The new No7 high-strength retinol serum is the highest-percentage retinol available on the high street. But should you be using it?

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When it comes to retinol, more is not always more. Even advanced users tend to opt for 0.5% retinol maximum because beyond that, the chances of irritation are really quite high. And Dr Mike Bell , Head of Science Research at No7, calls 0.3% retinol in a product the “‘sweet spot’ for visible results while minimising redness and flakiness in those new to retinol.” Our retinol expert guide  takes an in-depth look at these percentages and sets out why 1% retinol, despite not sounding like much, is the highest retinol percentage allowed in cosmetics in Europe, and quite hard to find in skincare.

Until now. The very same Dr Bell is behind the new No7 Pure Retinol 1% Retinol Night Concentrate , £37.95 which launched today. Aimed at advanced retinol users and certainly not beginners, it comes accompanied by No7 Pure Retinol Post Retinol Soother,  £14.95, which offers a novel way of mitigating the irritation the retinol might cause. So, should you be rushing to snap up this duo, and what might you expect from it? We grilled Dr Bell on the details.

Who is the No7 high-strength retinol aimed at?

“Our 1% retinol is designed for those who are experienced retinol users and should not be used by anyone new to retinol,” says Dr Bell. He says those that have used a 0.3% retinol for a while and would like improved results on more stubborn signs of ageing can move on to 1% retinol. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the No7 formula, but he warns that not all retinols are formulated in the same way - so if you did well with one brand on a lower strength, a high strength from the same brands is most likely to sit well with you also. Those completely new to retinol should start on a much lower strength. We recommend 0.1% or lower, while Bell suggests the low-strength No7 retinol night and eye creams. For the 0.3% and 1% retinols, he advises starting off using them once or twice a week on non-consecutive nights and ramping up usage gradually.

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How is this new No7 Retinol different from other 1% Retinols?

Like No7’s 0.3% retinol, the ingredient is encapsulated so as to be slowly released into the skin, which is yet another neat trick for preventing adverse reactions. Also, it combines pure retinol (and not a weaker retinol derivative) with Matrixyl 3000+, which is No7’s ‘hero’ peptide-based technology. They’re widely regarded as a good team for targeting the appearance of key signs of ageing. Overall, an intricate, synergistic formula like this pays dividends in terms of effectiveness and safety and is worth paying a little extra for.

What is the proof that this retinol serum works?

“We performed a randomised controlled clinical trial on our 1% retinol formula over 4 months, on a total of 60 women over the age of 30,” says Bell. “We wanted to evaluate improvements in lines and wrinkles, and were able to clinically prove the appearance of stubborn and deep wrinkles on the forehead and between the brown was reduced.” The brand says dark spots were also significantly reduced, while the skin was left feeling bouncier and looking firmer.

To evaluate the impact of No7’s different retinol concentrations, a further biopsy trial on eight volunteers was performed. “It clearly demonstrated,” says Bell, “that 0.3% retinol provides a strong biological response, especially with regards to thickening of the skin and new skin cell generation, and that this response was improved upon with the 1.0% retinol. These effects were observed in white skin as well as black skin.”

Why did you create a ‘post retinol soother’?

Because 1% retinol is a hardcore option for most skins, brands are always on the lookout for novel ways to mitigate the possible irritation and the post-retinol soother is No7’s way of doing this. The advice is often to introduce a high-strength retinol by initially layering it over a thick skin barrier-boosting cream, but this will of course hamper penetration of the active. This is also the reason, explains Bell, why the barrier-building ingredients weren’t mixed in with the retinol on one and the same product: “To maximise the retinol delivery and get optimum skin benefits, a much lighter serum format designed specifically around the retinol was required,” he says.

So, turning the usual order of things upside down, the post-retinol soother is applied over the retinol serum and works both to ‘extinguish’ any inflammation with anti-inflammatories such as bisabolol, while strengthening the irritation-preventing skin barrier with every use with the help of niacinamide and ceramides.

“We would recommend using the post retinol soother even on nights when you are not using retinol to help support the barrier and improve tolerance of the high strength retinol,” says Bell. “Whilst retinol tolerance can build and should generally improve with usage, skin is still prone to periods of retinol sensitivity due to lifestyle factors or hormonal fluctuations. Continual use of the post-retinol soother will help even out these fluctuations.”

Of course, the products were created to work smoothly together. But there is no real reason why you shouldn’t use a similar product with the same types of ingredients instead as a ‘soother.’ Barrier building creams (preferably unscented) with niacinamide , ceramides , anti-inflammatory ingredients such as oat and chamomile extracts or green tea, and probiotics would all be good substitutes.

How does the Post Retinol Soother work?

“Apply the retinol serum directly to the skin at night, wait a minute or two for it to absorb and follow with the post retinol soother; you won’t dilute the formula this way,” says Bell. “Remember to ramp up the retinol slowly, starting with no more than several applications per week before gradually increasing the usage to nightly after 4-6 weeks if you can tolerate it.” It’s also just fine to stay at fewer weekly applications per week; everyone’s skin is different and a little experimentation ensures the best course of action for you.

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What do we think of this high street high-strength retinol system?

1% Retinol is not for everyone; yours truly, with skin like tissue paper, would not go near it. But GTG editorial director Victoria has been trying it and enjoys the milky serum, which isn’t oily in the slightest and definitely needs a cream over the top if you want hydration. The soother is like a comfy night cream packed with ingredients we should all use anyway, as barrier-building is essential for healthy skin. It may sound like a faff to have to use two products, but in the case of this potent wrinkle-buster, it’s not a two-step you should skip.

It’s a clever (and so far, unique) idea to combine the two products this way, and it should certainly open the door to high-strength retinols for some of those who have so far not been able to get on with them. Having said that, if you’re getting great results from a 0.3 or even 0.1% retinol, there’s no need to ramp up the strength just for the sake of it. Again, with retinol, more isn’t more – the percentage that performs without irritation is the right one for you.

The packaging of these products doesn’t appear recycled or recyclable, which is a bit of a miss – but maybe this will change in future?