A Bluffer’s Guide To Retinol: How, Why and When To Use

Why is retinol the only proven anti-ageing skincare ingredient and what makes it so effective?

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.

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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? 

Retinol was originally used as an effective acne treatment, but in recent years, dermatologists and skincare brands have discovered that it can also be used to treat hyperpigmentation (flat, darkened areas of the skin created by an overproduction of melanin), facial redness and rosacea, clogged pores and even deep lines and wrinkles.

While it may sound like something from an A-level science lesson, retinol is actually naturally produced by your body. A derivative of vitamin A, it repairs deep DNA damage by increasing skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen. 

I've been using Drunk Elephant's 1.0% retinol cream for four weeks now, applying once a week.
I’ve been using Drunk Elephant’s 1.0% retinol cream for four weeks now, applying once a week.

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). So before slapping anything onto you face, it’s worth knowing a little bit more.  

There are two types of retinol that you can use. The first is retinoids, which are quick and effective at treating severe sun 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 your skin to gain tolerance over time.

The second is over-the-counter retinol which although isn’t as strong and therefore not as quick or effective as prescription retinoids, it is better if you have sensitive skin as it’s less likely to cause 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 per cent. Check the ingredients label on your moisturiser or serums as not every brand sings and dances about including retinol, but it’s this that often gets the results claimed.

So which products are best? Here are three of my favourites

If you have sensitive skin

La Roche-Posay is always at the forefront of sensitive skincare, so it’s no surprise that it  launched the very first retinol treatment with UV protection, Redermic R SPF30, £30. So not only does it give all the benefits of retinol (evens skin tone, helps with pigmentation and wrinkles), it also protects your face from UV damage and pollution. I apply it first thing in the morning to a dry, clean face, and then layer my usual serum and moisturiser over the top. It has a really lightweight, non-sticky formula that leaves a nice glow beneath makeup, too.

If you have sensitive skin and also want a cruelty free, vegan formula

I’m yet to find a Drunk Elephant product that I don’t like, and I’ve just added its A-Passioni Retinol Cream to the list (£62). Containing quite a high 1.0`% retinol, its cutting-edge formula utilises supportive peptides to restore bounce, resilience and a brighter clarity to skin while helping to even skin tone and texture. It also hasn’t given me any redness at all which, given how sensitive my skin is, is nothing short of a miracle. Vitamin F, along with a curated blend of comforting passionfruit, apricot, marula and jojoba oils also help to replenish essential lipids and moisture to the skin which is perhaps why my skin feels super smooth after using. It can be mixed with any other Drunk Elephant serum or moisturiser. I started using once a week before bed and have just started twice a week. The key rule with retinol is slow and steady.

If you want to tackle fine lines around the eyes

Omorovicza’s Gold Eye Lift cream pricey – £120 – but it’s the bee’s knees at improving the look of fine lines around your eyes. The Gold collection is Omorovicza’s best anti-ageing range, designed to heal and strengthen the skin, and the eye cream is one of my new everyday favourites. 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. I’ve been using it for some weeks now and my skin feels noticeably calmer and smoother, and the texture (although rich) soaks in easily without leaving a greasy residue.  

If you have deep lines and wrinkles

Alpha-H’s Beauty Sleep Power Peel, £54,  literally works magic while you snooze. It replicates the benefits of hardcore procedures such as dermal fillers and rollers by getting rid of dead skin cells with glycolic acid and fruit enzymes. Then the 0.5% retinol smoothes and firms the surface of the dermis (i.e the top layer of your skin). Use it just twice a week to improve the look of scarring, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, acne breakouts and wrinkles.

Just a final note to add, retinol products make your skin extremely sensitive to UVA light, so should be used with broad-spectrum sun protection (e.g it protects against both UVA (the rays responsible for premature ageing) and UVB (the rays that cause the skin to burn). I’m a fan of Ladival’s SPF 50+ and La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Shaka Fluid SPF 50+ as they’re not perfumed so suitable for my super-sensitive skin and works well beneath makeup. Make sure you use around half a teaspoon, and apply thoroughly around the eye area. 

Cat

Cat

Founder

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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