Retinol & retinoids: the skin experts' guide

March 1st 2017 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru / 2 comments


Dermatologist-approved, retinol and retinoids (vitamin A) are among the most effective anti-ageing ingredients on the block. Here’s how to use them and use them well, plus our edit of the best retinol creams

When it comes to anti-ageing, retinol and retinoids 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 documentay The Truth About Looking Good highlighted retinol 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?

We sought the help of cosmetic dermatologist and GTG Expert Dr Sam Bunting to help separate fear from fact and lift the lid on these potent yet surprisingly practical ingredients. 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 Dr 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 tackling 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 should you look for?

As with all ingredients, potency varies depending on whether prescribed or picked up at your local pharmacy. A good starting point rests on knowing how retinol, retinoids and related ingredients differ from one another. “Retinoids are a category of skincare ingredients derived from vitamin A. The prescription-only retinoic acid (more commonly known as Retin-A) is the most effective anti-ageing ingredient we know, and it prevents and treats acne as a brilliant additional benefit,” explains Dr Bunting. “Over-the-counter, seek out related ingredients retinol, retinaldehyde and new kid on the block retinyl retinoate.” When it comes to how to use them, the approach is generally the same.

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.”

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: Biotulin - the organic gel that claims to rival botox

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.”

And finally...which products deliver?

If you're feeling inspired to incorporate these ingredients into your skincare regime, these are the best retinol products that carry the skin experts' seals of approval.

Dr Bunting’s top picks:

1) Avene TriAcneal Expert, £23


Containing retinaldehyde, anti-inflammatory dionlenyl and exfoliating X-pressin, this evening moisturiser helps to unblock pores, prevent blemishes and reduce the marks left by them in one fell swoop.

Buy online.

2) La Roche Posay Redermic R UV SPF30, £29.50


Addressing wrinkles and uneven skin tone, this pick containing 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 makes for a reparative and effective cocktail.

Buy online.

3) Medik8 Retinol 3TR, £31


A favourite of both Dr Bunting and facialist 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.”

Buy online.

And two additional GTG picks...

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM Treatment Serum, £44


Providing plumper and brighter skin after a couple of weeks of use, this retinol-containing product of 1.5% concentration with vitamins C and E, possesses both radiance and anti-oxidant capabilities.

Buy online.

Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, £65


With a stable delivery system and hydrating boosters to take the edge off of any potential retinol "flaking", this gentle yet powerful elixir has been known to work within the week to diminish the appearance of fine lines.

Buy online

For more skincare advice from Dr Bunting, check out her YouTube channel, ‘Dr Sam in the City,’ here and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Ayesha on Twitter and Instagram.

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!

Agile web development by Byte9