What is retinol?

You've no doubt already heard about the wonder ingredient, but here's an expert's take on the age-old question "what is retinol?"

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photo: Team Woo
Hero image in post
photo: Team Woo

You've no doubt already heard about the wonder ingredient, but here's an expert's take on the age-old question "what is retinol?"

By Sophie Williams11 Oct 2023
7 mins read time
7 mins read time

Whether you’re new to the skincare scene or have been on the cleanser-toner-serum-eye-cream-moisturiser-you-get-the-picture train for years, one ingredient that needs to become a staple in your nighttime routine is retinol. But while you may have heard all about its potent potential you might still have one fundamental question on your brain: what is retinol? Well, we're here to answer that with some expert advice.

What is retinol?

“It’s the most popular form of Vitamin A that everyone knows about in skincare,” says Dr Vanita Rattan, a cosmetic formulator and doctor in Medicine (MBBS) and Physiology and Pharmacology (BSc). This is what makes it an incredibly popular topical treatment, with thousands of people seeking its benefits for a variety of reasons, from clearing pores to preventing acne to anti-ageing.

In terms of the latter, there has been plenty of research into retinol’s effects, including its ability to increase collagen production. Of course, we know this protein is what helps to keep the skin plump and youthful, plus reducing the appearance of fine lines. A 2015 study even revealed that, following 12 weeks of retinol application; “facial image analysis showed a significant reduction in facial wrinkles.”

So, now you know what retinol is, you're probably wondering what exactly does it do? Luckily, you're about to find out!

What does retinol do?

According to Dr Rattan, retinol has three main purposes. “It's anti-ageing so it helps with fine lines, it helps with hyperpigmentation, and it helps with acne.” But how?

Put simply, the formulation of vitamin A increases skin cell turnover, “so new skin cells come to the surface much faster. That's why you see younger, juicier, healthier-looking skin,” she says. Basically, it changes the behaviour of your older cells and encourages them to react in a more youthful way.

But it doesn’t stop there. Retinol provides a whole host of other benefits, which is why over the past few years, more and more people have been adding it to their checkout baskets. Preventing wrinkles and maintaining elasticity is just one of them:

  • Retinol exfoliates the skin at a cellular level, which causes the skin to become brighter and smoother.
  • Consistently using retinol in your skincare system will eventually even out your complexion, plus fade dark, age, and sun spots.
  • It will also regulate oily skin, which is necessary for minimising breakouts.

At what age should I start using retinol?

There’s no rule book as to when you should start adding a retinol treatment to your routine, as nobody’s skin journey is the same. However, many dermatologists and skincare experts recommend that your twenties is an ideal time to introduce it, including Dr Rattan.

“Typically, the age I would suggest to start using retinol is when you hit your mid-20s, especially for anti-ageing purposes,” she says.

Did you know that the mid-to-late twenties and early thirties are when collagen production starts to slow, and you lose 1% per year after that? After 40, collagen drops by 10-20% which is what contributes to the signs of ageing - we’re talking wrinkles, sagging, and dry skin.

“If you have acne, you can use retinol earlier if your dermatologist suggests it, although I would also recommend adapalene to keep your pores clear and prevent acne,” Dr Rattan adds. FYI, this is another topical retinoid treatment that is specifically developed to treat acne - it’s not the same as retinol.

Retinol before or after moisturiser?

When you’re introducing a new product into your skincare regime, it’s natural to be dubious about where to place it in the process. Do you leave your retinol serum to soak into the skin as the last step and sleep on it? Do you wash it off with water after a couple of minutes?

While Dr Rattan says that retinol “should be used at night time,” the order in which you apply it isn’t as strict. However, she does recommend the “sandwich method”, which describes a moisturiser-retinol-moisturiser system.

“This will allow the retinol to be a little gentler on the skin and reduce the likelihood of dryness, flakiness, or redness,” she explains.

She also stresses that this particular method should be done after you’ve washed your face, specifically with a Micellar gel wash and a hydrating toner. And top tip if you want to avoid skin irritation - especially if you’re quite sensitive - “don’t use any exfoliating acids on the same day as your retinol.”

Again, if you’re using it after a consultation with your dermatologist, make sure that you seek their opinion on the order you should use it and how often. Because one person’s reason for applying retinol may be completely different to yours.

The best retinol for sensitive skin

Not every skincare treatment works the same way for everyone, either. For someone who has pretty durable skin, they may not feel any after-effects of retinol use, and their experience with it may be positive from the get-go.

For those with sensitive skin - don’t be daunted by using retinol, just make sure you’re a little more cautious about how much you use. It works well if you use it regularly and keep up with your routine, even if after the first few days your skin doesn’t react the way you expected.

Dr Rattan has some expert advice on this, so if you are worried, this is your sign to relax.

“For sensitive skin, I recommend encapsulated retinol or retinaldehyde, so you can get all of the skin benefits without the irritating side effects.”

“However, because it’s an alcohol it can be quite irritating, which is why I recommend starting at 0.1% retinol and slowly working your way up to 0.5%,” she adds.

She also called retinaldehyde - which is described as retinol’s more powerful relative - her favourite vitamin A. Apparently, when used at 0.1%, it works "11x faster than retinol, but there is zero irritation.”

It’s for this reason that she prefers to suggest this to newbies, professionals, and post-menopausal women.

If you do have really sensitive skin, you’ll likely know what kind of topical treatment works for you the best. Luckily, you can find retinol in different forms, including creams, lotions, gels, serums, and ointments.

Who should avoid retinol?

It’s already been noted that retinol treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and that people can respond differently to using products. But hey - that’s just like any skincare treatment. While it’s beneficial for most skin types when used in conjunction with what suits them, there is a certain percentage of people that may be better off avoiding retinol altogether and sourcing something a little softer.

For example, those with skin conditions like rosacea may not be able to tolerate strong topicals like retinol. Or people who spend large amounts of time in direct sunlight without using sun protection.

(Retinol can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it’s important that daily SPF is used - at least factor 30, even when it appears cloudy.)

Also, there are certain retinoids that aren’t recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding, so it’s super important that you chat with your dermatologist if you’re concerned about side effects or whether you should even be using them.

It’s your skin decision

Whether you’re dealing with common skin triggers like hormones, or even your favourite tipple, or buzzwords like “anti-wrinkle” and “anti-ageing” are making their way into your social media ads, it may be worth looking into retinol use as a treatment.