Face cream can only do so much, says beauty expert Fiona McKim, but retinol is the most hard-working ingredient in skincare…
One of the great things about being a beauty writer is you’re never stuck for conversation at parties – everybody has questions.
The flip side of that is I do seem to spend a lot of time telling people things they don’t want to hear. How do I lift my sagging eyelids? Er, surgery. What can really help with cellulite? Learning not to worry about it too much.
Thank goodness then for retinol, because in a beauty market that often overpromises and under-delivers, this stuff really does work. In fact, it works on just about every aspect of the way skin looks and feels. It also has been consistently proven to do so for decades.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a miracle product. If you’ve ever tried retinol, you’ll know it comes with caveats. But that doesn’t stop just about every skincare expert, beauty insider and dermatologist I’ve ever interviewed from including it in their routine in one way or another. Read my guide here, play by a few simple rules, and it will absolutely be in yours, too.
Retinol, or retinoids, as these vitamin A derivatives are broadly known, were originally prescribed as a topical acne treatment. However, doctors soon discovered they work on nearly everything else, too.
“Retinoids encourage collagen production and cell renewal, so they improve skin elasticity and firmness, and reduce fine lines,” says dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams.
“They help reduce pigmentation, refine skin texture, repair sun damage, regulate overproduction of oil and therefore reduce breakouts. They also improve the appearance of pores.”
There’s no action without reaction, and retinol is action-packed. Once retinol converts into retinoic acid in your skin and gets to work, dryness, sensitivity, redness and flaking are all possible side effects. Pick a formula carefully.
Pure retinol is the gold standard. It’s powerful and comes in concentrations up to 1% without prescription, but I’d start at a maximum of 0,5%.
If your skin is sensitive or rosacea-prone, look for formulas with esters like acetate, retinyl palmitate, or linoleate. These go through more conversions in your skin to become retinoic acid, diluting both unwanted reactions and desired results. But if you have acne or severely sun-damaged skin, try prescription-only tretinoin or Retin-A, which is retinoic acid that is ready and available for your skin to use. Both ingredients go harder, faster and stronger on the results front, often with visible irritation into the bargain.
“The key is to start slow,” says aesthetic surgeon Jana Vogt.
“Begin by using it just two to three times a week. Increase gradually until your skin tolerates it every night without reacting.”
It’s fine to have a break if you need to, then start again.
Apply straight after cleansing so it penetrates unhindered. A pea-sized amount will do for your face, chest and neck, and the backs of hands, too.
Old-school rules forbid using retinol around the eyes, but experts now say it works wonders, as long as it’s tolerated.
As with any active, retinol interacts better with some ingredients than others. Use alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic between retinol days to help shift any flakes and boost radiance.
“If you use an antioxidant like ferulic acid, it makes retinol even more effective,” says Jana. “I’d advise not to use acne treatments like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide at the same time, as the effect could be too drying for the skin.”
Well-formulated retinol is rarely cheap or attractive, as it usually has a chemical smell, and ranges in colour from that of sour milk to straw. The active part is broken down by light, so only buy those in UV-protective packaging – tubes and tinted droppers are good, while airless pumps are better. Avoid clear jars.
This isn’t a quick fix – you might notice improvements after a month, but for some it takes 12 weeks. Go slow and steady with any of these formulas – the rewards are worth the perseverance.
Estée Lauder Perfectionist Pro Rapid Renewal Retinol Treatment, R1 400 for 30ml, is a potent slow-release cream with hyaluronic acid and antioxidant vitamin C.
Lamelle Correctives 3.0 RA Serum, R780 for 30ml. Beginner-friendly. Silky, spreadable, and gentle thanks to its healing avocado and hydrating squalane oils.
Exuviance Super Retinol Concentrate, R1 132 for 30g. As powerful as they come, so possibly not for retinol rookies. It’s 1% pure retinol in airless pump packaging.
Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules, R599 for 30. Retinol and hydrating ceramides in capsule form to penetrate deep into the skin and stay there.
Institut Esthederm Intensive Retinol Serum, R817, 95 for 15ml, combines 0,3% pure retinol with plant oils in a nourishing formula.