Retinol – How to use it right

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Often misunderstood, often misused. Here’s how to get retinol right

A staple of anti-aging products, retinol’s most commonly associated with helping the skin to renew itself. Skincare professionals and enthusiasts swear by it, but it’s also one of the most potent skincare ingredients that can be bought over the counter with some pretty significant side effects. 

That’s why it’s important to get retinol right. There are lots of myths and misconceptions hovering in the air and your precious face is at stake. So here’s a quick guide, backed by science, on how to use retinol.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that can be bought over-the-counter in the UK.

To understand retinol, you need to first appreciate the wonders of its older sibling, retinoic acid, which is prescription-strength vitamin A. Initially developed to combat acne, retinoic acid (AKA tretinoin/Retin-A) is one of the few scientifically proven ways to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and combat the signs of ageing.

Retinoic acid is bioavailable to the skin, which basically means it’s ready for your skin to absorb without your body needing to convert it. Retinol isn’t – it needs to be converted into retinoic acid at a cellular level by your skin in order to be effective.

The conversion process weakens the potency of retinoic acid, which means that 0.025% retinoic acid is more effective than 1% retinol. Skincare guru Caroline Hirons uses a coffee analogy to explain the concentrations; think of retinoic acid as a strong double espresso, retinol as a milky cappuccino. It’s still going to make a difference, but the effects won’t be as intense.

You may also come across the term ‘retinoid’ – that’s the umbrella term used to discuss vitamin A and its derivatives.

The benefits of retinol

  • Helps reduce breakouts and in time assist with acne scarring
  • Boosts collagen production, stimulating skin cell production and reducing the appearance of fine lines 
  • It can help the skin look more vibrant and glowing
  • It can also help to increase cell turnover – that means keeping skin cell generation regular and uniform, leading in time to smoother, softer skin

The side effects of retinol

  • Depending on the strength you use, initially retinol can be drying, leading to redness, flaking and sensitivity
  • In the first few months, the drying effect of retinol can lead to oil production and acne flare ups, but ongoing serves to reduce acne flare ups
  • It’s important not to use when you’re pregnant

What concentration should I use?

Retinol can be found in off-the-shelf serums and skincare products at different concentration levels, maxing out at around 3% in the UK. Stronger concentrations can cause redness and discomfort to more sensitive skin initially. 

There’s no definitive answer when it comes what’s right for you.  The question of concentration is best left to qualified skincare therapists. They’ll be able to advise you on the right sort of concentration for your skin type, going by dryness, skin tone, sensitivity and condition. If you want to make a start before you’ve spoken to a pro, start with products containing less than 1% until they’ve given you the all-clear to step up the strength. That’s how to do it right.



And even when you start using it, it’s best to start under the recommended dose and work upwards. That’ll give your skin some time to adjust, and can help to keep the dreaded initial breakouts at bay.

Wear. Sun. Cream.

It’s time to bust a big myth on retinol, once and for all. Retinol doesn’t make your skin cells more sensitive to sunlight (bear with us). In fact, it has no effect on your skin’s “minimal erythema dose” – the amount of UV light your skin can tolerate before it starts to burn. That’s a scientific fact.

What retinol does do is accelerate the renewal cycle of the skin’s outer layer of old and dead cells. The newer cells underneath are more sensitive to UV light. That’s why you need SPF.

So, yeah. Sun cream. A day cream suited to your skin type containing broad spectrum SPF is best. Get into the habit of applying it daily – regardless of whether you’re using retinols – to help fight signs of ageing from UV exposure. But you knew that already.


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Why encapsulated retinol?

Air and light are the enemy of retinol, as it’s a fairly unstable and volatile chemical that can easily go bad. There are two main ways cosmetic brands tackle this: by using air-tight, sun-proof packaging, and by ‘encapsulating’ retinol. That’s a chemical process that bubble-wraps retinol in protective molecules (typically silicone) to make it more stable.

Formulated and packaged correctly, retinol can get to work on your skin much more effectively. It sits for longer on the skin in its active form, delivering a lower but more consistent dose that penetrates deeper.

So that’s the sort of thing you want to be buying. Look for products that say “encapsulated” on the label. 

Have a think about storage, too – that serum that’s been knocking around in direct sunlight on a bathroom shelf for a few months? That pot of night cream with retinol left open by your mirror? Chances are the retinol’s not doing much at all any more. Keep retinol stored in an airtight, opaque container, and keep it somewhere dark and cool.

When should I apply retinol? 

Retinol belongs in your nightly routine – that’ll stop UV light from breaking it down before it can do its work, and will allow your skin some time to acclimatise to the product before you venture out into sunlight.

But don’t overdo it – collagen regeneration is a slow process and over-applying retinol will only cause more irritation – it won’t necessarily hurry things along. Stick to using a pea-sized amount three nights a week. Don’t be afraid to step it down if you’re feeling flaky – as long as you keep up a routine, you should start seeing some results in three to four months.

Retinol serums sit between cleansing and moisturising, just like any other serum, but it’s best to leave off other drying products like acid toners while you’re using it. If you do want to keep the glow up with acid toners and vitamin c, space these out in your routine by applying them in the morning instead (before suncream, of course).

Is there anyone who shouldn’t use retinol?

It’s important not to retinols – and especially retinoic acid – if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. High doses of Vitamin A potentially leads to birth defects as it can cross the placental barrier. Doctors typically require a pregnancy test in order to prescribe topical and oral forms of Vitamin A.

If your skin is very sensitive or your suffer from eczema or rosacea, it’s best to consult a medical professional before embarking on your retinol journey.

What alternatives to retinol are there?

Prescription-strength Vitamin A (retinoic acid) is the gold standard when it comes to retinoids. It’s a tried and tested anti-ageing ingredient that’s pretty unrivalled in the wider skincare scheme.

Sitting somewhere between retinoic acid and retinols in terms of potency is retinaldehyde. Where retinols require two conversions to produce retinoic acid, retinadehyde only requires one. There’s also hydroxypinacolone, a retinoic acid ester that’s more of a cousin than a sibling to retinols and retinoic acid.

You can also experiment with natural alternatives to retinol, such as bakuchiol and rosehip oils, which both contain high levels of vitamin A.

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