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Retinol & retinoids decoded: the skin experts' guide

June 1st 2018 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru / 2 comments


Dermatologist-approved, vitamin A is one of the most effective anti-ageing ingredients on the block. Here’s how to use it, and use it well, plus our edit of the best retinoid creams and serums

When it comes to anti-ageing, retinoids (i.e. vitamin A derivatives) are among some of skincare’s most sought-after. Dermatologist approved, they’re lauded for their abilities to improve fine lines, texture and tone, with their efficacy highlighted as more than just hype. In fact, the BBC documentary The Truth About Looking Good highlighted retinol (a type of retinoid) as one of the best ingredients for slowing down the ageing process.

That being said though, perceptions veer noticeably on the apprehensive side of the scale. Concerns surrounding peeling and redness have been particularly hard to shake, but if applied correctly and products chosen cautiously, is there any reason to continue to be scared of them?

From suitable skin types to potential side-effects, how to use them to when, here’s what you need to know.

How do they work?

In a nutshell, they essentially help to reset skin and encourage it to behave like its younger self. How exactly? By working on its foundations. "Retinoids affect almost every aspect of how skin functions," explains cosmetic dermatologist and GTG Expert Dr Sam Bunting. "They increase cell turnover in the epidermis and stimulate production of skin 'building blocks' collagen and hyaluronic acid in the dermis." Plus, they can also prove valuable in preventing pigmentation too. "Retinoids function as antioxidants and reduce the amount of melanin the skin produces," says Dr Bunting. The result? A more even skin tone.

What are the different types?

There’s a huge variety of different vitamin A derivatives out there which can make buying the stuff incredibly confusing. Here’s a breakdown of the most common types to help in decoding them.

Retinoids: The name given to the whole family of vitamin A derivatives.

Retinoic acid: A prescription-only retinoid (more commonly known as Retin-A). “It’s the most effective anti-ageing ingredient we know, and it prevents and treats acne as a brilliant additional benefit,” explains Dr Bunting.

Retinol: An over-the-counter retinoid that’s less potent than retinoic acid. “Retinol must first be converted to retinaldehyde and then to all-trans-retinoic acid by a dedicated metabolic pathway within the skin in order to be effective,” says consultant dermatologist, Dr Justine Kluk. “This process requires a series of steps, thus retinol is considered to be less potent than retinoic acid and higher concentrations must be used in order to achieve similar results.”

Retinaldehyde or retinal: A step up from retinol. Unlike retinol, it doesn’t need to be converted into retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid, so it can get to work faster. It can be quite unstable though, hence why it’s not in that many products as of yet.

Retinyl retinoate: A retinol derivative that’s believed to be less sensitising than retinol due to its slower conversion into retinoic acid.

Retinyl palmitate: A weaker retinoid that’s a combination of retinol and palmitic acid (a fatty acid). It’s less likely to be irritative (making it a better choice for more redness-prone skin types) but results will be slower. It’s often included in products to support the activity of other performance ingredients such as vitamin C, glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid.

MORE GLOSS: Why you should add retinol to your body care routine

When should you use them and why?

"Our fibroblasts start to slow down in our late 20s, so it's a good idea to add in a retinoid and sunscreen as a first anti-ageing manoeuvre while skin is still basically in great shape," recommends Dr Bunting. "And if you're blemish-prone, this is an even more compelling strategy."

In terms of the time of day they would best sit in your skincare regime, save them for the evening. “Always use them at night,” advises Dr Bunting. “UV radiation breaks most retinoids down, rendering them ineffective.”

Which skin types suit them best?

Surprisingly, the vast majority. “They suit most skin types,” advises Dr Bunting, “But they should be avoided in pregnancy and when nursing.” Certain retinoids suit specific skin types better (e.g. a lower potency one for sensitive skin types - more on that in a minute).

this is a long-term project for skin health, so allow skin to adapt over a sensible period of time

How should you start using them?

With caution initially. “Start slow,” recommends Dr Bunting. “Apply a pea-sized amount every third night and build up to using it nightly over the course of 6 weeks, as tolerated.”

Patience is key, so don’t expect to see results overnight. “Aim to use little and often over the course of 6-12 weeks – this is a long-term project for skin health, so allow skin to adapt over a sensible period of time,” points out Dr Bunting.

The instructions of many products will advise wearing an SPF on top, and for just cause. "Retinoids are in fact protective against UV rays - but they decrease the threshold for sunburn and if skin is irritated from retinoid use, this might also make it susceptible," explains Dr Bunting. "For these reasons, it's important to use a proper sunscreen all-year round."

If you’re particularly concerned if you have sensitive skin, Dr Bunting recommends a layered and low potency approach: “Use a lower potency product if skin is sensitive and try applying over moisturiser after 20 minutes, rather than directly onto cleansed skin to reduce irritancy,” she advises.

Are there any ingredients that shouldn’t be used with them?

These types of ingredients work best solo in order to prevent hindering their full potential. “It’s best to use them in isolation at night to avoid interactions with other ingredients that might inactivate them,” explains Dr Bunting.

MORE GLOSS: The best retinol eye creams, serums and treatments

Are there any potential side-effects to be aware of?

Yes. However, these can be easily minimised by debuting your ingredient of choice in doses. “Any ingredient that is effective will often be associated with some irritation and dryness at the beginning,” says Dr Bunting. “Aim to introduce it into a simple routine of gentle cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen and avoid using other actives at the same time so you are only managing one variable. If in doubt, seek out an expert to help guide you on product selection and customise a skincare regime for your specific needs.”

What's the deal with 'natural retinols?'

Another piece of the retinoid puzzle that’s piqued our interest as of late is the concept of ‘natural retinols’ - a phrase we’ve seen on a few occasions online to describe ingredients like rosehip oil and other botanical products, suggesting that they provide the benefits of the retinoids mentioned above but in a gentler way.

They is a link, but it can be misleading to refer to them in this way. As consultant dermatologist at Skin55 and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Great Skin, Dr Anjali Mahto explains: “Rosehip oil doesn’t contain retinol but actually contains small concentrations of all-trans retinoic acid. The main issue with this though is you don’t really know what concentration you are getting to determine whether or not it is clinically effective to produce anti-ageing effects.”

She also expresses concerns about quality variation due to a lack of regulation of what constitutes as ‘natural’ in the US and UK and highlights that just because the word ‘retinol’ has been added to a natural ingredient, it doesn’t mean that it has the same research retinol has, works in the same way or delivers the same proven results as products containing retinol.

Natural doesn’t always necessarily mean that an ingredient’s less likely to cause a reaction either. “Many people feel that ‘natural’ equates to safer or gentler however, botanicals, herbs and essential oils can still cause irritation and allergies and these are commonly documented in scientific literature,” comments Dr Mahto. “People usually do not want to hear this but ‘natural’, in skincare, genuinely means very little.” If you’re looking to incorporate ingredients such as rosehip oil into your skincare regime, you might be better of doing so because of their other benefits (such as their antioxidant content), rather than their retinoid potential.

And finally...which products are worth trying?

From the ones that carry the skin experts’ seals of approval to the newest technologies that have caught our eye, these are the products to have on your radar.

1) The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane, £7.80


Ideal for the particularly redness-prone, this serum contains a less irritative retinoid as an alternative to retinol. It’s consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto’s top pick for sensitive skin and it’s super cheap too.

Buy online

2) La Roche Posay Redermic R UV SPF30, £30

Addressing wrinkles and uneven skin tone, this pick contains a 0.3% concentration of retinol (recommended by Dr Bunting for a low potency approach), exfoliating lipo hydroxy acid and broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection for a reparative and effective cocktail.


Buy online

3) Medik8 Retinol 3TR, £29


A favourite of both Dr Bunting and fellow GTG Expert Abigail James, this fast-absorbing serum helps to refine both skin tone and texture. “It’s a great entry point retinol in a safflower oil base,” comments Abigail. “It suits most skin types, it’s not too drying and has a really lovely texture.” It contains 0.3% retinol.

Buy online

4) Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, £70


This hard-working serum provides not just one, but three types of retinoid, designed to maximise results with minimal irritation. The secret to its efficacy lies in its delivery rather than its strength (which isn’t disclosed) - using ‘time-release’ tech by way of retinoids of differing shapes to create a consistent flow of retinoid action in doses so it’s gentler on skin. With hydrating boosters to take the edge off of any potential retinol "flaking", this gentle yet powerful elixir’s been known to work within the week to diminish the appearance of fine lines.

Buy online

5) Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Treatment Serum, £52

If you’re looking for a more potent retinol pick once you’ve built up your tolerance, try this. Providing plumper and brighter skin (with a bit of dryness at first), it contains 1.5% concentration with vitamins C and E, to offer both radiance and antioxidant benefits.


Buy online

6) Avene TriAcneal Expert, £23

Containing 0.1% retinaldehyde, anti-inflammatory diolenyl and exfoliating X-pressin, this evening moisturiser is a favourite of Dr Bunting’s for helping unblock pores, prevent blemishes and reduce the marks left by them.


Buy online

7) Medik8 Crystal Retinal 6 Stable Retinal Night Serum, £59


This new product contains 0.06% retinal, time-delivered through a unique crystal encapsulation system for increased stability and reduced risk of irritation. It also features varying weight hyaluronic acid and vitamin E to help boost hydration and strengthen the skin barrier too.

Buy online

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Join the conversation

  • Ayesha
  • March 3rd 2017

Hi Rose,

Great question! I've asked Dr Bunting for her thoughts and she says, "Our fibroblasts start to slow down in our late 20s, so it's a good idea to add in a retinoid and sunscreen as a first anti-ageing manoeuvre whilst skin is still basically in great shape. And if you're blemish-prone, this is an even more compelling strategy." Hope this is helpful. I've made sure to pop into the feature above too in case others were wondering also. Thanks!

  • rose
  • March 1st 2017

At what age should you start consider using these? I am 26 with pretty good skin and don't know if i should start now!

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