Since I starting posting on Instagram and TikTok about skincare, I’ve noticed that videos about retinol always get the most comments. People seem to have a hell of a lot of questions about topical vitamin A skincare products. So I’ve tried to answer all the retinol FAQs for you below, including the difference between retinol and retinoids.
What is retinol?
Retinol is a topical form of vitamin A — this means it is a type of vitamin A formulated to be applied to the skin, rather than ingested. There are many names for topical vitamin A — retinol, granactive retinoid, retin-A, retinol ester. Not only do they vary in efficacy and strength, but some are only available with a prescription from a GP or dermatologist. More on this below.
What does retinol do?
Retinol speeds up the rate of skin cell turnover. This is something that continually slows down after the age of 25, contributing to the appearance of ageing and dull skin. By speeding up the skin cell turnover, the skin will function much like it did when you were younger and so the appearance of ageing will be reduced.
As a result of this process, scars will be reduced as the skin turns over and creates fresh skin cells and hyperpigmentation will also be reduced as the melanocytes causing the discolouration will shed faster and new cells, with the normal pigmentation of your skin, will take their place.
READ ME: Is bakuchiol better than retinol?
What does retinol do for acne?
Spots and acne are all caused by build-ups in hair follicles or pores that lead to inflammation. By speeding up the skin cell turnover with retinol, you force the skin through this process at a faster rate, therefore speeding up the healing of spots and decreasing the number of breakouts as blockages become less likely or resolve much faster.
READ ME: How does sulfur treat spots and acne?
Does retinol work?
Absolutely — there is extensive research into different types of retinol, and it is commonly prescribed by dermatologists for acne or scars and pigmentation, and recommended by aestheticians and skincare specialists for anti-ageing endeavours.
Prescription-strength retinol, such as tretinoin or differin gel, will be more effective but will also come with more side effects (explained below).
How to use retinol
Retinol is a fantastic skincare ingredient, but it can dry out the skin and cause a lot of sensitivity, so it must be used in a very specific way (unless otherwise specified by a dermatologist).
When you begin using retinol you should start with a low percentage (as little as 0.01 if you can find it, but 0.1 will be fine too). Always use it in the evening, applied to dry skin, and avoid using other actives in the same routine (e.g. vitamin C and AHAs).
At first, use it once or twice a week because your skin will need to adjust. After a few weeks, if you’re not experiencing sensitive or flaky skin, then you can increase the frequency and go to three nights a week. A few weeks later go to four nights a week, and so on and so forth. You can continue this process until your skin is able to tolerate it every night — however, if you want to use AHAs (such as glycolic acid), it’s good practice to use retinol and AHA on alternate nights. You will see benefits from retinol by using it every other day — daily use is not necessary.
When you have reached the frequency you would like, and are experiencing no issues with sensitivity, you can increase the percentage of retinol in your product, e.g. 0.1% to 0.2%. When you increase the potency of retinol you need to begin the process all over again and go back to only using it one or two nights a week.
If you don’t follow this process you can experience a lot of sensitivity, irritation and even inflammation. You risk damaging your skin barrier which will allow bacteria to breed on your skin and cause breakouts. Sometimes you will even find your skin scabs over — this is often referred to as ‘retinol burn’.
If you find yourself unable to increase the amount you’re using it, because sensitivity continues, then you can apply moisturiser and then a retinol after your skin has completely absorbed the product. After your retinol, apply moisturiser again. By sandwiching the retinol with moisture, you’re protecting your skin from drying out and becoming irritated — and you will still see the same benefits from retinol.
READ ME: How to curate an anti-ageing skincare routine
Are retinoids and retinol the same?
Technically, retinoid is an umbrella term for all types of topical vitamin A, but when people use the word ‘retinoid’ they are most likely referring to retinoic acid (also called retin-A). This is the most potent form of vitamin A that has a powerful effect on the skin, but also will have the biggest risk of causing sensitivity and irritation.
After retinoic acid is retinaldehyde, then retinol, and finally retinol esters (aka retinyl esters) — each one is less potent than the last, with less intense side effects. These three tend to be available over the counter.
While retinoic acid is a very pure form of vitamin A, the others have to convert into retinoic acid on the skin, going up the chain illustrated below — so retinol esters have to convert up the chain three times to become retinoic acid to be effective on the skin.
What is granactive retinoid?
This is where things get confusing. Granactive retinoid is an ester, but it is not a retinol ester. Unlike the others, it doesn’t have to convert into retinoic acid; therefore, it is a retinoic acid ester. This means it is very effective however, unusually, the side effects are much less.
Granactive retinoid is a very new ingredient, and it does not have the same amount of research into it as the others, but it is readily available in skincare and many users report benefits to their skin with far fewer side effects.
If you want to get nerdy about it, granactive retinoid is actually made from an ingredient called hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR). It is a soluble version of HPR, which sort of means watered down. So, a 2% granactive retinoid actually contains 0.2% of HPR.
If you’d like to try a granactive retinoid product you can look for granactive retinoid or hydroxypinacolone retinoate in the ingredients of a product.
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Is retinol safe?
Retinol is not safe to use while pregnant. For everyone else, retinol is safe but if you have a skin condition (e.g. psoriasis, eczema, rosacea) then you should consult a specialist.
As long as you follow the instructions above or those of your dermatologist, it is a safe ingredient. When a product says it can be used morning and evening, or every day, this should be disregarded. Remember that brands benefit from you using products more than you need to — the quicker you run out, the sooner you’ll have to buy more.
How to treat retinol burn
The most important thing to do when you have retinol burn is to stop using retinol and any other active ingredients (vitamin C, AHAs, BHAs, enzymes) until your skin is healed. The second most important thing to do is wear a high SPF and reapply frequently throughout the day to prevent the retinol burn causing long term damage, such as hyperpigmentation.
At first, I would strip your skincare back to the bare essentials: face wash, moisturiser and SPF. After a few days, you can start to add in hydrating or nourishing serums.
When to start using retinol
This is highly debated in the skincare world. When I was in my mid-20s, before I studied skincare, I was told by several aestheticians not to use it until I was in my 30s. But with a frown line already forming this was bad advice. As a rule of thumb, start using retinol when you start seeing signs of ageing or from the age of 25 if you want to be one step ahead.
If you intend to use retinol to treat blackheads, spots or acne then you can use it at absolutely any age!
How long does retinol take to work?
This will vary from person to person and product to product. It can be anything from three to six months depending on the strength and formulation. However you may start to notice changes in as little as four weeks — if you have acne-prone skin you may find things get worse before they get better as the retinol forces spots developing under the skin to the surface — this is known as purging.
Can retinol cause dry eyes?
People are often wary to apply retinol around the eyes, and with good reason. The skin around the eyes is thinner and therefore at a higher risk of irritation than the rest of your face — however, this also means ageing often appears first around the eyes so they definitely need treating.
I don’t usually recommend eye creams, but retinol eye creams tend to be formulated with a lower percentage to suit thin skin around the eye. If you don’t want to buy an extra product, I would recommend lightly applying moisturiser around your eyes before retinol to try to prevent dryness and irritation.
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What not to use with retinol
Yet again, this is highly debated! If you’re fairly new to skincare I would recommend using dedicated chemical exfoliating products, such as glycolic or lactic acid toners, just once or twice a week.
If you’ve been at the skincare game for a while and your skin is more accustomed to active ingredients, you will be able to work up to using retinol and AHAs on alternate nights.
If you’re skincare veteran, you can try using them on the same night but go slow and be wary that this will heighten the risk of irritation.
Anyone using retinol should always, no matter what, be using a high SPF (30-50) frequently throughout the day to protect your skin.
It’s always best to used vitamin C, which is also drying, in the morning as it helps protect your skin throughout the day and retinol is best used in the evening.
As our skin ages, it gets thinner, but with long-term use of retinol skin will actually thicken — anyone who tells you retinol ‘thins the skin’ is misinformed.
People often believe that retinol increases photosensitivity — which means it makes your skin is more sensitive to sunlight. Again, this is untrue. However, because you’ve sped up cell turnover you have a lot of baby skin cells that do require protection so you must always use a good SPF as the last step in your morning routine.
READ ME: Everything you need to know about SPF and anti-ageing
Still got questions on retinol or retinoids? Comment below and I’ll answer them 🙂
What is the highest amount of retinol in a product-available) and how can you tell the amount in a product how is it shown)
I think the SkinCeuticals 1% is one of the strongest over-the-counter retinol products. However, there are different types of retinol that are available at different strengths — some OTC and some prescription. Unless a brand labels the percentage, it can be very difficult to tell — even when they do, the formulation will impact how effective it is. As a rule, try and follow the percentage. Sorry if this is more confusing, it is a complicated question!