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Retinol explained: A guide to skincare’s most powerful ingredient

Have you ever tried Retinol? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. With all of the complex and conflicting information out there on what Retinol actually is, how it works and how best to use it, it’s no wonder that many people shy away from this powerhouse ingredient at first. But what if we told you that if used correctly, Retinol has the power to transform your skin? We spoke to some of the industry’s leading experts about how Retinol works and why we should be using it – so whether you’re a total amateur or seasoned skincare junkie, here’s everything you need to know…

retinol for skincare - SKINDAYS

What is Retinol? 

Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A that is known, and scientifically proven, to slow down the ageing process. According to MZ Skin founder Dr. Maryam Zamani, this is all due to its ability to encourage cell renewal and induce collagen and elastin production in the skin. “Retinol can induce the synthesis of collagen and reduce the expression of collagenase (which breaks down collagen in the skin), to reduce the signs of UV-induced early skin ageing, such as wrinkles, loss of elasticity and pigmentation,” she says.

But there isn’t just one type of Retinol, and that’s why it can all seem a little complicated. Lars Freikrekson, founder of Votary skincare, explains how there are many different types of vitamin A – or ‘retinoids’ – that can be effective in transforming skin; “There are several different types of retinoids – some more effective than others, as well as more irritating that others,” he says. The ‘retinoid’ family includes all of the natural derivatives of vitamin A, such as retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and retinyl esters, and arguably the strongest retinoid, tretinoin. “Tretinoin is a retinoid which was initially proven to clinically improve photoaged skin as well as improvement of fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, skin texture and laxity,” says Dr. Zamani. However, standard retinol tends to cause less redness and irritation when compared to tretinoin, making it the most popular form of retinoid.

If you’ve ever looked into using Retinol, you’ll also have noticed that it comes in several different strengths – enough to throw anyone off! According to the experts, the lowest, or ‘beginner’ strength is anything between 0.01% to 0.03%, with a ‘mid’ strength product containing between 0.03% and 0.3% of retinol. Experienced Retinol users could even venture to a high-dose strength, which typically falls anywhere between 0.3% and 2%. Dr. Zamani recommends building your strength up gradually; “While it can take time for skin to acclimatize to using retinoids and a gradual build up is always recommended to minimize potential side effects, it is important to remember that it takes time for improvements to be seen. The greatest improvement in skin occurs at 6 months.”

What can retinol do for your skin?

Once you’ve taken the plunge into the world of Retinol, you should start to notice several improvements in your skin. “Retinol is great at combating the signs of sun damage, loss of elasticity and other signs of ageing. It is a powerhouse ingredient that will enhance overall skin health and appearance, and tackles acne, wrinkles, pigmentary changes and skin texture,” Dr. Zamani says.

How to use Retinol

According to Dr. Maryam, there is no reason why using Retinol should be complex, or limited to a certain demographic. “I think that everyone from their 20’s onwards will benefit from the use of retinol, and can increase the percentage with age,” she says. “I suggest using a non-prescription retinol and to start with a low concentration, 1-2 times a week, and gently increase to nightly. It’s always best to start slowly to diminish potential side effects,” she continues.

“Layering Retinol with hyaluronic acid works well as it provides a great moisturiser,” Dr. Zamani adds. “It’s important to remember that retinol increases sensitivity to UV light, so you should always use SPF30+ daily. For those with sensitive skin, I recommend building up their retinol tolerance. Combining retinol with exfoliants or other strong ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can accentuate dryness, redness and irritation in the short term, but may actually increase its benefits. It is commonly thought that Vitamin C and Retinols counteract one another, but recent studies suggest they may be synergistic with one another. I recommend using one in the morning and one at night, and always in conjunction with SPF.”

But if you think that means you need to steer clear of Retinol during the brighter months, think again! “An interesting thing to note is that studies have recently shown that Vitamin A derivatives can prevent the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of collagen after UV exposure, so you can in fact even use retinol while on holiday (just do not forget the sunscreen!),” says Dr. Zamani.

Our top Retinol picks

Retinol products can come in all different shapes and forms, depending on what best suits your skincare regime or which area you want to target. Whether it’s serums, moisturisers, eye creams or other targeted treatments, we’ve got you covered…

MZ Skin retinol skin booster

If you want a potent dose of retinol, this serum is a must. At 2%, it’s a seriously strong and effective facial treatment that is perfect for renewing and resurfacing the skin. However, we would only recommend using this product once your skin is used to Retinol due to its high strength.

Evolve Bio-Retinol Gold Face Mask

If your skin takes a disliking to Retinol, this mask containing retinol-like ingredients may be a better option. Bidens Pilosa extract works to encourage cellular renewal and rejuvenation, but it’s much gentler on the skin meaning you are much less likely to experience any irritation.

Verso Super Elixir

A powerhouse combination of Retinol and niacinamide, this serum is perfect for moisturising, brightening and nourishing the skin while also helping to shield it from environmental aggressors.

Teresa Tarmey Retinol

If you’re after something with a low but effective dose of Retinol, this 0.3% concoction might be what you’re looking for. Ideal for Retinol newbies or those with more sensitive skin, it’s also brimming with hyaluronic acid and hydrolysed elastin for a hit of moisture and plumpness.

Votary Intense Night Oil – Rosehip and Retinoid

A gentle but powerful combination, this botanical night oil is packed with natural plant oils that are given a boost by a lab-made retinoid.

Are retinol effects permanent?

The effects of retinol will need to be maintained with regular use. This is to encourage the skin cells to keep renewing at a pace that will keep it in top condition.

What are the side effects of using retinol?

Temporarily, retinol can cause side effects such as peeling, tightness, dryness and redness of the skin. However, this should only occur initially while your skin is still adapting to the use of retinol, and should subside completely within a few weeks. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider using a lower strength or a retinoid alternative.

Can retinol and niacinamide be used together?

You can use retinol and niacinamide together, as they complement each other very well. They support each other in creating a smoother more toned complexion. Niacinamide can also act as an extra protectant to stabilize the skin’s barrier which prevents retinol from causing irritation or redness.

Can retinol damage skin?

Retinol can make skin extremely sensitive to UV rays, meaning it is essential that you use a daily facial SPF30 or above. If you are protecting your skin against UV rays and the environment, there is no reason why retinol should not be anything but beneficial to your skin.

Can retinol be used daily?

Once your skin is used to retinol, it is safe to apply it daily. 

Can you use retinol while pregnant or breastfeeding?

It is never recommended to use retinol while pregnant or breastfeeding. 

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