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Retinol: Everything You Need To Know

Retinol is one of skincare's most transformative ingredients - here's your need to know...

What exactly is Retinol?

All derivatives of Vitamin A are called retinoids; retinol is one of these retinoids and sits alongside retin-something friends like retinoic acid and retinal under the umbrella. “Retinoic acid is the most active form of vitamin A as the one that interacts with skin’s cells, causing all the benefits,” says celebrity facialist Debbie Thomas and you can find this in derm-prescribed creams, not over the counter.

Retinol, on the other hand, has to change twice before it becomes retinoic acid: “It means that it’s not as strong when you put it on your skin but you get the same results, just in a longer period of time,” points out Debbie.

What does Retinol do to skin?

Retinoic acid started its days only as acne medication – not on our shelfies - 40 years ago. Why? “It increases your cellular turnover and unblocks pores,” says Debbie, “That equals less blemishes and fewer possible blockages that acne can develop in.” Fast forward a few years, in which time the derms had noticed the brilliant results this wonder ingredient achieved, and you’ve got a repackaged anti-aging product available to buy over the counter.

“It’s a really intelligent ingredient,” says Debbie, “When you put it on your skin, it re-educates your skin cells to behave like younger, healthier cells and so that’s exactly what they do.” Cue, fresh new skin cells and improved collagen production both of which equal fewer fine lines, even tone, fewer blemishes and plumper, more radiant skin. It’s also great for pigmentation thanks to its ability to inhibit melanin production.

How do you use Retinol?

The main problem with retinol is that it’s surrounded by misconceptions: “A lot of people think they’ll suffer from six weeks’ worth of really sore, flaky skin but actually it’s more a matter that they don’t know how and when to use them,” says Debbie. Some irritation does tend to be part and parcel of deciding which formula is for you – the top layers of our skin are quite reactive to retinol – but once it gets into the deeper layers, our skin cells love it.

To avoid irritation, you need to build up skin’s tolerance: “Begin by using it twice a week for 2-3 weeks or every third night,” recommends Debbie, “and then just shorten the gap between uses.” The aim is to build up to using it every night before bed, so gauge how your skin responds to each use; Debbie recommends reducing how often you’re using it if your skin is getting really irritated.

There are also different strengths. As mentioned, retinoic acid is stronger – at around 1-2 per cent – while the highest strength of pure retinol you can buy over the counter is 0.5 per cent: “Some companies say they have 1 per cent retinol for their over the counter products, but this means it’s combined with other ingredients and isn’t pure,” points out Debbie, so check the label to see how much you’re actually getting. Retinol beginners should start with a low percentage (0.2 or 0.3 per cent strength) to slowly introduce skin to its newfound friend.

And another thing to note? This isn’t a product to use during the day. Not only is retinol broken down by the sun which effectively renders it useless, but it also decreases skin’s tolerance to UV. That means you’re a lot more likely to get UV damage and pigmentation so ensure you wear an SPF50 come morning.

Who is Retinol for?

Thanks to its ability to boost our cells’ health and the way they work, pretty much anyone can use a retinol: “I recommend starting from your late teens to avoid pore blockages,” says Debbie, who points out that using it can’t do any harm. It’s fantastic for those who have recently started to see lines forming and those who already have lots and is brilliant for acne sufferers; whatever your skin type, you’ll notice clearer, healthier and more radiant skin.

You do need to persevere though because results don’t come overnight: “You start to see the real benefits in six months,” says Debbie, “because it changes how skin cells behave from the bottom of the skin, up.” That means awaiting healthier skin cells coming through and giving them time to start behaving differently; it’s worth the wait.

Those who should avoid it are anyone pregnant or trying to get pregnant as there aren’t enough studies to show how it can affect the foetus.

What are the best products with Retinol in?

Medik8 Crystal Retinal – This is formulated with retinaldehyde, another derivative of vitamin A, that works 11 times faster than classic forms of retinol.

Clark’s Botanicals Retinol Rescue Face Serum - For a gentler approach, this contains time release technology so the skin receives retinol over time, rather than all at once.

Skinceuticals Retinol 0.3 – Start with Skinceuticals’ 0.3 per cent pure retinol treatment, work your way up to 0.5 per cent, and then finish with 1.0 after it.

Sarah Chapman Icon Night Smartsome Cream – Contains drone technology to deliver retinaldehyde beneath the (easily irritated) top layer of skin for all the benefits without any irritation.

Votary Intense Night Oil – A sumptuous silky oil that contains a gentle level of retinoid – you’ll wake up with the ultimate glow

La Roche-Posay Redermic R Retinol Eye Cream – Contains 0.1 per cent pure retinol for the delicate eye area.

Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Aging face serum – With lactic and hyaluronic acid for added hydration as well as a clever retinol hit

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