“Help, I have no idea how to start using retinol”

Written by Morgan Fargo

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol is one of the most effective skincare ingredients to treat a wide-range of common skin concerns.

You’ve probably heard the word “retinol” at some point. Whether it’s part of a regimen you’ve spotted on TikTok or recommended by your friend who knows all about skincare, retinol is one of the most effective ingredients to think about introducing into your own routine.

What is retinol?

A derivative of vitamin A, retinol (which is part of the wider retinoid family) tackles a myriad of common skin concerns, as well as creating long-lasting benefits that stretch far beyond each use. 

In fact, retinol is one of a handful of skincare ingredients that has a marked impact on the health and appearance of our skin – the others being vitamin C and wearing SPF regularly. 

Consider this your full guide to learning about retinoids, the benefits of using retinoids and how to find the best retinol for your skin type. 

What are the benefits of using retinoids?

A powerful ingredient family, retinoids are capable of increasing the frequency of cell turnover, leaving skin clear, radiant and more even-textured. 

Retinoids work to minimise discolouration, treat hyperpigmentation, reduce fine lines, regulate sebum and oil production and improve the frequency of breakouts and pimples. The most commonly used retinoid form is retinol thanks to its wide tolerance and strength.

“Vitamin A (retinol) is one of the most effective treatments in increasing cellular turnover, exfoliating the top layers of our skin and boosting collagen production,” explains Dr Victoria Manning, co-owner of River Aesthetics.

“It lessens the shedding of dead skin cells into our pores and decreases inflammation. It is known as the gold standard in fighting acne and congested skin (blackheads/whiteheads) due to its antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

“It is also an incredible anti-ageing ingredient as it reduces fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, large pores and improves skin texture.”  

What are the four different types of retinoids?

1. Retinol

“One of the most popular retinoid forms is retinol, known for its anti-ageing properties and skin-renewing abilities. Retinol takes two steps to convert into retinoic acid, converting first into retinaldehyde, which makes it more effective and powerful than retinyl esters,” explains the founder of eponymous aesthetic and wellness clinic, Natali Kelly.

“Using retinol is one of the most important steps to maintaining the overall health of your skin, coming just behind regularly wearing SPF.”

2. Retinaldehyde

“Retinaldehyde, also known as ‘retinal’, is the second type of retinol. Sometimes known as ‘retinal’, it sounds similar to ‘retinol’ but is slightly different. 

“Retinaldehyde is the strongest retinoid you’re able to buy over the counter. This is because it only takes one step to convert into retinoic acid and become active. 

“Just like retinol, it may cause slight dryness and irritation during use as it’s more potent than retinol esters and retinol. However, it is a lot gentler than pure (prescription only) retinoic acid.”

3. Retinoic Acid-esters

“A new form of retinoids, retinoic acid-esters are effective at treating a variety of skin concerns and they are also much gentler on the skin. 

“There are two forms of retinoic acid-esters: retinyl retinoate and hydroxy pinacolone retinoate – although, these are more popularly known as granactive retinoids. 

“Unlike other forms of retinoids, retinyl retinoate converts into both retinoic acid and retinol when it interacts with the skin, meaning it offers both instant and delayed benefits as the retinol begins its two-step conversion process.”

4. Adapalene

“Adapalene is a synthetic retinoid derived from naphthoic acid that does not need to be converted to retinoic acid before it becomes active. It’s available both over the counter and in a prescription form – the few over the counter products on the market are all very reasonably priced. 

“Adapalene regulates cell turnover and decreases inflammation, which is why it’s become a superstar ingredient for treating acne and considered the first treatment to hold a prescription-strength acne-fighting retinoid.

“However, out of all the prescription retinoids available, it’s considered the weakest (and therefore, gentlest). For this reason, it makes for a great entry product for anyone with sensitive or acne-prone skin.”

When is the best time to use retinol?

Retinol encourages increased cell turnover which is usually at its peak during sleep. Applying retinol at night will be a more efficient use of your product and time. 

How often should you use retinol?

An active ingredient, retinol should be built up over time. Overuse can cause irritation and may mean you need to press pause on using it. Instead, start by applying low percentage retinol once weekly. When you feel your skin has tolerated the product well and no adverse reactions have arisen, build up to twice weekly to a maximum of every other day. Again, when you feel your skin has responded well, this can be built up to every day. 

However, be cautious with higher strength retinol formulas – revert back to your slow and steady build to avoid signs of retinol overuse.

For sensitive skin, look for a time-released retinol (Medik8 do a great one), that imparts the active ingredient slowly as you sleep. This will help avoid irritation in reactive skin. Finding a retinol infused with calming and moisturising ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides will help to maintain the integrity and healthy functioning of your skin barrier, too. 

Signs of retinol overuse

  • Dryness and skin shedding
  • Breakouts, blemishes and spots, this is sometimes known as the ’retinol purge’
  • An inflamed appearance to the top layer of skin (red, pink or purple)
  • Itchiness
  • Burning
  • Increased sensitivity to sunlight and UV rays (this is known as photosensitivity) 

Is there anyone who shouldn’t use retinol?

According to Kelly, there are a handful of people who should avoid or practice caution using retinol:

  • People with sensitive skin, rosacea or otherwise inflamed skin
  • If you have sun-damaged skin as it can cause further irritation and damage
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding people

How to use retinol safely, a final word

Retinol increases the photosensitivity of your skin and, as such, you’ll find that your skin is much more sensitive to the effects of the sun. If you are going to use retinol (or other retinoids), wearing an SPF of a minimum factor of 30 is crucial. 

Not sure about the best SPF for your skin type? We’ve got you sorted. 

Main image: Getty

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