Everything You Need To Know About Using Retinol

Some skincare ingredients are so beneficial for skin that they end up being beauty buzzwords in their own right, and retinol is one of those ingredients. So much so in fact, that retinol has become a catch-all term used to describe all forms of retinoid. The thing is, there are a number of different types of retinoid – all derived from vitamin A but each available in different strengths – and retinol is just one of those. The main difference between the types of retinoid is their concentration, which impacts how effective they are but also how (potentially) irritating they are. So in order to use a retinoid effectively, it’s advised to start with a weaker retinoid and build up a tolerance to it before moving onto something stronger. That way, you can experience the benefits without the side effects.

If all of that sounds confusing, don’t be put off. Dermatologists and skincare experts agree that there really is nothing else like retinoids for renewing, clearing, smoothing, and brightening skin. Plus, it’s one of the few ingredients with proven benefits for both acne and for reducing the appearance of aging skin. To get you up to speed on all things retinol and retinoids, we’ve answered all of your most-asked questions about the popular skincare ingredient below.

What's the difference between retinol and a retinoids?

Again, ‘retinoids’ is the umbrella term used to describe ingredients that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol – so basically, retinol is a retinoid. Other retinoids include retinoic acid (the strongest form of retinoid, only available on prescription e.g. tretinoin), retinaldehyde (the most potent form of non-prescription retinoid), and retinyl esters (the weakest of the retinoid family). ‘Retinol’ is often commonly used to refer to all of these ingredients, but to figure out exactly which type of retinoid you’re using it’s always a good idea to check the ingredients list of a product first – that way you know you’re using the right type of retinoid for your skin. If you have sensitive skin or are new to using retinoids then retinyl esters (such as retinyl palmitate) are a good place to start (since they’re not particularly irritating) but if your skin is already accustomed to retinoids then you may want to use something stronger, like retinaldehyde.

How does retinol work?

Our skin can only process vitamin A in the form of retinoic acid. Retinol breaks down into retinoic acid upon contact with the skin, where it increases cell turnover and boosts collagen production. As we age, collagen and cell renewal slow down, leading to looser, thinner skin which is more prone to lines and wrinkles. Retinol helps to trigger cell regeneration and encourages new collagen to form. This plumps up loose skin, smooths out wrinkles and lines, and lightens areas of pigmentation, resulting in skin which appears smoother and brighter. The process of cell renewal is also beneficial if your skin is acne prone as it reduces the overproduction of sebum and prevents breakouts from forming by clearing dead skin cells and excess oils from pores. Likewise, as each layer of skin is renewed, scars and hyperpigmentation from sun damage or breakouts fade and soon disappear. 

Do I need a prescription to use retinol?

You only need a prescription to obtain high-strength retinoids such as tretinoin or adapalene. Retinoids that are purchased ‘off the shelf’ are lower in strength so don’t require a prescription. That said, the strength of retinoid you use is very important and depends on your skin’s type, concerns, and tolerance. 

What strength of retinol should I use?

Because of the side effects associated with retinoid, stronger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to this ingredient. Most experts would recommend starting with a low strength retinoid and aiming to increase strength over time based on how your skin responds and what your skin’s needs are. 

While retinoid acid (only available on prescription) and retinaldehyde are the ‘strongest’ and therefore most effective types of retinoid, retinol itself is still very effective. Low percentages of retinol (0.01-0.03%) are great for targeting signs of aging, reducing pore size, and improving overall skin health. When used alongside other antioxidants (such as vitamin C) and SPF, it can also help skin to fight against environmental damage. 

A medium-strength retinol (0.04-1%) will give you faster results but may come with more side effects. These strengths will quickly help to target uneven skin tone, rough texture, and loose or thin skin – especially when combined with antioxidants. 

High-strength retinols (0.5-1%) will give quick results to those with stubborn skin which may not have responded to lower percentages. Likewise, if your skin concerns are particularly bad (deep wrinkles, persistent acne, obvious hyperpigmentation) you will likely benefit from a higher percentage. 

Why do I need to use SPF with retinol?

Retinoids can increase skin’s sensitivity to UV light, so you should always wear at least SPF50 every single day (even on cloudy days) when using retinol. Not only does sun exposure break down a retinoid’s structure and reduces its effectiveness, but the damage caused by UV light will worsen your skin concerns and render retinol application redundant. 

What are the side effects of retinol?

With retinoids, the most common side effects are dry skin, peeling, flaking, and irritation. These are most commonly experienced with stronger forms of retinoid (like retinoic acid and retinaldehyde) but you may still experience them when using retinol – especially if you have sensitive skin or have never used a retinoid before. If you experience these side effects, then you should reduce usage of your retinol and consider using a lower-strength formula or buffering the retinoid with a moisturiser. It’s important to moisturise well while using retinoids to strengthen your moisture barrier and prevent this kind of reaction from happening.

If your skin is breakout prone then you may experience ‘purging’ i.e. an excessive increase in breakouts as your skin adjusts to the retinol. Again, this is more likely with stronger forms of retinoid than retinol. You might worry that this means the retinoid isn’t working for you, but in actual fact this is a sign that it is working. The purge occurs because the retinoid speeds up cell turnover and brings out deep-rooted congestion. 

How often should I use retinol?

Start by using retinol two to three times a week, then gradually increase to every other night and eventually (if needed) every night. If your skin becomes irritated then reduce the frequency. 

Can I combine retinol with other ingredients?

It is recommended not to layer retinol with active ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, niacinamide, and vitamin C in the same routine as too many actives can cause skin irritation and contraindications (meaning the ingredients are ineffective). However, using these ingredients in combination can boost the anti-aging benefits of retinol. You could use retinol and acids on alternate days, or use vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night in order to benefit from both. 

Can I use retinol if I'm pregnant?

It’s recommended to avoid all forms of retinoid while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Bakuchiol is often recommended as a natural and pregnancy-safe alternative to retinol as it has many of the same results and benefits. 

Can I use retinol if I have sensitive skin?

If you have sensitive skin then you should stick to a lower percentage of retinol or a product with retinyl esters – use it just two or three times a week, and consider using a retinol cream instead of a retinol serum (the ingredient is usually less concentrated in a cream formula). You could also consider layering your retinol over moisturiser for the same buffering effect. 

How soon will I see results with retinol?

As with most skincare products, you should expect to see results after around twelve weeks of consistent use. 

How should I apply retinol?

If your retinoid is a serum you should apply it to skin after cleansing and before moisturising. However, if your retinol is within a moisturiser then it would be the final step in your evening routine. If you have especially sensitive skin you may want to apply your retinoid after your moisturiser – the cream will act as a buffer. Most importantly, retinoids should always be applied at night time to reduce the chance of UV interference and give your skin a chance to recover while you sleep. 

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