It can help fade pigmentation, boost skin’s firmness and even reduce stretch marks. From how to incorporate it into your regime to what to look for in your products, here’s your go-to guide
Retinol - it’s the dermatologist-approved ingredient proven to reduce fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation. It’s found a place in many people’s skincare routine ( face serums and eye creams are just two of the products that can benefit from it) but does it also deserve a place in our body care routines too? All indications point to yes.
Shown to stimulate the production of skin ‘building blocks’ such as collagen to make skin firmer and reduce melanin production to limit the development of pigmentation and age spots, it’s put to best use on areas of the body most vulnerable to environmental damage. The same products that are used from the neck up can be used from the neck down too. “Retinol can be particularly useful on sun-exposed sites such as the back of the hands and the décolletage,” says Dr Anjali Mahto , consultant dermatologist at Skin55 and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Great Skin . Retinol, as well as other retinoids (the class of compounds derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol) can also be beneficial on other parts of the body, in fact, Dr Mahto highlights its efficacy in improving the appearance of stretch marks when used in combination with specialist treatments such as microneedling and radiofrequency.
What’s the best way to incorporate retinol into your body care regime? From what to look for in your products to how to use them and when, here’s a helpful guide.
What should I look for?
It’ll usually appear just as ‘retinol’ on your product labels - not to be confused with other types of retinoids. Each slightly differs from the other. As Dr Mahto notes, weaker types such as retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate are likely to be less irritative, but results will be slower. By contrast though, high-strength prescription types such as tretinoin or isotretinoin are faster in their effects but can cause burning, stinging, redness and scaling.
Retinol provides a good balance in Dr Mahto’s opinion - visible results but in a less aggressive way. That being said though, don’t expect to see changes overnight and there can still be a risk of irritation. “It can take three to six months of regular use before any improvement can be seen in the skin.” She recommends looking for products that contain 0.1% retinol as a minimum.
Who’s it for?
It has pretty far-reaching appeal age-wise. “Though widely known as an anti-ageing ingredient, the benefits of using retinoids are broad, and we should be incorporating them into our routines earlier than we think,” says Dr Mahto. “The skin loses about one per cent of collagen (the protein which gives skin its structural support) per year from our mid-twenties. Therefore introducing retinoids into your regime from your late twenties onwards will be very beneficial for skin.”
What if I have sensitive skin?
Dr Mahto recommends proceeding with caution when it comes to retinol and opting for less irritative options from the retinoid family to begin with. “When you first use these treatments, it is very common for skin irritation and redness to occur,” explains Dr Mahto. “So I usually recommend that treatment needs to be built up gradually. Start with a couple of applications a week initially, before building up to daily usage.”
For sensitive skin types, she recommends trying The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane , £7.80 - a more preferable option for the redness-prone due to its use of a less irritative retinoid rather than retinol. Dr Mahto emphasises the importance of gradually building up use though, especially if the product causes excess drying or irritation. Remember to patch test too.
How should I use it?
Retinol’s a night time ingredient. There are two key reasons for this - firstly, UV radiation breaks down most retinoids and secondly, skin’s more receptive to its benefits when you’re asleep. “I strongly recommend to apply your retinoid at night as the skin is more permeable during sleep, therefore it is an optimal time to use targeted treatments,” says Dr Mahto. “It is also imperative that you use a minimum of SPF 30 on your skin during the day as retinoids can make you sensitive to ultraviolet light from the sun.”
In terms of other ingredients that complement a retinol body product, chemical exfoliants work well. “An AHA or a BHA product is a great enhancement,” Paula’s Choice founder, Beautypedia creator and author Paula Begoun tells us. “While retinol improves cell production, built up layers of dead skin cells still need help with gentle exfoliation. The two together can change skin for the better in less than two weeks.” Paula’s Choice Resist Anti-Aging 2% BHA Body Lotion , £26.35, is particularly effective in this regard for dry and bumpy skin, as is REN AHA Smart Body Serum , £35, for dry and sun-damaged skin. Sunscreen is a non-negotiable of Paula's too, 365 days a year, whether you’re using a retinol product or not.
Which products deliver?
As mentioned earlier, retinol is best put to use on parts of the body most likely to suffer from sun damage such as the backs of the hands and décolletage. If you’re using a retinol serum on your face, Dr Mahto advises extending its use to these areas too.
Its percentage will provide a good indication of its potency: “Always read the ingredients list or ask at the counter what exactly the product contains,” says Dr Mahto. “As you begin to tolerate retinol, the strength may be increased – for example to 0.3%, 0.5%, and eventually 1%.”
Her top picks include La Roche-Posay Redermic R , £29.50, which contains 0.3% retinol. Next level serums include NeoStrata Skin Active Retinol + NAG Complex , £54.95, which contains 0.5% time-released retinol for a more sustainable result. And for something more potent, Retriderm Max Vitamin A Ultra 1.0% Retinol Skin Serum , £44.99, or Medik8 Retinol 10 TR Serum , £45, which contains 1% retinol alongside vitamin E and safflower oil for added protective and hydrating properties.
If you’re looking to cover legs, arms or other more sizeable body parts, there are also more specialist body creams and treatments available. These are our top picks.
For body: Paula’s Choice Anti-Aging Retinol Body Lotion, £33 for 118ml (0.1% retinol)
As well as 0.1% retinol, this smoothing body cream also contains skin softening shea butter and soothing evening primrose oil to leave dry limbs suppler and better hydrated.
For hands: Beauty Pie Super Retinol Hand Treatment, £5.78 for 75ml for members, £40 for non-members (1% retinol)
Hands are often the first place to show the signs of sun damage and environmental wear and tear, and so seeking out a hand cream that’s more sophisticated in its makeup makes sense. This pick fits the bill perfectly. Containing 1% retinol alongside humectants like glycerin and emollients like shea butter, it helps restore balance to dry skin and reduce fine lines and uneven skin tone.
Read more: The best retinol eye creams, serums and treatments