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Image of a woman representing a beginner’s guide to retinol.

A beginner’s guide to retinol

Written by
Chloë James

Few skincare ingredients divide – or confuse – people quite like retinol. While it boasts legendary status within the skincare community, it’s also earned a reputation for being as complicated as it is powerful.

At its core, retinol is straightforward. Part of the vitamin A family, it’s been a go-to for fine lines, wrinkles, and texture for more than 40 years. However, unlike your average active ingredient, it requires a careful strategy to get it right.

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What is retinol?

One of the most confounding things about retinol is that there seems to be so many kinds. Retinol, retinoid, Retin-A, and tretinoin all sound so similar, but there are some subtle differences.

Retinoid is the mother of the group. Retinol, Retin-A, and tretinoin are all types of retinoids – which is a derivative of vitamin A. Retin-A is just a brand name for tretinoin, but some people use the two terms interchangeably. While it’s not the strongest retinoid (that honour goes to the lesser known tazarotene) it’s more potent than retinol, which is the most popular of the bunch.

But that doesn’t make retinol weak. Its long-term results are so dramatic that it’s sometimes mistaken for an exfoliant. However, it’s an antioxidant – one with epic collagen-boosting and acne-busting properties.

What does it do?

Pretty much everything retinol does for your skin comes down to one thing: skin cell turnover. By diving deep into your dermis, retinol molecules encourage cells to divide more rapidly – not to mention neutralise the free radicals that damage this process.

This has a massive knock-on effect on both the quality and appearance of our skin. The faster our dead skin cells are replaced with new ones, the brighter, fresher, and smoother our overall complexion.

With our healing process essentially put on fast forward, blemishes and hyperpigmentation take less time to fade. As pores are unclogged on a more regular basis – and retinol reduces the function of overactive oil glands – you should also experience fewer breakouts.

And, of course, there’s the benefits for fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol not only increases collagen production, but prevents the rise of collagenase, the enzyme that breaks down collagen. Flexibility, strength, and structure are all improved as a result – in turn softening the signs of aging.

What about side-effects?

Retinol’s strength is what makes it so complicated. Irritation, redness, peeling, and dryness are all common side-effects – especially in the first few weeks when your body is still adjusting.

As if that’s not enough, it can make skin more sensitive to other products and treatments. If you’re not already applying sunscreen daily, now’s the time to step it up: the new skin cells generated by retinol are thin and delicate, therefore far more vulnerable to UV rays.

Some people may also experience purging, which is skincare-code for your pores clearing out all the acne-inducing dirt and bacteria accumulated over time. Your chances of this – and all the side-effects above – are greatly increased if you use retinol incorrectly and apply too much, too fast.

How do I use it?

For retinol newbies, this is the most pressing question of all. There are plenty of myths and misconceptions, and it can feel intimidating to get started with such a powerful ingredient. Done right, however, your experience with retinol can be nearly as straightforward as any other skincare product.

Choosing a retinol

Retinol comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and strengths. It may sound incredibly low, but 0.025 per cent is the recommended strength for everyone at first. You can then increase the percentage as your skin gets more tolerant. However, a few other factors may impact your retinol journey…

Skin type

Retinol products are available in a few forms – most commonly creams, gels, or serums. Gel products absorb quicker, making this the ideal choice for those with oily skin. Combination skin types prefer products that are light but hydrating, so they’re better off with serums. If your skin is especially dry, you might want to look for a cream formula.

Again, everyone is better off starting with the lowest concentration to be sensible – especially if your skin is sensitive. Oily skin tends to be thicker, and therefore more resilient, so can grow more tolerant at a faster rate.

Age and concern

You can start using retinol at any age, but most dermatologists agree that 25-years-old is ideal. From this point on, your body produces less and less collagen with each passing year. This is what makes us increasingly prone to wrinkles, dryness, and other signs of aging.

The higher the concentration of retinol, the better it will be at generating and preserving collagen. Unsurprisingly, more potent formulas are better at treating deep lines found in mature skin, or more pronounced uneven skin tone. Still start with a lower concentration but aim to work your way up to stronger products in the future.

Getting started

Starting slow is key. Resist the temptation to dive in with even the lowest concentration formula every night. Instead, start with one or two non-consecutive evenings a week. Pare down your usual night-time routine on these days. Start with a gentle cleanse, apply retinol, and finish up with a moisturiser.

There’s no hard and fast rule about when you can increase your usage. Once you’re confident it’s not irritating your skin, you can start using it every other night. On average, it takes up to 12 weeks for your skin to grow tolerant enough for a nightly dose of retinol.

However, this all depends on your skin. Keep an eye out for any redness – it’s normal for skin to look slightly flushed immediately after applying retinol, but this should be gone by the next day. If it isn’t, cut down on application – whether that’s how often you apply, or how much.

The ‘how much’ is critical with retinol. Bigger is definitely not better when it comes to the amount you apply. For best results (and minimal irritation) you only need to use a pea-sized amount, massaged evenly all over your face.

As for the rest of your skincare routine, you can still use exfoliants – in moderation. Used on alternate days to retinol, these can help remove the dead skin cells and even enhance the effects by clearing the path for it to dive deeper into the skin.

Making the most of retinol

There’s no getting around the fact that retinol can take a lot of trial and error. Your skin can be incredibly resistant to AHAs or BHAs but still respond negatively to retinol. And while your skin may seem to tolerate weaker percentages just fine, the next step up might tip it into a purging period.

You can minimise irritation by prepping with hyaluronic acid, applying retinol, then applying moisturiser (AKA the ‘sandwich method’).

No treatment is off limits per se when you use retinol, but (surprise, surprise) you need to be strategic. As it increases sensitivity, you’ll need to lay off using it for a week before laser treatment, chemical peels, waxing, or intensive facials. However, there are a few treatments you can still use along the way…

LED light therapy

Of all the colours available from LED light therapy, red complements retinol best. Over the course of six to eight sessions, it can reduce inflammation and strengthen the skin barrier to improve the overall look and feel of your complexion. You’ll need to avoid using retinol in the 24 hours beforehand, but you’re free to apply it after your session.

Microneedling

Like retinol, microneedling aims to maximise collagen production, making the two the perfect combination for anyone concerned about fine lines or loss of elasticity. It’s more physical than an antioxidant, using tiny needles to create micro-injuries that activate the skin’s healing response. Again, you’ll need to temporarily avoid retinol – this time for at least 48 hours before and after your appointment.

Browse clinics offering microneedling.

Profhilo and mesotherapy

A strong skin barrier is the secret to healthy skin. It won’t totally eliminate your chances of retinol-induced irritation, but it helps – especially if it’s the result of a retinol or acid overload. By injecting pure hyaluronic acid or a cocktail of nutrients and vitamins respectively, Profhilo and mesotherapy can go a long way in boosting hydration and strengthening this barrier. Unsurprisingly, you’ll need to skip retinol for several days before and after, but you should find that it’s less aggressive on your skin when you pick it back up.

Browse clinics offering mesotherapy and Profhilo.

Your retinol journey

No other ingredient takes your skin on a journey quite like retinol. Whether it’s redness or peeling, some degree of irritation is pretty much inevitable. Don’t be disheartened; this is proof that retinol is doing something, even if it doesn’t look the way you want it to right now. Power through, take a step back if your skin needs to, and just remember – it can take up to six months to see results.

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