What Is Retinol And How Do You Use It?

Retinol might sound scary, but it’s one of the most effective and efficient skincare ingredients you can use if you want to really see results. It’s most commonly known as an anti-aging ingredient, but as well as its wrinkle-busting benefits, retinol can also help with breakouts, scarring, skin texture, and dryness. Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is retinol?

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A and an antioxidant, which means it helps to counteract free radicals (the molecules that destroy healthy skin cells). It’s one of the most effective ingredients for anti-aging because of its ability to produce collagen and regenerate cells. 

How does it work?

Retinol breaks down into retinoic acid on contact with the skin, where it increases cell turnover and boosts collagen production. As we age, collagen and cell renewal slow down, but retinol helps to trigger cell regeneration and encourages new collagen to form. As a result, loose skin is plumped up and wrinkles and lines are smoothed out, hyperpigmentation is lightened and skin appears brighter and smoother. 

Retinol is a very active ingredient so it can cause skin to react. You may experience a little skin shedding and redness at first but this is totally normal. Known as ‘purging’, this is your skin’s response as pores are unclogged. However, if peeling and redness persists or is painful, you should reduce the frequency or amount of retinol you’re using. Keep in mind that benefits will only occur with prolonged and consisten use, so persevere if you don’t see results straight away.

Why should I use it?

Retinol is most known as an anti-ageing ingredient, but its benefits go beyond just targeting fine lines and wrinkles. If you’re younger, it’s useful for prevention, and is also beneficial if you suffer from acne or breakouts. 

Anti-aging – As well as targeting wrinkles, retinol visibly brightens dark circles, plumps loose skin, and reduces dullness. 

Prevention – Once we reach our twenties our skin starts to produce less collagen so it’s a good time to start using retinol to strengthen the skin’s moisture barrier and defend against the early signs of aging. 

Acne/breakouts – Retinol encourages cell turnover in the lower layers of the skin and reduces the overproduction of sebum, so it stops breakouts from forming by preventing dead skin cells and excess oils from clogging pores. 

Scarring/pigmentation – Retinol increases cell production in the base layer of the skin, which in turn helps to stimulate cell turnover in the upper layers. As each layer is renewed, scars and marks from sun damage or breakouts fade and soon disappear.

When should I use it?

If you’re new to using retinol or have sensitive skin, start by using it once a week and gradually increase use to build up your skin’s tolerance. Retinol should always be used in the evening as it increases skin’s sensitivity to light and also breaks down (and becomes less effective) when exposed to sunlight. For this reason, you should always apply SPF the morning after using retinol as well.

Beauty Editor's Picks

Retinoids work in the exact same way as retinols, but the formulas are a little weaker – this means it may take a bit longer to see results, but it does make them a great option if you have sensitive skin or are introducing vitamin A to your skin for the first time. This has quite a thick serum texture, so it’s easy to apply without it running all over your hands. Plus, the small bottle lasts a surprisingly long time, even with daily use. 

A standard retinol – with the added addition of squalane (which helps to prevent moisture loss), this is also available in weaker concentrations of 0.5% and 0.2%. This has a very thin, runny texture, so one of my favourite ways to use it is to mix it in with my moisturiser – that way I can get a hydration boost and my retinol fix at the same time. 

Because this is a cream formula and only contains 0.5% retinol, it’s another great option if you’re new to using retinol or have dry or sensitive skin. Because creams are thicker in texture than serums, the ingredients won’t penetrate skin as deeply or quickly so the retinol is more diluted. What’s more, this will also help to hydrate at the same time – it has a thick, nourishing texture. This is one of my personal favourites for treating the red marks left behind by breakouts – this first time I used it, my skin literally looked clearer after one use.