looks like. Trust me, you won’t forget again.

Still thinking of using retinol? Here’s a selection of some of the best over-the-counter products.

retinol 1

Best for sensitive skin

La Roche-Posay is always at the forefront of sensitive skincare, so it’s no surprise that it’s just launched the very first retinol treatment with UV protection, Redermic R SPF30. Not only does it give all the benefits of retinol, but it also protects the face from damaging UV, and everyday aggressors such as pollution. It promises to bring new-found freshness to the face day after day, and also sits beautifully beneath makeup.

Best for tackling fine lines

Omorovicza’s Gold Eye Lift cream may be on the pricier end of the scale, but it’s the bee’s knees at improving the look of fine lines. Developed in a Nobel Prize winning laboratory, it’s formulated with only the purest of ingredients: retinol works to resurface the skin, while vitamin C boosts elasticity and inflammatory gold leaves the skin glowing. Maybe start dropping hints for Christmas now.


Best for deep lines and wrinkles

Alpha-H’s Beauty Sleep Power Peel literally works its magic while you snooze. It replicates the benefits of invasive procedures such as dermal fillers and rollers by eliminating dead skin cells with glycolic acid and fruit enzymes. This process makes the perfect grounding for 0.5% retinol which smoothes and firms the surface of the dermis (i.e the top layer of the skin). Use it to improve the look of scarring, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, acne breakouts and wrinkles.


Until next time….much love xx





Cat is the beauty-obsessed founder of the London Beauty Insider. She is a London=based writer and editor and also regularly contributes to the Telegraph, Metro, L'oreal, MATCHESFASHION.COM and Grazia Arabia.

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