Like almost everything in this life, what seems perfect and holy grail-ish often comes with a caveat. There’s no one superfood or workout move that will “save” us – it’s more the case that a synergistic balance of elements makes up a healthy routine, and the same goes for skincare, although, as with food and fitness, there are some core pillars that pay off. In skincare terms, said pillar is arguably retinol.
It’s one of the most widely researched and acclaimed ingredients where skin health and function is concerned, and retinoic acid and its derivatives (known as ‘retinoids’) have been proven to address all manner of skin concerns, from firming skin, diminishing wrinkles, clearing acne and reducing pore size. Basically, someone get retinol a cape. The thing is, in line with the aforementioned caveat comment, retinoids can have side effects, some of which can be more than a little sore and scary. Think redness, peeling, flakiness and general inflammatory behaviour, which has led some skincare users and corners of the Internet to conclude that retinol isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and that it can damage skin, in particular causing it to thin and the skin barrier to degrade. Before you exercise a retinol cull, we’re calling a rain check on the skin thinning thing and here’s why…
Retinol actually thickens the skin
So that sorts that one out. Okay, we’ll let a pro explain- in a recent blog post on her Eudelo clinic website , consultant dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams sorted the wheat from the chaff on this rumoured retinol issue:
“It actually thickens (living) skin. It’s a common misconception that these ingredients thin the skin but they only thin the dead layer of horn cells (corneocytes) on the skin’s surface, not the living skin itself.
“This exfoliation of corneocytes is a good thing, not only because your skin will look less dull and lacklustre, but also because it signals to the basal cell layer of the epidermis (where our all-important skin stem cells live) to produce more lovely new cells, which means that the living epidermis actually thickens over time, making it healthier so that it appears ‘younger’.
“Retinol has even been shown to not only thicken the epidermis (the outer layer of our skin), but also the dermis (the deeper layer, where our collagen and elastin live).”
So if retinol actually strengthens skin rather than sapping it, where did the skin thinning hearsay emerge from?
Retinol thinning skin is a misnomer
As Dr Stefanie has stated retinol actually revs up the skin’s collagen and elastin synthesis to strengthen skin over time and reduce the likelihood of collagen breakdown, but it’s overuse, or incorrect use, that can cause issues such as the raw side-effects described previously. It’s more likely that the assumed skin thinning is actually irritation as a result of using a retinoid that’s too potent for your skin, or using it too frequently, particularly if you’re a beginner. It could also be that your skin doesn't tolerate retinol full stop, in which case, cease and desist, and be sure never to use retinoids when pregnant or breastfeeding.
While Dr Stefanie recommends that most of us introduce a retinol into our regime from our early 30s onwards "to support collagen production and a healthy dermal matrix", it’s advisable not to go in all guns blazing, especially if you have sensitive skin , eczema or psoriasis . In these cases it’s worth seeing a specialist for a tailored routine and if given the all clear to err towards milder retinoids such as retinyl palmitate . They’re less likely to trigger adverse reactions and you’ll still see results such as refined skin texture and a more even tone but it’ll be a slower process. They're Dr Stefanie's least favourite form of retinols as they're technically less effective than other vitamin A derivatives, but sometimes needs must.
Long term use doesn’t damage skin
There’s also a perception that using a retinoid long-term can cause skin to thin by way of excessive skin cell turnover, which is also porkies. Unlike an exfoliating scrub whereby you’re physically sloughing off layers and eventually damaging the skin barrier, retinol encourages the skin to regulate its own cell turnover, so shouldn’t weaken your epidermis, just as long as you’re not going very strong and excessively gung-ho, which you’d know about pretty fast anyway (see ‘face falling off’ after effects above).
If your face can face it, a moderate strength retinol used two to three nights a week, ideally in the evening, could help your skin to appear ‘thicker’ and improve its resilience, as skincare expert Paula Begoun highlights:
“Moderate percentages of retinol (0.04% to 0.1%) give you results faster than lower percentages of retinol. Research shows that retinol concentrations of 0.04% and great could counteract the visible effects of environmental damage and visible thinning of skin.”
So that’s the skin thinning drama dealt with but Dr Stefanie advocates starting low and slow, especially if you’ve never tried retinol before:
"Be aware that any irritation might appear with a delay of a few days, so don’t increase usage or potency too quickly! People with more robust skin can tolerate them every day, once their skin gets used to it, while people with very sensitive skin might just tolerate them once or twice per week, both of which is fine.
"Select your product depending on skintype. Choose gentle products for dryer skin - I'd recommend Avene Physiolift Night Balm , £26 for 30ml, medium strength ones for uncomplicated skin such as La Roche Posay’s Redermic R , £22.10 for 30ml, and stronger ones for oily skin – try Skinceuticals’ Retinol 0.3-0.5% , from £55 for 30ml. Medik8 R-Retinoate , £135 for 50ml, is also a good option if you're after a medium strength yet powerful retinol."
Dr Stefanie also stresses the importance of using an SPF of between 30-50 alongside retinol, although that should be standard practice anyway, and advises avoiding excessive sun exposure after a heavy night on the retinol too as skin will be more sensitive to the damaging effects of UV rays. Also, be sure to moisturise afterwards to ward off any potential flakiness and keep your skin barrier strong and supple/stable as you’re adjusting to a retinol regime and beyond.